OK, I’ll admit it: We are old.
Kevin, Colin and I — the three founders of The @ Company — still remember the early days of the internet, including its exciting promise of communication across all boundaries and borders. We watched the internet grow and change in wonderful ways, but also in dark ways. Today, surveillance capitalism divides people instead of bringing them together, as platforms that have an insatiable appetite for our “eyeballs” have turned people into products. Enormous silos of data are highly valued and so often plundered that people have become numb to news about data breaches.
Honestly, we hated that. As the former CEO of an email marketing software company, I was personally involved in the early days of email marketing and was excited about how companies could personalize offers and give consumers “what they really wanted.” But that isn’t how it turned out, and I am saddened by the mess I see in my inbox every day. I feel, in some ways, responsible for that.
As internet optimists, we’ve dreamed of what the future can be. And we see the online world about to shift again. As people become more aware of the dangers of social media platforms and just how they are being manipulated online (as was pointed out so well in the docudrama The Social Dilemma), they want to be more informed and to take part in the solution. We see ourselves as part of a global effort to shift toward a kinder, more respectful internet.
Here’s how we see that future unfolding.
Legislators took bold steps to protect the data of their citizens with the General Data Protection Rights (GDPR) in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). Much of this legislation is targeted at large tech companies that consume massive amounts of user data. But these restrictions are largely ignored by the tech giants whose attorneys are deft at finding loopholes. They make it extremely difficult for smaller software developers that really do want to comply but are overwhelmed by the effort of such compliance. Larger companies that need to be compliant — such as banks and insurance companies — add additional layers to their tech infrastructure at a substantial cost.
Currently, most companies don’t have an easy way to comply with privacy regulations. But once the right technology is in place, the legislation will be the backdrop of protection for the people.
There is only one way to make compliance to legislation easy, and that is for consumers to own their data instead of tech companies. But the current architecture of the internet is not set up for that. Most companies set up their technology to create large silos of customer data. But a handful of up-and-coming companies are working to change that paradigm by rebuilding the architecture of the current internet. With an underlying infrastructure that allows consumers to own their own data, software developers are freed from the bonds of privacy compliance and can focus their efforts on creating fun, new experiences for people.
Brave New Developers
With the underpinnings of this new technology, incredibly talented software developers are already creating better experiences with brand new privacy-respecting peer-to-peer apps. Imagine a contacts app where you only have one contact that you ever have to update — your own. Every contact in your list manages their own profile, ensuring that you always have their latest information.
How about a voting app for friends? Don’t we all have that one friend or family member that dominates where we are going to go and what we are going to eat? What if you could host anonymous polls among your family and friends for choosing venues, food and other activities instead?
Or how about a completely private peer-to-peer file sharing app, similar to Apple’s Airdrop but across all platforms and not bound to a Wi-Fi connection?
These are just a few of the fun, engaging apps that are being created by leading-edge developers.
Once these apps are widely available, it will be up to us to make a statement. By using apps that respect our privacy, we’ll show our friends that there is a better way to interact safely on the internet. And once more and more of these options are available, we can vote with our dollars to require better online experiences from companies and move the focus away from developers and back to people. We can demand that we be the consumer and not the product.
The future is bright, and it isn’t very far off. We are all a part of the solution.