Vivek Narayanadas serves as General Counsel for MetaMap, which helps online services become borderless through user-centric, privacy-forward trust and safety workflows.
From securing a loan to renting a car to getting a job, our lives increasingly depend on the digital world to enable trust-based interactions online. That world is now borderless: people can interact with one another anytime, no matter where they are. However, online services often lack the ability to understand their users, and need to rely on external data sources to unlock access to their services.
These data sources are often completely invisible to users, who have little insight into how a service is making decisions about their trustworthiness, and as a result, can be skeptical of using a new service or working with a new online provider. Given this trend, data privacy and user control have become the new currency of economic opportunity – service providers that can give users transparency and comfort around the use of their personal data can more successfully expand into new regions and markets, and gain the trust of new verticals of customers.
While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the ability to live our lives largely online, around the world some 4 billion people remain “digitally invisible” because their data is locked away in fragmented silos and databases. Without the ability to control who can access their data, when and for what purpose, these individuals are unable to access many of the services we’ve come to rely on, from gig work platforms like Uber, to sharing platforms like Airbnb, and even financial apps and services, like crypto exchanges.
Worse, users often have no ability to understand why they are blocked from accessing these services – if the service is simply making a decision based on where they live, if some third party has incorrect information about them, or even if the service provider is looking at information about someone else entirely.
With the passing of data privacy regulation such as the GDPR in Europe, the California Privacy Rights Act, and more than 120 other national privacy laws currently under review around the world, it is clear that the future of privacy will center around the consumer. Yet, despite growing demand for and awareness of privacy, these laws and regulations simply don’t do enough to protect – or give individuals real, practical control over — the use of individuals’ personal and often sensitive data.
And with the rapidly growing decentralized web3 economy, where users may not be able to rely on intermediary platforms to help them make choices about their privacy, we need to act now to develop a global standard that puts users in the driver’s seat and gives them full transparency into and control over how services assess their trustworthiness.
The growing importance of personal data control
Information privacy is the right to control how your information is collected and used, when, and by whom. Today, vast amounts of our data are controlled by governments and big tech platforms like Google and Meta. Many technology companies derive revenue by buying and/or selling personal user data, often in ways that are completely invisible to or not fully understood by users.
GDPR, the landmark legislation that governs data processing in Europe, gives individuals certain rights over their own data such as the right of erasure (i.e. the ability to ask a provider to delete information about you) and data portability (i.e. the ability to get a copy of your data and “port” it somewhere else). This is great progress, but it is in stark contrast to other areas of the world.
In emerging markets, like Africa and Latin America, where significant portions of the population are still disconnected from the internet, 21% of countries do not have any detailed privacy legislation or regulations. In practice, this means that online services in these countries often fail to give individuals basic rights over their data even at the level offered by laws like the GDPR and CPRA. This means consumers in these countries can be denied access to critical online services without any idea why they were denied access, and with no recourse.
This gap only exacerbates growing economic inequality across the world. For individuals in many countries, accessing the digital economy is central to economic mobility. Whether it is the ability to start an online store selling homemade goods, offering services through a gig platform, or buying and selling crypto assets, many innovative online platforms offer individuals the opportunity to earn a secure living in any part of the world. For many, access to these platforms can mean a pathway to a more stable economic and financial situation.
But today, residents in many of these emerging economies are regularly blocked from accessing certain critical online services because there is no underlying infrastructure that enables users in those regions to “prove” their trustworthiness.
This means that service providers lack the ability to assess their customers using reliable data, which means that they often have to paint with a broad brush (e.g., users in Country A cannot be allowed to sell goods through our platform), or are forced to accept harsher terms (e.g., users in Country B have to pay a higher interest rate because the risk of default is higher in that country).
Even when service providers do have access to data, consumers are often left in the dark about where that data comes from, what it says, or how a consumer can correct mistakes in the record. Companies like Mercado Bitcoin, Kudabank, Binance, Creditas, EBANX, and Oyster are already paving the way in this direction in Latin America and Africa.
The end result is that users in these countries are left without access to these empowering digital platforms and services, and without any ability to offer these services information about themselves that could and should allow the service to trust them enough to permit them access. This is ultimately a privacy issue, because their data is either inaccessible, or is used without any transparency or control over this usage.
Consumers deserve better, and services should build their digital workflows to allow consumers to drive the process of providing information about themselves to establish their merits.
Unlocking borderless growth: a global standard for data control
The borderless future demands that all people – no matter who they are or where they’re from – have access to and control over their personal data. Not only will this help people live comfortably in what will be a fully-digitized world, but it will also boost the global economy, letting businesses connect with the billions of people they haven’t been able to reach in the past. As the digital economy grows, without proper user-centric privacy controls, large segments of the world’s population risk being left behind.
To ensure that individuals have access to digital services and economic mobility, companies should work together to build a global user-centric design standard that places users at the center of decisions about their trustworthiness, and gives users transparency into and control over how their data is used to make decisions about them.