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Twelve years ago, I posted The Data Bubble. It began,

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report. It’s pretty freaking amazing — and amazingly freaky when you dig down to the business assumptions behind it. Here is the rest of the list (sans one that goes to a link-proof Flash thing):

Here’s the gist:

The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

It gets worse:

In between the Internet user and the advertiser, the Journal identified more than 100 middlemen—tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks—competing to meet the growing demand for data on individual behavior and interests.The data on Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s film-watching habits, for instance, is being offered to advertisers on BlueKai Inc., one of the new data exchanges. “It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.” The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer. As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles. But over two-thirds—2,224—were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.

Here’s what’s delusional about all this: There is no demand for tracking by individual customers. All the demand comes from advertisers — or from companies selling to advertisers. For now.

Here is the difference between an advertiser and an ordinary company just trying to sell stuff to customers: nothing. If a better way to sell stuff comes along — especially if customers like it better than this crap the Journal is reporting on — advertising is in trouble.

In fact, I had been calling the tracking-based advertising business (now branded adtech or ad-tech) a bubble for some time. For example, in Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble (31 October 2008) and After the advertising bubble bursts (23 March 2009). But I didn’t expect my own small voice to have much effect. But this was different. What They Know was written by a crack team of writers, researchers, and data visualizers. It was led by Julia Angwin and truly Pulitzer-grade stuff. It  was so well done, so deep, and so sharp, that I posted a follow-up report three months later, called The Data Bubble II. In that one, I wrote,

That same series is now nine stories long, not counting the introduction and a long list of related pieces. Here’s the current list:

  1. The Web’s Gold Mine: What They Know About You
  2. Microsoft Quashed Bid to Boost Web Privacy
  3. On the Web’s Cutting Edge: Anonymity in Name Only
  4. Stalking by Cell Phone
  5. Google Agonizes Over Privacy
  6. Kids Face Intensive Tracking on Web
  7. ‘Scrapers’ Dig Deep for Data on the Web
  8. Facebook in Privacy Breach
  9. A Web Pioneer Profiles Users By Name

Related pieces—

Two things I especially like about all this. First, Julia Angwin and her team are doing a terrific job of old-fashioned investigative journalism here. Kudos for that. Second, the whole series stands on the side of readers. The second person voice (youyour) is directed to individual persons—the same persons who do not sit at the tables of decision-makers in this crazy new hyper-personalized advertising business.

To measure the delta of change in that business, start with John Battelle‘s Conversational Marketing series (post 1post 2post 3) from early 2007, and then his post Identity and the Independent Web, from last week. In the former he writes about how the need for companies to converse directly with customers and prospects is both inevitable and transformative. He even kindly links to The Cluetrain Manifesto (behind the phrase “brands are conversations”).

It was obvious to me that this fine work would blow the adtech bubble to a fine mist. It was just a matter of when.

Over the years since, I’ve retained hope, if not faith. Examples: The Data Bubble Redux (9 April 2016), and Is the advertising bubble finally starting to pop? (9 May 2016, and in Medium).

Alas, the answer to that last one was no. By 2016, Julia and her team had long since disbanded, and the original links to the What They Know series began to fail. I don’t have exact dates for which failed when, but I do know that the trusty master link, wjs.com/wtk, began to 404 at some point. Fortunately, Julia has kept much of it alive at https://juliaangwin.com/category/portfolio/wall-street-journal/what-they-know/. Still, by the late Teens it was clear that even the best journalism wasn’t going to be enough—especially since the major publications had become adtech junkies. Worse, covering their own publications’ involvement in surveillance capitalism had become an untouchable topic for journalists. (One notable exception is Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times, whose coverage of the paper’s own tracking was followed by a cutback in the practice.)

While I believe that most new laws for tech mostly protect yesterday from last Thursday, I share with many a hope for regulatory relief. I was especially jazzed about Europe’s GDPR, as you can read in GDPR will pop the adtech bubble (12 May 2018) and Our time has come (16 May 2018 in ProjectVRM).

