As ambitions go, they don’t come much bolder than a plan to create a whole new internet. That is the aim of the Qiy Foundation, which believes doing so is the only way to truly give individuals control over their own data and to fix a commercial model that has become dysfunctional. The idea of a ‘new internet’ is not merely some neat marketing slogan. The Netherlands-based Qiy Foundation has devised a comprehensive set of rules and regulations that constitute a standard which governs the exchange of personal data. The idea is to establish an operational framework akin to the World Wide Web itself, allowing organisations across public and private sectors to develop services that offer customers simplicity, control and privacy.
While a new internet made in that image might be some way off, the Qiy project is well underway. Its approach is underpinned by a quiet confidence that is perhaps best illustrated by the story of how the founding team quickly raised €12million in private investment funding — and then turned it down rather than compromise on their vision. Maarten Louman, Chief Marketing Officer at Digital Me (digital-me.nl) — an offshoot of the Qiy project that is creating the first user-level services — takes up the story.
“Despite the financial crash, quite soon we found two investors willing to invest €6million each. We thought ‘this is amazing’. Then they started talking about a majority of shares in the company and an exit in five years and who this company could be sold to — someone like Facebook or Google. We thought that while it would be nice to have the €12mllion, what happens to this position, this node in the system, we are offering to individuals? We’d be saying it belongs to you but then in a couple of years it’s not yours at all — it belongs to Facebook or Google.
“In the end we had to turn down the offer. It was impossible to accept it because it would be counter-productive to the mission we have. We decided we needed independent money. No shares.”
Even more remarkable, they then managed to raise the same amount all over again, but on the terms they demanded to retain the integrity of the project. The €12million was raised from a combination of profit sharing obligations — loans from like-minded individuals — and funding from the Dutch Government as well as banks that were interested in the project. This allowed for the development of a neutral and open infrastructure and in 2011 the non-profit Qiy Foundation was founded, with Digital Me being set up become the first active operator using the new trust framework.
Each user at the centre of their data
This idea of a personal ‘node in the system’ which Maarten refers to lies at the centre of how the Qiy model works. It is the individual’s ‘domain’ by which they manage their data and grant permission to access it. The guiding principle of giving people control over their personal data is certainly one that is central to the Internet Of Me and this wider cultural shift is already well established.
The impetus is coming from consumers demanding greater control and better privacy as well as being a natural consequence of innovation by forward-looking organisations who see the value of this new model. Maarten also hails a more progressive political attitude in Europe for driving change through legislation. The Qiy Foundation and Digital Me are among the organisations that see the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a tremendous opportunity rather than a restrictive burden.
The GDPR gives citizens greater control and rights over how their data is gathered and used, enshrining consent, the ‘right to be forgotten’, and data portability among a raft of measures. It puts Europe several steps ahead of the United States but will present challenges to the way many online businesses with global reach operate in their European markets.
Maarten says: “Looking back, I think we were three, four, five years ahead of time. It’s only in the past two years you see the market is coming to a point where we can see that the way the web is organised — the model — is cracking. Things have to change. In Europe, governments are usually behind, but now in the privacy area the governments are running ahead. The EU regulation is ahead of where organisations active on the web are. The base models of Google and Facebook are on fire.”
While privacy and security are becoming increasingly hot issues, few expect them to be enough of a motivation on their own to bring about a profound shift in control over personal data. It is the innovation made possible by a true Internet Of Me — the products and services with privacy and security by design — that will drive this revolution. Done properly, the benefits work as much for businesses as for consumers, with far richer data on offer in return for the right value proposition.
Maarten says: “Convenience is the most important reason people start using services. But if people also have more control over their own data they can better understand what’s happening and have an overview of their own situation. With this overview and control, insight becomes possible because you can have apps that work for your eyes only, running on your data. Then there is a new situation where we have convenience, we have control, we have privacy and we have better security. From there people don’t have to choose privacy but they just have a better solution. If the convenience offers better privacy as well it’s not a difficult choice.
“On the business side, organisations are being forced to change their online behaviour — by European regulation but also by things like ad blockers. They have to spend more money to reach the consumers they used to reach. On that side better alternatives are emerging. We are helping these organisations come up with better offers and a better way of organising their own data. Today data is seen as the ‘new oil’ of the economy. That might be true but that doesn’t mean you have to stash the data in your own databases as a company. Why not just ask the customer for the data you need for your services at the moment you use it?”
The danger of stockpiling customer data
Because the EU GDPR places significant responsibilities on businesses to safeguard customer data — with severe financial penalties for failures — data can become a liability. This, says Maarten, should make companies question the wisdom of gathering and stockpiling as much data as possible.
“By storing all that data there is a certain risk. If it is hacked you have to pay up to 4% of your turnover and the fact that you store it in a database means it becomes static which is not always to be trusted. People and their behaviour change every day, every hour, every minute. It’s a far better way of working to ask a customer for the current, actual data and then offer the service instead of storing it and thinking you know the customer.”
As a live use case to prove how greater utility can drive innovation that delivers control and privacy, Digital Me has devised Dappre, an app which allows users to subscribe to each other’s contact data, which is dynamic — so if one person changes their details it automatically updates for the people they share that data with. While Maarten acknowledges it is not the only contact management app in the market, it is the underlying technology that makes Dappre different. It is based on the Qiy principles and so serves as a working example of how a user can share data on their terms and with privacy.
And those principles allow Dappre to do more than just make contact management more convenient. In Boxtel, a town in the southern Netherlands, Dappre is being used in a pilot scheme to allow residents to control data held by the local authority and use it as a means of identity verification to use with other businesses and services. Once a resident’s identity has been confirmed by someone at the authority, they can share that data via a scannable QR code.
“It provides a secure connection to your data — your name, date of birth, address — that sort of information. You can then exchange it with organisations you trust.”
Maarten is optimistic about the future for the personal data economy, with the political mood in Europe and the enthusiasm of backers and collaborators convincing him that the Qiy principles will end up on the right side of history.
“The EU regulation is ahead of the development in the markets. They are forcing the markets to change. I’m rather positive about the change the market will see in the next five years. It’s changing the way the contract is organised between me as an individual and the organisations I want to do business with. It will be more on my terms. That will change for sure in next five years.
“Whether the World Wide Web will be replaced by a solution like the Qiy Foundation is offering, I’m not sure if that will be the case in next 5 years — maybe we need ten. But it will change. I am sure of that.”