Mozilla

User Sovereignty for our Data

January 13th, 2012

Our Internet experiences involve more and more data about us. Some of this data we create ourselves.  Sometimes our friends and acquaintances create it, and sometimes the services we use create data about us. On one hand this enables all sorts of exciting new applications. On the other hand, there are some very disconcerting aspects to the explosion of personal data. The ability of big data and cloud service providers to monitor, log, store, use, correlate and sell information about who we are and what we do has huge implications for society and for individuals.

Right now there’s no convenient way for me to share information about myself and maintain control over that information. I share information about myself by putting it someplace where someone else makes all the rules. That “someone else” is the application. Most people think of Facebook or Google, but this issue is much bigger than either of them.  This is an issue of the architecture of user data today, and applies across the Internet. Think of the big recommendation / review sites, or any other application you spend a lot of time living in. Think of any social network you’ve identified connections in. The only convenient way for us to have a “home” at one of these sites is to contribute our data and have whatever control the application developer chooses to give us.

These issues have big implications for Mozilla.

First, it means we should do some new things in the user data space. To really help people with the way we use and share data today, Mozilla will also need to offer people the choice of storing data in the cloud in a way that allows services to access it with your permission.  This will be a new thing for Mozilla. It will involve new challenges.  It’s important that we take these on and address them well. If we develop an offering that handles user data in the cloud properly we will help ensure choice and user sovereignty in new areas of online life. Each of us should have a meaningful choice about where and how our data is stored and managed. No other organization have both the ability to do something totally focused on user sovereignty rather than financial profit, and the ability to have wide impact. A Mozilla presence in the cloud will allow us to to fulfill our mission in important new areas of online life.

Second, this means our approach to handling user data must be different from the industry norm. It must put you at the center, array your data around you, and let you deliver that data to any app you want, on the terms you want. It should store user data when there is a measurable benefit to the user, rather than gathering everything in the hopes that data mining will provide value to someone else. It should allow people to determine if their data is available to others. The principle of user sovereignty will affect the way we design every aspect of our offerings.  Mozilla offerings must embody the values of the Mozilla Manifesto and our privacy principles.

My colleague Ben Adida (tech lead for identity and user data and one of our resident cryptographers) has written a piece describing our thinking on how to build such products.

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