We Need More Control Over Our Own User Data
I’m thrilled to announce I’ve joined the governance board of Superset, a new DAO with a challenging but important mission:
To give people more control and better benefits from their own user data.
We all know the problem. When we sign up for an online service, we quickly click Agree on the Terms of Service window without really knowing what that entails. We do know how often companies abuse our data, feeding it into algorithms that exploit our emotions and invade our privacy, while also commercializing it to make billions of dollars.
And because all of the major services seem problematic, we feel as if we have no choice but cave in, giving them unrestricted use of our data. Government regulation may be an important part of the solution, but it’s a blunt instrument; it’s slow and cumbersome to implement, and may only make the problem worse. Thanks to EU laws, we now click “Accept All Cookies” to every new website we visit, but that added inconvenience may outweigh any benefit.
At the moment, the current Terms of Service form that users “Agree” to is an ultimatum. Enlightened organizations like Mozilla offer a better version. We believe it’s time to build off their innovative work and completely transform the ToS concept.
Unless we actively resist this process, we have no power over what happens to our data.
Superset follows a DAO governance model that gives its members governance over their data, coalesces and channels their voice, acting as an advocate and protector. While government regulation provides a one size fits none solution, DAOs provide more granular oversight power.
Through this DAO, we have the ability to revoke the consent to use all members’ data in one shot. This mechanism ensures the DAO can provide a check on Delphia’s power over its users in practice. Specifically, the ability to say, “If this concern is not addressed, everyone’s consents will be revoked” gives us real bargaining power.
This is also not a new idea. For roughly the last 15 years, as social networks and advertising platforms grew in reach and power, there have been many attempts to create a kind of coalition that acts in the best interests of the users and their data. There have been proposals about more ethical uses of data, as well as data trusts and data DAOs. But so far, none of them have caught on. Success is not achieved solely from what is built, but also how it fits into an ecosystem. Data governance and data commercialization need to be pursued symbiotically, rather than antagonistically.
Superset has an important, if somewhat ironic advantage to previous attempts to create a data coalition: It’s a project whose launch funding came from Delphia, a YCombinator-funded data driven investment service. Importantly, Superset is independent of Delphia, with a legally enshrined purpose of constraining Delphia’s power over its users’ data. This gives us both the independence and financing needed to deploy this DAO that has a symbiotic relationship with an established tech company.
Delphia is not simply doing this to be a good corporate citizen. Our DAO’s hypothesis is that being respectful of people’s data and that making them first class citizens in economic data systems will actually lead to higher quality data and to better commercial opportunities for Delphia. When we prove this through Superset, we believe other companies will adopt a similar pattern.
Very roughly summarized, here’s how it works:
When users sign-up with Delphia, the service leverages their data to power the company’s machine-learning model. But the company does not get unlimited, uncompensated access to that data — the users still maintain oversight of the terms of that data usage through Superset.
This is why Delphia’s sign-up process includes an onboarding process starting with a screen that looks like this, different from any that has come before:
Clicking Agree starts the process for the user to join Superset, which is legally contracted with both Delphia and data contributors, in order to serve the interests of those who share their data with the company, according to Superset’s purpose.
As that suggests, the DAO is not only a blockchain-based group; it is also legally formed as a Guernsey purpose trust. This gives us real, actionable protection over user data, which we informally call a “killswitch”. If DAO members collectively decide that Delphia is unfairly exploiting their data (per the agreed upon terms of service), they can collectively opt out in bulk.
SuperSet provides a model for user-centric oversight for any companies to ethically manage their users’ data. By proving that it is not only possible, but beneficial to govern algorithmic systems paves the way for consumers and regulators to demand change.
As controversies around Twitter, TikTok, and other leading social networks continue, new competitors are clamoring to be seen as better and more ethical alternatives to the market leaders. A would-be Twitter competitor would want to adopt the Superset DAO model as a way of attracting early adopters and differentiating itself from other platforms.
In the tradition of open source software, Superset is an open source organization. Superset’s animating purpose, formative documents, governance model and technical tooling are being shared publicly. While no one has made a data trust quite like this before, there is no silver bullet for governance; we expect Superset to evolve over time. Forks are encouraged!
Another one of Superset’s summoners is Dr. Michael Zargham, CEO of BlockScience, whose work on cybernetics I’ve admired for some time. We finally got to meet in person at last summer’s Decentralized Web Conference. That’s when we quickly realized there was a lot of overlap between our interests in systems, cyborgs and cybernetics! It’s been a privilege to work together on Superset, and on this post.
Reflecting on my work in Calm Technology, I believe Superset offers a calmer experience for our data — giving people tools that allow us to manage our data, but without demanding constant engagement. Successful data governance provides peace of mind.
This is an exciting project and I can’t wait to talk more about it soon. As with my new series on cybernetics, it reflects a life goal I formulated over the New Year: I’d like to take what I’ve learned in the first half of my life to complex systems, and apply them in the real world.
Beginning with Superset.
For more info, please see the FAQ below, or check out the Superset site.
How can people join Superset?
As of right now, simply sign up for Delphia through its mobile app and click Agree to join Superset during onboarding. Delphia is collecting and commercially leveraging user data, and has contracted with Superset to negotiate over the ways in which they collect, store, use and compensate users for that data.
What is Delphia?
Delphia is an investment app that leverages user data in its prediction algorithm for publicly traded companies.
