I signed up for my first email account on Yahoo! just about 20 years ago. I didn’t know what to do with it. None of my friends had one, and the only person I knew with an email was a friend that signed up with me, and we saw each other almost everyday. Data limits back when this was a problem mean that my email archive starts 6 years later, in 2002. I had to delete all previous email to free up space. Looking back at that archive I see friends and acquaintances I’m no longer in touch with, comments and memories from a past self, as foreign to me now as if I was peeking into someone else’s email.
During these 20 years I’ve given up my data to hundreds of companies, websites and services. Along the years these companies have dissappeared, merged, crashed, or grown into multimillion dollar businesses. But what’s common to all of them is that once I signed up for an account, I lost whatever degree of control I had over my personal data. Most of them never offered a way to delete the account, and when they did, they were outright lying, as ownership of my data was a revenue stream and/or an asset they could use in a sale negotiation.
Services like Twitter, Google and Facebook offer the possibility to sign up on external services using their credentials. That is the closer we ever got to a personal data protocol we could use to easily manage the services we sign up for, and we paid a dear price by giving up even more of our privacy to the advertisement industry.
Privacy and the control over personal data is going to become a key civil and digital rights issue in the coming years. While I’m conscious of the danger of having centralized data providers that would become instant magnets for malicious hackers, I think it’s not inherently more dangerous than spreading our data over dozens of services who may dissapear, be sold, be attacked or transfer your data without your knowledge and consent. We need a new architecture that gives us back control over our own data.