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Data control and the internet's ever evolving structure

20 July 2023

This article first appeared in Business Leader written by, Anton Christodoulou, Group Chief Technology Officer.

The structure of the internet is undergoing a significant evolution which is leading to a growing conversation about the importance of data control. With the emergence of Web3, a new iteration of the World Wide Web which aims to decentralise user ownership of digital assets, the landscape of data privacy and ownership is changing.

This shift aims to empower users, giving them greater control over their data, with huge implications for businesses as it forces them to reconsider how they collect and utilise consumer data.

Web3, often referred to as Web3.0, holds great potential to revolutionise the structure of the internet. However, in recent years, Web3 has faced a divergence between its ideology and its actual implementation.

While there has been a surge of hype surrounding it, true decentralisation and ownership has not been fully realised. It’s crucial to adhere to the core principles behind the concept of decentralisation and understand why it’s essential for the future of the internet.

Why is decentralisation important and what does it mean for brands?

When considering decentralisation, it’s important to examine the purpose behind it. Just adopting it for the sake of it is not enough. Businesses must explore the implications of different degrees of decentralisation and how it can impact their operations and the relationship with their customers.

The potential evolution of the internet’s structure still requires businesses to focus on creating applications that define the market, rather than the infrastructure required to build it. It’s the development of innovative applications that users need and want that will lead to widespread adoption.

Finding the right balance to bring brands onboard with this shift in mindset is crucial. Brands need the necessary tools and expertise to incentivise customers with data control and other potential benefits.

This includes reducing costs associated with managing customer data, making the data more secure, and leveraging the marketing capital they can gain by aligning their practices with customer expectations. By doing so, brands can establish trust and improve their overall relationships with customers, even if customers may not fully understand the technical intricacies behind data control.

What are the challenges with distributed systems?

Distributed systems, such as Web3, require significant computing power. As businesses embrace these systems, it’s crucial to address both sustainability and operational concerns. This calls for creative thinking when implementing the framework to ensure data minimisation and effective use of edge computing. By leveraging these technologies, businesses can reduce their environmental footprint while ensuring efficient data management and processing.

One critical challenge that arises in the context of data control is where control stops and ownership begins. Most people don’t prioritise ownership, but instead care about knowing their data isn’t being abused.

Therefore defining “control over data” becomes essential. For example, you may want to have control over a rental car for a period of time, but you don’t necessarily want to own it. Similarly, people want control over their data, without the cost and inconvenience associated with owning it.

What does this mean for the industry?

The marketing and advertising industry is undergoing significant changes and recent revelations about ad placement by companies like Google have accelerated the need for change. While this disruption can lead to positive outcomes, it also carries the risk of consolidation by the largest players in the industry, which is the opposite of what Web3 is designed to achieve.

Therefore, creating a framework that ensures data is securely attached to individuals and that systems governing its use are transparent becomes critical.

Decentralisation plays a crucial role in enhancing data security – by decentralising how and where the data is stored, it also protects organisations by reducing the attack vector. It is much easier and more valuable for a hacker to steal from a single data store with a million customers, than it is to hack a million data stores containing one customer, even if the actual “keys” to accessing the data are still entrusted by customers to the service they are using, or a trusted third party.

For example, Apple’s approach enables users to choose whether to own the key themselves or have it stored securely in their iCloud account, striking a balance between user-friendliness and data protection. By sandboxing data and processing it on local devices, they can still deliver personalised services such as targeted advertising without compromising individual privacy.

Blockchain is often conflated with Web3 when in reality it is not required to build a decentralised web. However, it can offer additional benefits, such as auditable smart contracts, which can be very powerful when the application requires it.

For raw data storage, it’s challenging, due to the individual’s “right to be forgotten” and so one approach is to only store hash data (a way of attaching a data set to an individual, without identifying who they are) in the blockchain to validate that certain, off-chain, data has not been tampered with. This is also a more sustainable and ecological use of the blockchain at scale.

Unlocking the full potential of the internet

The evolving structure of the internet and the emergence of Web3 presents exciting possibilities for everyone and is arguably the only way a free and open internet can exist in the future.

Businesses need to embrace the core principles of decentralisation and understand the implications and value it brings. Finding the right balance and bringing brands onboard with this shift in mindset is essential for success. Sustainable and operational considerations should be taken into account, implementing frameworks that ensure data minimisation and efficient use of computing power.

It is also important to define what “control over data” means and prioritise data security and transparency. The industry is undergoing a huge transformation and businesses need to adapt to these changes to stay ahead.

At Imagination, we are passionate about delivering world-class experience design to enable brands to deliver rich and personalised experiences at scale, so we are already exploring how to build decentralisation into our work, such as XPKit, our in-house experience platform. We have also partnered with the data privacy advocacy group, Trust 3.0, who are convening the brightest minds in privacy, AI, and technology to champion responsible innovation for a safer society.

The future of data control lies in striking a balance between user control, privacy and business needs. While leveraging innovative technologies and maintaining ethical practices. By doing so, we can unlock the true potential of the internet and create a landscape that empowers users, protects their privacy, and fosters trust between businesses and consumers.

It’s an opportunity to shape a future where data control becomes synonymous with responsible and ethical practices, paving the way for a more transparent and user-centric online ecosystem.

Anton C E Christodoulou, Group Chief Technology Officer

Anton C E Christodoulou

Group Chief Technology Officer, Imagination London

Responsible for overseeing Imagination's global technology strategy, project and service delivery execution; to deliver immersive, engaging and measurable, smart connected experiences to clients including Mastercard, Ford, Major League Baseball, Jaguar Land Rover and Shell. Anton is continually exploring and integrating emerging experiential and exponential technologies, such as VR, AR, AI, Blockchain, and the productisation and ongoing development of Imagination’s Connected Experience Toolkit, XPKit.

Anton is a passionate results driven business leader, with over 20 years experience defining, developing, articulating and executing exec level technology projects. A driver, innovator and agent for change for early stage startups and some of the world's most dynamic, creative and challenging global companies, including Seagram, Walt Disney, British Telecom and Thomas Cook.