We’ve open-sourced Swash to make Data Unions a reality

Thoughts Dec 09, 2019

Act 1: Who owns the future?

Here’s the deal: people contribute data to cloud servers run by tech giants in return for free internet services. Those Tech giants gain huge rewards from that data and deliberately ignore the value provided by their users when monetizing it.

Jaron Lanier Fixes the Internet

Jaron Lanier the author of “Who owns the future?” argues that the future will be owned by a tiny number of people who run the biggest, best connected computers (usually Tech giants). What he wants to see is a future which is owned more broadly — by everyone who contributes data to the cloud. He sketches out a way that universal micro-payments might solve the problem to build an information economy which rewards ordinary people for what they do and share on the web.

Data as labor

Eric A. Posner and Glen Weyl challenge the current economy and criticize for injustices and inequities. They imagine a world in which your personal data is dignified as your work and you are therefore compensated for it. They argue that we would be honored as the suppliers of data for the digital economy and the value of the digital economy would be shared among us.

Glen Weyl talks at Google

They believe that the dominance of Tech giants has been acquired from free user data and they propose treating Data as Labor(DaL) to break this equilibrium and enabling users to form data unions to demand fair compensation.

Data unions

Of course there are other questions that arise when it comes to data generated by individuals by surfing the web and using social media and mobile applications such as do users have control over their data? Is the privacy of users preserved? How are user interests represented?

A new concept is emerging to answer these questions. To change current inequalities, to get power back into the hands of users, to form a counter force, and to pressure governments. There is not an agreed name for this yet; Data Union!?, Data Dignity!?, Data Cooperative!? It’s going to protect the interests of data producers, to give people more control over their data, to demand more transparency of algorithms and to shape strong terms and conditions for the organizations who use that data.

Act 2: Who has the solution?

A company named Streamr is creating the open source infrastructure that is going to power the world’s data economy. They are building a decentralized network and a marketplace for transporting and trading data. The project allows connected cars and smart city IoT devices to truly collaborate on a neutral infrastructure with blockchain-based data monetization built in. Soon their network for transporting real-time data will be fully decentralized.

Streamr also launched a Marketplace for real-time data that enables users to buy and sell access to real-time data. The DATA token, an ERC-20 token on the Ethereum blockchain, is used as the unit of payment on the marketplace.

An infrastructure for aggregating data

Another feature needed in order to create the underlying infrastructure for a Data Union is one that allows data produced by individuals to be bundled or aggregated. This feature sits on the marketplace and is what the Streamr team calls Community Products. With a Community Product, ordinary individuals can push the data they create online into a larger saleable data product and receive automatic payment every time that product sells. Data buyers will of course reap the benefits of being able to purchase pre-grouped data from potentially millions of people in one go.

A micro-payment solution

The final feature needed to form a Data Union is something which allows hundreds of thousands of users to be paid small amounts of money in a consistent and cost effective way. To solve the problem of distributing value to a large and dynamic set of Ethereum addresses, Streamr built Monoplasma a solution for one-to-many payments. Now, when a community product sells, the revenue is automatically distributed out to a multitude of data contributors.

Act 3: Swash makes Data Unions a reality

A team from a developing country in Asia, receives the message and starts to build as Glen Weyl put it, “one of the most impressive and broad-use data union platforms”!

Swash, a browser extension that pays you to surf the web, is a real Data Union that is built on top of the Streamr stack to aggregate users’ browsing activities and create a Community Product on Streamr Marketplace. It lets users choose which data is being sent, gives users full control over the data they produce in the application, shares the income of those data sales with users, and most importantly preserves users privacy.

Ebrahim Khaalilzadeh talks about Swash

The journey started when Henri Pihkala demonstrated Swash at MozFest, in late October 2019, to show how individuals could aggregate and sell their browsing data.

Henri Pihkala demos Swash at MozFest

The great news is that now Swash is running and ready to be installed on Firefox, Chrome, Brave and Microsoft Edge Insider. As of early December 2019, there are 750+ people who installed Swash and are contributing surfing and search data to the Streamr Network.

Transparency and Readability

Should I be concerned about my privacy when using Swash? How can I be sure that sensitive data such as usernames and passwords are kept private and not transferred to the Marketplace? These are the questions that the community asked over and over. Transparency and readability of algorithms as a rule of thumb for Data Unions are the best way to answer such questions and as the managers of the first Data Union, we follow this rule and have open sourced Swash’s code base. Those who are interested in digging into the code can find it here.

The Final Act

This is not the end of story. We are at an early stage of development and are ready to face new challenges ahead. We have new and interesting features on Swash 2020 roadmap and are excited for the coming year. Below is the 2020 roadmap for Swash.

Originally published on the Swash Medium channel on December 9th, 2019.

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