Federated Data, and a Charter of Digital Rights

May 10, 2019

I don’t often do politics on public platforms. I’d rather form relationships and share technical information. But I believe that with several recent news stories, we’re getting a clearer view of a potential political future for the internet.

This week, at Google IO, it was announced that the Nest smart home systems would lose their API (“Works with Nest”). This instantly killed off an ecosystem of IoT devices of home automation products, and potentially broke many a smart home which people had been building - all the automation, IFTTT scripts, a world of possibilities open to the ingenuity of the masses. Turned off.

Meanwhile, Facebook are planning to rewire their systems for privacy. We don’t know what that’ll look like, but we do know that it’s not likely to involve the platform opening up to other people’s APIs. Facebook tried that before, rather cackhandedly, and managed to almost bring down western democracy. No, this will likely be a single closed platform, to reinforce the network effects which help them to maintain their dominant position in the marketplace.

Over at Amazon, they’re doing deals to build houses with Alexa built in. Working with Plant Prefab and Lennar, the Amazon ecosystem will come built into the fabric of new homes. Up until this week, you could have ripped off the Amazon-Ring Video Doorbell and replaced it with Nest kit, but that isn’t possible any more.

Meanwhile, across the US, local governments are caving to feverish lobbying against the right to repair - the right to open up your own property, and fix it when it goes wrong.

The futurists are predicting that within a reasonable timeframe, you’ll live in an Amazon house, or a Google house; perhaps a Facebook or Apple house. And if those lobbyists have their way, you’ll not be able to open up any those systems to use them with anything else. You’ll be stuck in a boring monoculture, obeisant to one of the big nine.

But there’s an interesting converse example which is worth exploring. In the European Union, it was recognised that in order to spur Fintech, and encourage health (and fewer monopolies) in the banking system, the banks ought to be forced to federate account data. Open Banking (nb: I was involved with the OBIE) has been driven by a regulation called PSD2, and enforced by the CMA in the UK. Banks are required to allow their customers to grant access to APIs and share information with third parties. An API standard has been developed. What’s more, the Economist, in an article of last year, asked a question: Is compulsory federation the answer to the problem of Digital Monopolies?

Compulsory federation would certainly kill the coveted network effect. The likes of Facebook and Google would suffer immediate and painful consequences off the back of privacy breaches, scandals, or debates. While the choice to leave one of their walled gardens these days involves either a form of painful self-imposed digital hermitage, or the potential loss of control over hundreds of email-based password resets, in future it could be as simple as clicking a button and choosing a new provider. Don’t like the Facebook way of doing things? Move to any of perhaps 10 or 100 rival systems. Want to move email provider? Tell a central data controller that you’ve moved. Old email will be forwarded. Perhaps you might be able to even keep your email address, in the same way as moving telephone provider in the UK.

What’s more, I think this forms a plank of what might come to be seen as essential, natural human rights in the Digital Era:

  1. Interoperability - A right to federate data
  2. Repairability - A right to repair (and modify)

and

  1. Opacity - A right to privacy

The digital transformation of society has delivered a lot of new companies which stormed their sectors because the old rules and regulations completely failed to address a world in which instantaneous communication was possible. But the rules of the market and capital are just the same. Perhaps alongside Liberty, Egality and Fraternity, we need those three above; perhaps there are more elements that ought to go onto the list. Do comment below and let me know what you think (I recognise the irony of having Disqus plugged in!)