If you’ve ever made the mistake of saving home videos on a single back-up hard drive, only to see it fried by the wrong power adapter (cough, guilty, cough), you know the danger of siloing important information on a platform that can be rendered inaccessible. That’s the point Tim Berners-Lee is trying to make this week as part of a series with the Guardian on the battle for control over the Internet. Berners-Lee is urging people to demand their personal data from web giants like Google and Facebook. Right now, that data is locked away, and according to Berners-Lee, we haven’t even begun to recognize its value to our lives.
Berners-Lee is worried about social networking sites, native apps and other platforms that don’t allow users to analyze personal data and put it good use. That data could give us important information about our health, habits and more. However, if it’s stuck behind a wall, we can’t search it, apply it, or contribute it to public discussion. It's like when content producers publish their material in a native app and don’t make it available on the broader web - that information is lost to public discourse. If it’s not publically available says Berners-Lee, “I can’t link to it, so I can’t tweet it, I can’t discuss it, I can’t like it, I can’t hate it.”
Where personal data is concerned, Berners-Lee makes two more critical points. First, even big companies go out of business, or have to reinvent themselves (remember Friendster?), which means data can easily be lost if it’s stored in a proprietary format. Second, although Berners-Lee believes all data should be open, he also believes people need confidence that big institutions won’t track personal information or abuse access when it’s freely given.
The value of an open Internet is a recurring theme in certain circles, and the principle of what Berners-Lee is arguing is nothing new. However, it’s increasingly relevant as we spend more of our lives online. From our home videos, to our running routes, to the online chats we have about politics, philosophy and more, our data is worth a lot. If only we can access it.
Image Credit: paul_irish on Flickr