Opinion: Embracing personal ownership of data will boost competitiveness

Michelle Ritter

This year, the Chinese Communist Party launched sweeping regulations codifying artificial intelligence into laws that control online prices, search results, content recommendations, filtering, and more. At the same time in America, legislators are examining whether tech corporations engage in anti-competitive practices based on algorithmic use of consumer data.

These are wildly different approaches to the same question: how does a government capture the benefits of an AI-driven world while preventing its burdens? One solution is simple for democracies worldwide: empower citizens by legally granting them control of their own data and embrace the use of digital identification.

It is not up to any single government to transform the World Wide Web. Rather, governments like ours can support market solutions and help gather consensus on the popular demand of online services. Targeted regulation can stop corporations from reducing people to mere advertising targets based on their purchases, search histories, location and the like because we are a mosaic of interests and viewpoints, and the internet should reflect individual nuances with personalized experiences.

Some people call this demand for more private, personalized, curated and relevant internet experiences “web 3.0.” Call it what you may, but the citizenry seeks an alternative to technology dominated by a handful of companies that disempowers Americans and mocks any notion of digital privacy. Information about, and access to, individuals should be based upon consent and desire.

To move us from here (centralized, isolating internet experiences) to there (curated content driven by individual choice), we must embrace personal ownership of data and move beyond limited data points. America’s legislators and regulators should promote the wide acceptance of a free-market digital ID. Consumers would carry a kind of passport with their digital identification material across the internet, choosing with whom to share it and governing their online life.

Fretting about the viability of this new paradigm based on “opt-in” or “opt-outs” will be a moot point when individuals see the difference self-sovereignty brings. To privacy advocates, it is akin to spitting on a fire in hopes of putting out the flames. Our current digital model and underregulated data collection industry have boosted identity theft, allowed for housing discrimination, and helped to undermine democracy, to name just a few of the status quo’s risks.

Web3 decentralization and user-owned digital identities present an enormous market and technological opportunity for U.S. global leadership and competitiveness. Digital IDs, boosted by inroads in Artificial Intelligence, will create hyper-personalized experiences that allow for more efficient delivery of digital services, which is better for consumers and highly profitable for companies.

Consider the livestream shopping market, which has a market cap of about $480 billion in China but only $11 billion in the United States. While Amazon currently rules 40% of the U.S. e-commerce market, social media commerce is expected to surge past other retail options by 2025. TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is becoming an enormous player in the social media commerce ecosystem. If the U.S. were to jump into this market with consumers empowered by digital IDs, it would have a strong competitive edge.

When you think of global competitiveness, the usual factors for a country’s ranking come to mind – economic performance, education, infrastructure, business and government efficiency and more. By rebuilding a digital future that is governed by consumers rather than a few corporations, technologists can protect data privacy while bolstering U.S. competitiveness worldwide. Countries like China are unlikely to lean into greater digital autonomy for their people, but America can rise to the challenge. The U.S. should not waste the opportunity to step up and drive innovation built on self-sovereignty.

This article was originally published in Mercury News

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