The Facebook data privacy scandal flooding the news for the past couple of weeks is part of a broader movement against big corporations and their monopoly-like control over data—the most valuable resources in the modern-day economy. The message is clear: now is the time for data openness and transparency; centralized data control is a thing of the past.

Last week, Taiwan AI Labs, a Taipei-based AI research organization founded by Ethan Tu—Microsoft alum and the famed creator of Taiwan’s Reddit-like platform PTT—launched “ptt.ai” (in Chinese). Ptt.ai aims to facilitate data openness, avoid the misuse of user data, and realize what they call data justice on the social media platform.

PTT is a bulletin board system (BBS) founded 23 years ago with the mission to liberalize social media through an open platform. Its main site ptt.cc now sees over ten million daily active users. Even after Facebook and other platforms have become mainstream, it has retained its title as one of the largest social media platforms in Taiwan.

Screenshot of PTT online forum

In collaboration with the Taiwanese blockchain startup Biilabs, who will provide the necessary technical support, Taiwan AI Labs will implement the new generation distributed ledger technology (DLT) called Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG), or Tangle, to upgrade the PTT open-source platform into a decentralized distributed social media platform. Tangle is the innovation behind IOTA, sometimes called blockchain 3.0. The project’s core technology will combine TangleID, a distributed identification system, and TangleMedia, a distributed ledger documentation system.

In collaboration with the IOTA Foundation, Biilabs is currently working with the Taipei city government to test Tangle technology on smart city projects.

In a press statement shared with Technode, Biilabs said the project is expected to give the data ownership back to the users. “In the future, new media and social media platforms will no longer be the deciding party of user account systems. Through this project, we will empower users to restructure and protect own personal information.”

Read more: Taipei is using a blockchain alternative to transform into a smart city

One step closer to true decentralization

Although the PTT platform is decentralized comparing to other platforms of the likes,

“The management system [PTT] has always been inhibited by its centralized technology [even though the platform is still decentralized]… Currently, the host computer is still physically located in a central server, and so the existing open-source system practically cannot be truly decentralized,” Biilabs said in the press statement.

On top of implementing DLT, the team will also launch the “new PTT Coin” – a revamp of the existing “P Coin”, which has been in use for the past 23 years. Tokenization will be integrated into the new platform as a mechanism to encourage sharing and reward content creators for their contributions, and essentially reinvent the data economy into one that is autonomous and self-sustainable.

(l-r) Ethan Tu and Biilabs co-founders Jim Huang, Light Lin, and Lman Chu. (Image Credit: Taiwan AI Labs)

Fighting big tech and monopoly-like control over data

Data is becoming the “new oil”.  Big corporations have taken advantage of the oceans of data they hold to secure their dominant positions in various industries.

In the US, tech giants such as the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) have monopoly-like control over user data. In February, Apple is reported to have garnered over 50% of the global smartphone market share for the first time. Sites and services owned and operated by Facebook and Google including WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram now account for over 70% of all internet traffic.

In China, there’s the BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) and the monopoly is even more apparent. Search engine giant Baidu has a larger market share in China than Google in the US. Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay combined account for over 90% of mobile payment market.

Users entrust their data and personal information to big corporations and social media platforms even when data collection seems unfair. But emerging applications of DLT are changing the way people think about data ownership and how data should be collected, managed, and stored. One of DLT’s many promises is to facilitate a decentralized system where there are openness and transparency and has become a promising solution for the privacy, trust and ownership conundrums associated with centralized systems.

Taiwan, the front runner of the open data movement

There is something particular about Taiwan that might make it ideal to launch a project like ptt.ai—its open data and open-source culture. For two consecutive years in 2016 and 2017, Taiwan has been ranked the most data open government by Global Open Data Index.

blog post by Taiwan AI Labs notes that Taiwan has a mature internet community that has long been campaigning for data openness and transparency.

Many mainstream social media platforms from other countries operate on a business model wherein a big chunk of revenue comes from advertising, for example, Facebook. But the Taiwan-born PTT is not-for-profit and has preserved the spirit of user autonomy and democracy. Administrators in-charge of PTT’s management are elected by the users. PTT may be swimming against the current, but this kind of non-profit model is actually quite popular in Taiwan. G0v.tw is another non-profit organization that promotes freedom of speech and open data, which focuses on developing information platforms and tools that encourage everyone—web developers, hackers, educators, activists, and students—to contribute.