But I was wrong then too. Because adtech isn’t a bubble. It’s a death star in service of an evil empire that destroys privacy through every function it funds in the digital world.

That’s why I expect the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (H.R. 8152), even if it passes through both houses of Congress at full strength, to do jack shit. Or worse, to make our experience of life in the digital world even more complicated, by requiring us to opt-out, rather than opt-in (yep, it’s in the law—as a right, no less), to tracking-based advertising everywhere. And we know how well that’s been going. (Read this whole post by Tom Fishburne, the Marketoonist, for a picture of how less than zero progress has been made, and how venial and absurd “consent” gauntlets on websites have become.) Do a search for https://www.google.com/search?q=gdpr+compliance to see how large the GDPR “compliance” business has become. Nearly all your 200+ million results will be for services selling obedience to the letter of the GDPR while death-star laser beams blow its spirit into spinning shards. Then expect that business to grow once the ADPPA is in place.

There is only thing that will save us from adtech’s death star.

That’s tech of our own. Our tech. Personal tech.

We did it in the physical world with the personal privacy tech we call clothing, shelter, locks, doors, shades, and shutters. We’ve barely started to make the equivalents for the digital world. But the digital world is only a few decades old. It will be around for dozens, hundreds, or thousands of decades to come. And adtech is still just a teenager. We can, must, and will do better.

All we need is the tech. Big Tech won’t do it for us. Nor will Big Gov.

The economics will actually help, because there are many business problems in the digital world that can only be solved from the customers’ side, with better signaling from demand to supply than adtech-based guesswork can ever provide. Customer Commons lists fourteen of those solutions, here. Privacy is just one of them.

Use the Force, folks.

That Force is us.

In faith that nothing lasts forever, and that an institution that’s been around since 1636 is more likely to keep something published online for longer than one that was born in 1994 and isn’t quite dead yet (and with full appreciation to the latter for its continued existence), I’ve decided to re-publish some of my Linux Journal columns that I hope have persistent relevance. This one is from the February 2007 issue of the magazine.


Building a Relationship Economy

Is there something new that open source development methods and values can bring to the economy? How about something old?

I think the answer may come from the developing world, where pre-industrial methods and values persist and offer some helpful models and lessons for a networked world that’s less post-industrial than industrial in a new and less impersonal way.

This began to become apparent to me a few years ago I had a Socratic exchange with a Nigerian pastor named Sayo, whom I was lucky to find sitting next to me on a long airplane trip.

We were both on speaking junkets. He was coming from an event related to his latest work: translating the Bible to Yoruba, one of the eight languages he spoke. I was on my way to give a talk about The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book I co-authored.

My main contribution to Cluetrain was a chapter called “Markets are conversations”. Sayo asked me what we meant by that. After hearing my answer, he acknowledged that our observations were astute, but also incomplete. Something more was going on in markets than just transactions and conversations, he said. What was it?

I said I didn’t know. Here is the dialogue that followed, as close to verbatim as I can recall it…

“Pretend this is a garment”, Sayo said, picking up one of those blue airplane pillows. “Let’s say you see it for sale in a public market in my country, and you are interested in buying it. What is your first question to the seller?”

“What does it cost?” I said.

“Yes”, he answered. “You would ask that. Let’s say he says, ‘Fifty dollars’. What happens next?”

“If I want the garment, I bargain with him until we reach an agreeable price.”

“Good. Now let’s say you know something about textiles. And the two of you get into a long conversation where both of you learn much from each other. You learn about the origin of the garment, the yarn used, the dyes, the name of the artist, and so on. He learns about how fabric is made in your country, how distribution works, and so on. In the course of this you get to know each other. What happens to the price?”

“Maybe I want to pay him more and he wants to charge me less”.

“Yes. And why is that?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You now have a relationship”.

He went on to point out that, in his country, and in much of what we call the developing world, relationship is of paramount importance in public markets. Transaction still matters, of course. So does conversation. But the biggest wedge in the social pie of the public marketplace is relationship. Prices less set than found, and the context for finding prices is both conversation and relationship. In many cases, relationship is the primary concern, not price. The bottom line is not everything.

