The Dawn of Digital Rights

Defending digital human dignity in the face of new abuses and exploits


TL;DR

  • Personal/Consumer/User data is not new, agencies have been tracking for decades. Its newfound prevalence and abuse has forced us to re-examine the ethics behind how we store, share and use this information.

  • Innovation is driven by authentic desire to improve, but lack of development in value capture provided fertile grounds for surveillance capitalism to take root

  • Cryptocurrency will provide new means of capturing value, but Web3 also needs to provide some guarantee of digital rights

  • These digital rights must be systematically derived, that is, not predicated on trust, custody, or transparency of centralized organizations

Introduction

Though hardly a tech historian, growing up in Silicon Valley did provide a front seat to what would become "Tech" with a capital T. The same way some communities would discuss corn and soy subsidies or futures and options, I unknowingly grew up as an early-adopter whilst overhearing adults talk about things like SaaS, P2P, and the interactive Web2. I mention this as context for my next statement:

Most Tech is born of a desire to genuinely improve people's lives through innovation.

Many companies were born out of a desire to do something better, do something different, or sometimes, just do something cool. Paper maps sucked. Printing custom maps on MapQuest was better. Turn-by-turn GPS took custom maps further, and suddenly, it was on your phone. I don't think anyone anticipated digital maps turning into Big Brother. I hope history remembers that.

Certain values seem universal and eternal, like the preservation of human life, while others are more recent, such as banning child labor. The Industrial Revolution did not set out to dominate the childhoods of their poor; they inherited an agrarian work ethic. At some point, it was realized that kids didn't belong in factories, and as a society, we moved to change that.

Child labor, in an agrarian setting, was more normal and not considered necessarily immoral. Only in an industrial setting, with its excessive abuses and conditions, did society begin to explore a broad, general condemnation of child labor.

Personal Data's Dark Turn

Just as a child helping out on a farm wasn't considered "child labor" with modern, unethical connotations, consumer data has existed for decades without being considered detrimental. Credit agencies like Dun & Bradstreet, loyalty programs, and market researchers have long since tried to track and anticipate consumer demands and behavior. Tech has introduced more efficient, more profound, more encompassing means of collecting, analyzing, selling, and utilizing that data. What was before considered tolerably intrusive - a credit check for a department store credit card - has evolved into inappropriately invasive, or even outright criminal, in the form of surveillance capitalism.

A lot of the recent noise around digital privacy recently has focused on the "surveillance" part of "surveillance capitalism". It's the personal, emotionally-triggering bit that every teenager on TikTok and AARP member with a smart phone can understand. Within the crypto-Web3 community, we've long understood that a core issue is incentive, so let's look at the "capitalism"

Innovation, technology, and its resulting infrastructure must be maintained. This requires resources, which requires heavy subsidies, or some form of sustainable business model. Over the past 30 years, the web has evolved to provide more functionality than ever anticipated... whilst much of its infrastructure has not. Apart from e-commerce and subscription services, underpinned by legacy payment systems, digital businesses have few means to capture value (read: cash), despite providing an abundance of utility.

In this fertile bed of utility did targeted advertising take root. Whether the utility was search, communication, connection, content, or other "free" services, if the creator wanted to continue creating, they had to spend and generate money. As digital advertising became more lucrative, it also became more sophisticated. Speculative placements (I'll advertise my video game on a video game website) became targeted ads, based on an individual's digital behavior or footprint.

Unchecked and without viable alternatives, a reasonable desire to preserve business in a digital age has given way to some ethically-questionable practices, greed, and at times, abuse. 

Web3 and Cryptocurrencies fundamentally offer new means of capturing digital value.

A Third Way

Just as businesses who "could not survive" without child labor either adapted or failed, so too will the digital businesses of Web2. As technologists and futurists - the builders of Web3 - we should strive to make that transition as beneficial and painless as possible.

How can we incent and migrate data-driven, ad-supported, invasive businesses in Web2 to privacy-preserving, profitable businesses in Web3? It's likely going to take a mix of both carrot and stick.

For the carrot, we have cryptocurrencies, a novel, programmable, and (soon!) low-friction means of exchanging payments directly. Everything about cryptocurrencies - custody over funds, eliminating third parties, and settling exchanges at the network layer - provides for better revenue models online. If built and introduced correctly, we can provide real, viable, and lucrative alternatives to big data and advertising.

The Right Way

The stick in this case, will be the notion of digital human rights.

After 30 years, internet users are waking up to the reality of their digital existence, and how their online behavior can have offline consequences. Ranging from the annoying, like a social media game resulting in an onslaught of telemarketing calls, to the outright dangerous, such as "fun" polls serving as trojan horses to troves of data important enough to sway national elections. Online behavior matters.

It's not just individual's behaviors that are important; more than ever, online businesses and organizations are recognizing how their behavior can be unethical or harmful. Governments, like Europe or the State of California, are beginning to codify what is and is not legal behavior online.

In the end, these three facets of our society - business, government, and private citizens - need to reach an agreement on what is and is not acceptable. How do we interpret physical world rights, like privacy and speech, to a digital world?

The Web3 Way

New tech is not going to be a silver bullet, but it will help. The decentralized, trustless ideology behind Web3 will, however, introduce new concepts like self-sovereignty that were previously technically untenable. Ultimately, basic digital human rights will need to account for the financial, regulatory, and social needs of the global population.

Without delving too deep into political theory, many believe that human rights are inalienable, and stem from the individual. That is, governments and organizations do not give freedom, but rather it is their duty to defend it. In the absence of government, nature provides an individual the opportunity to express their freedoms. Digitally, there has been no technological means of providing sovereignty, and everything from identity and privacy onwards has been technically provided. It is custodial, and requires levels of trust that would be unacceptable in offline parts of our lives. We need these digital rights to be systematically guaranteed, enforceable, and empower, at minimum, individuals the agency to reasonably assert their freedoms and rights.

In future weeks, we'll examine both how Web3 can technically provide the foundation for digital rights, as well as how programmable currency can feasibly motivate adoption of digital rights.

In short, we're at the dawn of digital human rights, and only through understanding and conscientious discussion can we determine a fair shake for all.


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