Who is on Superset’s Governing Board?
Eric Alston is a constitutional lawyer, Research Associate for the Comparative Constitutions Project at the University of Chicago Law School, and is Faculty Director of the Hernando De Soto Capital Markets Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Ben Bartlett is a technology lawyer and Vice Mayor for the City of Berkeley.
Amber Case is author of Calm Technology and has consulted for Microsoft, IDEO, Deloitte, Virgin, Warner Brothers, Fedex, and Esri, among many other organizations. She was previously a fellow at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
Andrew Peek is CEO of Delphia. Superset identifies Andrew as an interested trustee, limiting his power to impact Superset’s decisions. Andrew has helped shape Superset’s mission of serving data contributors and an advocate for Superset’s formation to Delphia’s board.
Dr. Michael Zargham is the Founder & Chief Engineer of BlockScience, a Board Member at the Metagovernance Project and holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. BlockScience has worked with Delphia to design and implement its systems to be technically, economically and ethically sound. Due to BlockScience’s role as a contractor to Delphia, Zargham is also identified as an interested trustee.
What are the limitations imposed on “interested” trustees?
Interested trustees are treated as having a conflict of interest. They recuse themselves from voting on board resolutions, unless the independent (non-interested) trustees determine that they are not conflicted. Practically, independent trustees are by default assumed to be unconflicted and interested trustees are by default assumed to be conflicted.
How is the board held accountable to Superset’s animating purpose?
Working in tandem with our board, there is a third party algorithmic auditor. The algorithmic auditor monitors how Delphia utilizes the contributed data, and what revenues are produce from commercial applications of that data.
The algorithmic auditor also fulfills the critical role of Trust Enforcer, as well as providing concrete reporting to Superset members so they can be informed participants in governance.
How will people’s lives be different if Superset succeeds?
If Superset’s governance model is widely adopted across the Internet, consumers’ daily lives will not substantially change; however, they will experience long term benefits from a shift toward balance of power between corporations and users of their products.
Who can participate in the Superset DAO?
Anyone who signs up for Delphia has the option to become a member of Superset, and enjoy the right to raise any question or concern about their data with the DAO as desired. As members, they’ll also receive members benefits from Delphia and any other entities Superset chooses to work with in the future. We might occasionally hold referendums or votes, but only as needed; participation is voluntary and optional.
What should members expect when joining Superset?
Members will engage with other early adopters who are passionate about democratic governance and consumer rights, as well as help define and refine the governance practices within Superset.
Am I giving my data to Delphia when I sign up? Can I take it back?
By joining Superset, you’re entering into a relationship with Delphia where you give the company consent to store your data and leverage it in designated ways in exchange for democratic oversight through Superset, along with other benefits. You retain your right to revoke data usage rights and even to have it deleted from all Delphia servers.
What can Superset do if you have an issue with how your data is being used by Delphia?
Individual members can revoke consent over their data and order its deletion by request at any time. Our collective “circuit breaker” is triggered by a majority vote and bulk revokes consents over members’ data. Our third party auditor will then confirm that this data is no longer being used. If usage continues after the circuit breaker is triggered, Delphia would be in violation of its contractual obligations to Superset’s legal entity, enforceable in a US court of law.
How can other companies use the structure outlined in this post to govern their own data trusts through a DAO?
Our design is based on first principles which can be carried forward to other orgs with similar animating purposes. Our governance work, smart contract code, documentation and other artifacts will be shared publicly under a creative commons license. Organizations looking for support should contact BlockScience.
What’s the roadmap for Superset?
We are soft launching Superset now, and will expand slowly as new members join. The issuance of the membership cards is our first major milestone. Early members will help determine our governance infrastructures such as deliberative processes, proposal making, and voting mechanisms. We are also developing a public documentation site.
Is Delphia offering a cryptocurrency?
Delphia is exploring the use of cryptocurrency for its compensation models, but due to the current regulatory environment, it’s currently not clear if this pilot will be continued.
Is there a blockchain?
Superset member logs will be run on a blockchain. When you join Superset, you get a membership card which is effectively an NFT that also grants access to our digital community spaces, such as a members-only forum, along with other future benefits.
Does Delphia put my user data on a blockchain?
No, not at all. User data is kept private. Privacy preserving technologies, such as zero knowledge proofs, are being explored for technical enforcement of agreed upon terms.
Why is Superset being structured as a DAO? Wouldn’t it work better as a registered non-profit? What specifically about a DAO affords more surface area for governance between parties?
Superset is a new kind of organization and the non-profit structure can be restrictive. To preserve flexibility, the DAO is utilizing a Guernsey purpose trust with fiduciary duties to the purposes of the Superset — to ensure that members receive a fair share of the returns resulting from the use of their data and to determine how their data may be collected, processed, stored, and used. The DAO is a decentralized governance model enabling members to participate in governance through a variety of technical tools.
What happens if Delphia is purchased?
This DAO will continue to exist and operate even when or if Delphia is purchased. The purchaser will still be bound by any legal agreements Delphia has with Superset and its members.
Where can I read more about how Superset operates?
We’ll be releasing more documentation soon, but for now you can check out the https://www.supersetdao.com/ site, and sign up for https://delphia.com/.
Thanks to Dr. Michael Zargham for help in drafting this post, as well as everyone involved on the Superset and Delphia side!