Transaction rules the Industrialized world. Here prices are set by those who control the manufacturing, distribution and retail systems. Customers do have an influence on prices, but only in the form of aggregate demand. The rates at which they buy or don’t buy something determines what price the “market” will bear — in a system where “market” means aggregated demand, manifested in prices paid and quantities sold. Here the whole economic system is viewed mostly through the prism of price, which is seen as the outcome of tug between supply and demand.

Price still matters in the developing world, Sayo said, but relationship matters more. It’s a higher context with a higher set of values, many of which are trivialized or made invisible when viewed through the prism of price. Relationship is not reducible to price, even though it may influence price. Families and friends don’t put prices on their relationships. (At least not consciously, and only at the risk of cheapening or losing a relationship.) Love, the most giving force in any relationship, is not about exchanging. It is not fungible. You don’t expect a payback or a rate of return on the love you give your child, your wife or husband, your friends.

Even in the industrialized world, relationship has an enormous bearing on the way markets work, Sayo said. But it is poorly understood in the developed world, where so much “comes down to the bottom line”.

I shared this conversation a few weeks later with Eric S. Raymond, who put the matter even more simply. “All markets work at three levels”, he said. “Transactions, conversations and relationships”. Eric is an atheist. Sayo is a Christian. With those two triangulating so similarly on the same subject, I began to figure there was something more to this relationship business.

I began to ask questions. For example, What happens when you view markets through the prism of relationship? Why do we write free or open source code?

Linus says (in the title of his only book) he does it “Just for Fun”. Yes, there are practical purposes — there have to be. Scratching itches, for example. Development communities are notoriously long on conversation (check out the LKML for starters), and on relationship as well. Not a whole lot of transaction there, either, since the code is free. Next question: Are there economies involved?

I think the answer is yes, and they are concentrated on the manufacturing end. We make useful code for its “because effects”. Thanks to Linux, much money will be made; but because of it, far more than with it. Just look at Google and Amazon as two obvious examples. Perhaps a billion of the world’s Websites are Apache on Linux.

Relationship is involved here, too. Writing code that serves as abundant and free building material is an act of generosity. Dare we say we do it for love? Certainly a lot of us love doing it.

Likewise with performing artists. Musicians don’t take up an instrument and develop their skills just to make money at it. They do it for love of the experience, of playing together with other musicians, of giving something to an audience, and to the world.

Of course, professionals like to get paid for their work too. That’s what makes them professionals.

What if the goods are essentially free (as in beer, air or love)? That’s the case with code, music, art, and anything else that can be digitized and copied. Many artists want or need to be paid for what they do. The question is how we get our love to fund theirs — how we can relate in ways that work financially for both the supply and the demand of essentially free stuff.

The entertainment industry has had an answer ever since the Net showed up. Hollywood wasn’t blind to the Net. Quite the opposite. They correctly saw the Net as a way for every device to be zero distance from every other device — and to pass identical copies of anything between anybody a cost that rounded to zero. They saw this a threat to their incumbent business model. So they came up with a way to deal with that threat: DRM, or Digital Rights Management. DRM worked by crippling recorded goods so it can’t easily be copied except by those whose rights were managed by suppliers.

It hasn’t worked. A few days ago Steve Jobs said so himself, in a landmark essay titled Thoughs on Music, published on February 6. It not only notes the failure of DRM, but subtly recruits customers and fellow technologists to help Apple convince the record industry that it’s best to sell music that isn’t DRM’d. He concludes, “Convincing them to license their music to Apple and others DRM-free will create a truly interoperable music marketplace. Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly”.

The operative verb here is “license”.

Let’s ignore the record companies for a minute. Instead, lets look behind them, back up the supply chain, to the first sources of music: the artists. Part of the system we need is already built for these sources, through Creative Commons. By this system, creative sources can choose licenses that specify the freedoms carried by their work, and also specify what can and cannot be done with that work. These licenses are readable by machines as well as by lawyers. That’s a great start on the supply side.

