Making the Web More Open: Drupal Creator Floats an “FDA for Data”

Xconomy Boston — 

When Dries Buytaert created the open-source Web publishing system Drupal in his college dorm room in Belgium 15 years ago, the ways people interacted with the Internet looked a lot different.

Google was still a small private company. Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone didn’t exist. Only 7 percent of the world’s population had Internet access. There wasn’t nearly as much content for them to access. About 20 million websites existed at the time, compared with more than 1 billion today, said Buytaert, who went on to co-found Boston-based Acquia.

But the explosion of websites, mobile devices, and Internet access hasn’t led to a more open Web, Buytaert said. Instead, a handful of big companies—primarily Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon—have emerged as the gatekeepers of the Web. Their products are the conduits through which we communicate, discover and share information, shop, track our schedules, and much more. And each company controls user information and access to content and applications within their platform, creating silos that Buytaert and others refer to as “walled gardens.”

The so-called “closed Web” is winning “because it’s easier to use,” Buytaert (pictured above, right) said during a presentation Tuesday at Harvard Law School.

But the tech giants’ dominance raises a number of concerns. “What’s scary about them is their scale,” Buytaert said, pointing out that Facebook and Google each have over 1 billion users.

That sort of reach means that just by tweaking the algorithms for Facebook’s news feed and Google’s search bar, they can impact voter decisions and election results, Buytaert said. And the big tech companies are constantly amassing data about us—our location, calendar, purchase history, network of friends and colleagues, interests, and so on. That’s “not necessarily a bad thing,” Buytaert said, but “I don’t think they’ll stop until they know everything about us.”

So, what’s to be done? In his presentation, Buytaert outlined three ideas that might help turn the tide toward a more open Web, one in which users have more control over their data and the overall flow of information online:

1. Create an “FDA for data and algorithms.” Just as the government introduced the FDA to ensure the quality and safety of food and drugs in the U.S., a federal agency could oversee private companies’ software algorithms and boost transparency.

“We need to know which data is captured, how that data is used, but also how these algorithms work,” Buytaert said. “If you have these large platforms like Google that have an impact on society, that can influence outcomes of elections, it would be good if somebody could audit these algorithms to be sure there isn’t bias built into them—either on purpose or accident.”

2. Build a “personal information broker.” This software would allow users to control which personal data they share with companies, how those companies can use the information and for how long, and so on. “You unbundle Facebook and Google and try to store the information in one place that you control, but make it available through APIs [application programming interfaces] to these platforms,” Buytaert explained.

Facebook offers a limited version of this, but Buytaert wants the practice to spread across more platforms. “Some organizations are experimenting with this. I don’t think any of them have traction,” he said.

3. Enable better user experiences via open-source software. It’s no surprise that Drupal’s creator would champion open-source software and open Web standards, but he thinks these advances can play a role in the “decentralization” of the Internet. The basic idea would be to build a layer of technology that enables various websites and apps to talk to each other more effortlessly—and make the Web easier to use than the current “walled gardens” of Apple, Facebook, and the like.

“It’s not good enough to be as easy to use as Google and Facebook. For the open Web to [work], it needs to be much easier,” to use Buytaert said. “I personally believe this is where open source can come in.” But it’s a “tremendous challenge,” he added.

Audience members in the Harvard lecture hall raised a number of questions about Buytaert’s proposals, primarily the “FDA for data and algorithms” idea. Among them:

—What exactly would such an agency be tasked with monitoring, and what would its penalties look like? (The audience member who asked this question joked that you might see a message warning you that this news feed is biased toward conservative viewpoints—or cat pictures.)

—Would such an agency wield too much power, pushing the U.S. closer to China’s style of information control?

—Would the cost of complying with federal oversight put too much burden on small software companies with fewer resources, thereby further consolidating Web power among the big companies?

Buytaert had few answers, emphasizing that he’s not an expert in policy or law.

Rather, like a piece of open-source software, Buytaert’s aim seemed to be to float the ideas to the world—his talk was broadcast online—and see what people do with them.