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Shifting the power balance - the BBC wants to give individuals control of their data online

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 30, 2021
It’s early days, but the BBC is experimenting with how it can build ‘data pods’ that give individuals control over who they share data with.

An image of the BBC My PDS prototype
(Image sourced via the BBC)

The BBC is exploring how it can shift the balance of power away from online service providers, towards individuals, when sharing and using personal data online. According to a number of recent blog posts, it appears that the BBC believes it can play a cross-industry role in giving individuals agency over their data online - who can identify them, where and how their personal data is stored and what data services they can access. 

And whilst the BBC is using data to make its content more relevant for users, like all other major online media organizations, given that it is a public service organization that is set up to serve licence fee payers, it doesn't have the same commercial interests as others driving its approach to data. 

The BBC highlights recent research that found: 

  • At least 39 different organizations hold personal data on the average UK citizen

  • 82% of people are unsure of what personal information companies hold about them 

  • Only 1% of people read the terms and conditions

The BBC's central idea is to create ‘data pods' - or what it is more broadly calling My PDS (Personal Data Store) - which securely stores a user's data. It is building this service using an open-source tool called Solid, which was originally developed by founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. 

Solid stores user data in ‘pods' and only the user and the applications they permit can access the data stored in the pod. Any user activity generated through the use of services (posts, photos, play history, etc.) is saved back to the user's encrypted pod, rather than to the unified databases of the service providers.

The idea is still in its infancy and the BBC has developed what it calls ‘speculative prototypes' where My PDS has multiple profiles, including media, health, finance and social. These profiles visualize personal data that has been imported into My PDS. 

Users have a central dashboard, where they can view, edit and manage data. A blog post explains how one of the early demos for a ‘data pod' works: 

In our first demo, a user creates a new data pod on the BBC system and then links their BBC and Spotify user accounts to pull in some of their media play histories. This data is then processed on the user's device to create a media profile, which is used to search against BBC News, music, podcasts and programme archive to allow users to find content related to their favourite artists.

It's a simple but effective demonstration of a secure cross-service application. At no time does the BBC get to see the user's Spotify data, and Spotify does not receive a copy of the user's BBC data, as all data processing is done in the app. As well as keeping data safe, it means if you want to move to another service, your data is already under your control, and you don't need to ask for it.

We are also adding some open data sources to the mix, like weather and environmental datasets, and linking with third-party applications through a data exchange layer. In time we hope to create new conventions and standards to make interoperability between service providers simpler.

The opportunity 

This might all sound a bit theoretical and abstract, but there is a lot of promise in what it could do for users. Imagine if My PDS could be used as a way to authenticate data access for a variety of online services - everything from Netflix, to Twitter, to Amazon. 

By using open standards, the BBC in theory could provide a ‘safe space' for users to decide which data they share with a variety of services in one central, secure place. For example, let's say a user wants to use a new streaming service online and that streaming service requests access to user data to provide recommendations. If the BBC's vision comes to light, the user could choose which personal data it provides via My PDS and in theory more easily revoke access at a later point via My PDS too, if required. 

The BBC has been carrying out user research to understand how the prototypes are landing with individuals under the age of 35. It's results show that: 

  • People said they'd be happy to use a personal data store and think it is better than what they have now. The key benefits were being able to control data and see it come to life visually

  • Seeing who collects, shares and uses data and controlling permissions is important to young people

In a blog post, the BBC said: 

Our work on personal data stores demonstrates that we can do data differently. Through our thinking about a public service internet, we're starting to understand what we need the network to do for us, and we're working out how to measure the value of what we do. We believe this body of work is transformational, with significant opportunities for the BBC, the industry, and our audiences.

This work provides ground-breaking new ways to make data a force for good. It benefits people and society by letting users decide how information about them is used to make decisions and predictions. It supports the creation of common metadata descriptions for us and the sector, enabling data strategies to enhance our existing products and develop new kinds of services. It goes beyond 'best' practices for data management, putting the BBC at the forefront in shaping this emergent data economy and truly amplifying the BBC's privacy promise.

My take

I think this is incredibly interesting work that the BBC is doing. There is demand from users to get better control of their data online and the work being carried out provides a realistic approach to making that happen. However, the BBC isn't naive to the fact that this will be a struggle in an industry where data accumulation is core to business strategy. It's blog states:

Our work to date has shown the technical feasibility of this approach, but that does not guarantee adoption, especially as advertising models currently rely on extensive collections of user data in one place and under one organisation's control. Startups and big-tech sponsored ventures are now emerging, getting a handle on the problem of standardising data in a world of decoupled data stores. Other measures such as Apple's new anti-tracking features in iOS 14 are positive steps towards usable, meaningful privacy control.

That being said, the BBC is a behemoth with a broad reach globally, so it may be able to influence in a way that others just aren't willing to at present. We will be watching closely, as this could be incredibly exciting for users - a future where you have extensive control of your data online. 

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