Now let’s look at the same work from the demand side. What can we do — as music lovers, or as customers — to find, use, and even pay for, licensed work? Some mechanisms are there, but nothing yet that is entirely in our control — that reciprocates and engages on the demand side what Creative Commons provides on the supply side.

Yes, we can go to websites, subscribe to music services, use iTunes or other supply-controlled intermediating systems and deal with artists inside those systems. But there still isn’t anything that allows us to deal directly, on our own terms, with artists and their intermediaries. Put another way, we don’t yet have the personal means for establishing relationships with artists.

For example, I relate in some ways to Stewart Copeland, though he doesn’t know it. Stewart is best known as the drummer in The Police, even though the band hasn’t recorded an album since 1983 and Stewart has since then established himself as a first-rank composer of soundtracks, including “Rumble Fish”, “Talk Radio” and “Wall Street”. IMDb lists him as a composer of scores for sixty-nine movies and TV productions. You have to hit “page down” six times or more to get to the bottom of the listings. Still, much as I appreciate Stewart’s compositions, I’ve always loved his drumming. I’m not a drummer, but I’m a serviceable percussionist. (When I pick up bongos, congas, a rub-board or a tambourine, I get approving nods from the real musicians I jam with — as rarely as the occasion arises.) When the Police ceased touring and producing albums, I missed Stewart’s drumming most of all.

Last year I got a big charge out of hearing an IT Conversations podcast interview with Stewart, though I was disappointed to hear he doesn’t drum much anymore.

Then I heard last week on the radio that the Police may be getting back together and touring again. I can relate to that. But how? Stewart’s website is one of those over-produced flash-filled things that recording an performing artists seem to think they need in order to “deliver an experience” or whatever. Nearly every internal link leads to a link-proof something-or-other in the same window, among other annoyances. To call it relationship-proof would be an inderstatement.

So instead let’s look at relating through the IT Conversations podcast. I say that because yesterday Phil Windley, who runs IT Conversations, posted Funding Public Radio (and ITC) with VRM on his blog, and listed some of the things he might be looking for from VRM or Vendor Relationship Management. That is, from something that lives on the demand side, but can relate on mutually useful terms with the sjupply side — which in his case is IT Conversations.

Here’s the first answer: It can’t be limited to a browser. I want a button, or a something, on my MP3 player that allows me to relate not only to IT Conversations as an intermediary, but to the artist as well — if the artist is interested. They may not be. But I want that function supported. What we need on the user’s side is a tool, or a set of tools, that support both independence and engagement.

If what we’re looking for doesn’t exist, how hard will it be to build? I’m sure it won’t be easy, but it will be less hard than it was before the roster of open source tools and applications grew to six figures, which is where it stands now. And that’s not counting all the useful standards that are laying around too.

What do we need?

First, I think we need protocols. These should be modeled on the social ones we find in free and open marketplaces. They should work like the ones Sayo talked about in his Socratic dialogue with me on the airplane. They should be simple, useful and secure.

Second, we need ways of supporting transactions. This is a tough one, because to work they need to be low-friction. I should be able to pay IT Conversations (or any public radio station, or any podcaster) as easily as I pay for a coffee. Or better yet, as easily as I tip a barista. So PayPal won’t cut it. (Not the way I’ve experienced PayPal, anyway.)

Third, we need ways of selectively and securely asserting our identities, including our choice to remain anonymous. This means getting past sign-on hurdles on the Web, and past membership silos out in the physical world (such as the ones that require a special card, or whatever). Again, the friction should be as low as possible.

Fourth, we need ways of expressing demand that will bring supply to us. Let’s say I want to hear other interviews with Stewart Copeland. I don’t want to go through the standard Google/Yahoo text search. I want to tell the marketplace (in some cases without revealing yet exactly who I am) that I’m looking for these interviews, and then have them find me. Then I want an easy way to pay for them if I feel like it. As Sayo suggests, I might be more willing to pay something if I can relate to the source, and not just invisibly use goods produced by that source.

