Ethics on the ground 

I had the privilege to speak about “agile data” at an event last week. Alongside me in the lineup were the CEO of, an internet of things energy company servicing the African market, and a senior technologist from a leading car manufacturer. 

Each talk provoked discussion and it was great to see people in the audience really getting their heads around the wider issues being discussed, particularly when it came to ethics. 

Two of the talks touched on data sharing and data collection (and retention) infrastructure and it was genuinely reassuring to see audience members – practitioners – questioning the ethical framework within which these projects sit from at least two perspectives: “is it ethical to do that?” and “is it ethical to not do that?”

It’s all very well having CEOs, university professors and politicians calling out sociological and ethical implications of technology (think Musk and Hawking on the potential dangers of AI development), but having it thought about and having opinions form at the working level is what will really make the difference. Bravo. 

A Solid start to protecting data freedom in the age of the information giants

Not long after I’d written Carbon Paper for Personal Data, I was fortunate to be able to attend a livecast at ODI Leeds of the truly inspiring Sir Tim Berners Lee talking about the evolution of the web. He talked about the growth of the internet giants (Google, Facebook, Amazon in particular) and how the web had changed from a grassroots information publishing movement into something quite different.

He said that one quality of today’s use of the web is that user freedom is hurt because we (users) trade it for convenience. In return, the internet giants get to make us the product and sell our attention to the highest bidder.

I’m worried about the risk giants pose to users’ freedoms. Discussions on “freedoms” can quickly become vague so I’m going to try and use this series to clarify what I mean by showing what protecting these freedoms feels like.

By “freedom” in this context, I mean the freedom to switch information service provider and to control what information I share with each service. This matters because in a market (unlike a functioning democracy) the only real power users have is the power to choose to use a competitor.

If “absolute power corrupts absolutely” isn’t enough take a look at the excellent information here from 2015 by Mozilla’s Mark Surman, particularly the bits about Android, Facebook and WhatsApp.

So as well as adding my voice to the growing number who feel as though the noose is slowly tightening, I’m going to put some effort into trying to walk another path, a path where “we the people” are back in control. Tim Berners Lee founded Solid to try and give people the tools to build services differently and it is with this toolkit that I’d like to begin experimenting.

I believe that the only way this kind of thing will really make sense to people is if we can find a real set of services that, by using them, make users see the world completely differently – just like iPhone made people completely change how they saw a collection of technologies that was mostly already available to them.

In my mind the biggest barrier to avoiding the risk of internet giants abusing their power over us is that we’ve not yet found a way to give people a sense of the freedom they risk losing. There is no concept of a “mobile app” and the world is just SMS and phone calls.

Stay tuned for more, folks, or even better, if this has clicked with you, get in touch via Twitter and we can change the world together.