The Internet is powered by all the data we create, send and share every day. Unfortunately, most of cyberspace is hosted on computers owned by a few Big Tech companies so they have access to all of the indexing data, known as metadata, used to retrieve and display content to you and everyone else on the platform.
To index your data on these centralized platforms they need to link it to you for two reasons – one that’s legitimate, and one that’s not. If you use a centralized service like Google Docs or Facebook, they must have some kind of ‘identifier’to present your content when you use their service. Indeed, this is very important. Imagine logging into Google Docs and seeing someone else’s documents!
They got your number
Where is gets tricky is the kind of identifier they insist upon when you access your data. The most common are a username and password, a telephone number and email address – all of which are unique to each individual. Requiring a plain text identifier to access a service is sold as ‘convenient’, because they’re easy to remember, and often re-used over multiple services including those you may run at work.
Unique, linkable common identifiers may seem convenient, but they’re actually very convenient for Big Tech. It’s the ability to link data and metadata to a unique person that enables advertising micro-targeting. Unfortunately, these links also enable manipulation on a global scale, while also creating a toxic waste dump of personally identifiable information (PII), that must be secured to protect it from hackers looking to profit from exploiting your identity.
Follow the money
Possessing and monetizing the metadata created by Google or Facebook is their lifeblood, and they cannot make money without it. However, they also control identity and access to the data on their platforms allowing them to link metadata to a real person. This needs to stop for the good of all of us, and society.
There’s no rule stating the identifier for a particular user’s data must be an email address, username or telephone number. There’s also no rule that the identifier must be issued by the service provider and not by the user themselves.
A simple solution
Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook should be forced to decide which data is more valuable to them – your identity or your online habits, aka your metadata. Is Facebook a community or a shopping channel? Is Google a community or a storage, office suite and mapping service?
Regulators could go a long way in fixing what’s wrong with the Internet if they made Big Tech choose to be a community or a service provider, because trying to be both is clearly not working.
Decentralizing Identity and Access to online services is a sensible way to benefit from the convenience of algorithmic hook-ups with like-minded people – without having to give a cloud corporation our phone number and email address.