In Putting the Wholes Together, which I posted recently at Linux Journal, I said public broadcasting would be a good place to start — not just because public broadcasting needs to find ways to make more money from more listeners and viewers, but because payment is voluntary. Seems to me that when payment is voluntary, relationship will drive up the percentage of those who pay. It’s just a theory, but one that should be fun to test.

Soon as I get the time to put it together, I’ll put out a challenge for developers (that’s you, if you write code) to help out on this. Some developers are already collected at ProjectVRM, which is where we’re organizing the effort.

I’m meeting with NPR in Washington, D.C. in a couple hours, and again tomorrow. I’ll bring up the possibility of help from you guys when I talk to them. And I’ll be in many meetings and talks next week at the IMA Convention in Boston and Beyond Broadcast in Cambridge. Help is welcome.

Let’s show these folks how much more they can do because they relate. Let’s obsolete those annoying fund-raising marathons when they shut off programming, plead poverty and give you some schwag if you send money. There has to be a better way. Let’s build it.

My post yesterday saw action on Techmeme (as I write this, it’s at #2) and on Twitter (from Don Marti, Augustine Fou, et. al.), and in thoughtful blog posts by John Gruber in Daring Fireball and Nick Heer in Pixel Envy. All pushed back on at least some of what I said. Here are some excerpts, with my responses. First, John:

Doc Searls:

Here’s what’s misleading about this message: Felix would have had none of those trackers following him if he had gone into Settings → Privacy → Tracking, and pushed the switch to off […].

Key fact: it is defaulted to on. Meaning Apple is not fully serious about privacy. If Apple was fully serious, your iPhone would be set to not allow tracking in the first place. All those trackers would come pre-vaporized.

For all the criticism Apple has faced from the ad tech industry over this feature, it’s fun to see criticism that Apple isn’t going far enough. But I don’t think Searls’s critique here is fair. Permission to allow tracking is not on by default — what is on by default is permission for the app to ask. Searls makes that clear, I know, but it feels like he’s arguing as though apps can track you by default, and they can’t.

But I don’t think Searls’s critique here is fair. Permission to allow tracking is not on by default — what is on by default is permission for the app to ask. Searls makes that clear, I know, but it feels like he’s arguing as though apps can track you by default, and they can’t.

I’m not arguing that. But let’s dig down a bit on all this.

What Apple has here is a system for asking in both directions (apps asking to track, and users asking apps not to track). I think this is weird and unclear, while simply disallowing tracking globally would be clear. So would a setting that simply turns off all apps’ ability to track. But that’s not what we have.

Or maybe we do.

To review… in Settings—>Privacy—>Tracking, is a single OFF/ON switch for “Allow Ads to Request to Track.” It is by default set to ON. (I called AppleCare to be sure about this. The guy I spoke to said yes, it is.) Below that setting is a bit of explanatory text with a “Learn more” link that goes to this long column of text one swipes down four times (at least on my phone) to read:

Okay, now look in the fifth paragraph (three up from where you’re reading now). There it says that by turning the setting to OFF, “all apps…will be blocked from accessing the device’s Advertising Identifier.” Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but it seems plain to me that this will at least pre-vaporize trackers vectored on the device identifier (technically called IDFA: ID For Advertisers).

After explaining why he thinks the default setting to ON is the better choice, and why he likes it that way (e.g. he can see what apps want to track, surprisingly few do, and he knows which they are), John says this about the IDFA:

IDFA was well-intentioned, but I think in hindsight Apple realizes it was naive to think the surveillance ad industry could be trusted with anything.

And why “ask” an app not to track? Why not “tell”? Or, better yet, “Prevent Tracking By This App”? Does asking an app not to track mean it won’t?

This is Apple being honest. Apple can block apps from accessing the IDFA identifier, but there’s nothing Apple can do to guarantee that apps won’t come up with their own device fingerprinting schemes to track users behind their backs. Using “Don’t Allow Tracking” or some such label instead of “Ask App Not to Track” would create the false impression that Apple can block any and all forms of tracking. It’s like a restaurant with a no smoking policy. That doesn’t mean you won’t go into the restroom and find a patron sneaking a smoke. I think if Apple catches applications circumventing “Ask App Not to Track” with custom schemes, they’ll take punitive action, just like a restaurant might ask a patron to leave if they catch them smoking in the restroom — but they can’t guarantee it won’t happen. (Joanna Stern asked Craig Federighi about this in their interview a few weeks ago, and Federighi answered honestly.)

If Apple could give you a button that guaranteed an app couldn’t track you, they would, and they’d label it appropriately. But they can’t so they don’t, and they won’t exaggerate what they can do.

On Twitter Don Marti writes,

Unfortunately it probably has to be “ask app not to track” because some apps will figure out ways around the policy (like all mobile app store policies). Probably better not to give people a false sense of security if they are suspicious of an app

—and then points to P&G Worked With China Trade Group on Tech to Sidestep Apple Privacy Rules, subtitled “One of world’s largest ad buyers spent years building marketing machine reliant on digital user data, putting it at odds with iPhone maker’s privacy moves” in The Wall Street Journal. In it is this:

P&G marketing chief Marc Pritchard has advocated for a universal way to track users across platforms, including those run by Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, that protects privacy while also giving marketers information to better hone their messages.

Frustrated with what it saw as tech companies’ lack of transparency, P&G began building its own consumer database several years ago, seeking to generate detailed intelligence on consumer behavior without relying on data gathered by Facebook, Google and other platforms. The information is a combination of anonymous consumer IDs culled from devices and personal information that customers share willingly. The company said in 2019 that it had amassed 1.5 billion consumer identifications world-wide.

China, where Facebook and Google have a limited presence, is P&G’s most sophisticated market for using that database. The company funnels 80% of its digital-ad buying there through “programmatic ads” that let it target people with the highest propensity to buy without presenting them with irrelevant or excessive ads, P&G Chief Executive Officer David Taylor said at a conference last year.

“We are reinventing brand building, from wasteful mass marketing to mass one-to-one brand building fueled by data and technology,” he said. “This is driving growth while delivering savings and efficiencies.”

In response to that, I tweeted,

Won’t app makers find ways to work around the no tracking ask, regardless of whether it’s a global or a one-at-a-time setting? That seems to be what the
@WSJ is saying about  @ProcterGamble ‘s work with #CAID device fingerprinting.

Don replied,

Yes. Some app developers will figure out a way to track you that doesn’t get caught by the App Store review. Apple can’t promise a complete “stop this app from tracking me” feature because sometimes it will be one of those apps that’s breaking the rules

Then Augustine Fou replied,

of course, MANY ad tech companies have been working on fingerprinting for years, as a work around to browsers (like Firefox) allowing users to delete cookies many years ago. Fingerprinting is even more pernicious because it is on server-side and out of control of user entirely

That last point is why I’ve long argued that we have a very basic problem with the client server model itself: that it all but guarantees a feudal system in which clients are serfs and site operators (and Big Tech in general) are their lords and masters. Though my original metaphor for client-server (which I have been told was originally a euphemism for slave-master) was calf-cow:

Here’s more on that one, plus some other metaphors as well:

I’ll pick up that thread after visiting what Nick says about fingerprinting:

There are countless ways that devices can be fingerprinted, and the mandated use of IDFA instead of those surreptitious methods makes it harder for ad tech companies to be sneaky. It has long been possible to turn off IDFA or reset the identifier. If it did not exist, ad tech companies would find other ways of individual tracking without users’ knowledge, consent, or control.

And why “ask” an app not to track? Why not “tell”? Or, better yet, “Prevent Tracking By This App”? Does asking an app not to track mean it won’t?

History has an answer for those questions.

Remember Do Not Track? Invented in the dawn of tracking, back in the late ’00s, it’s still a setting in every one of our browsers. But it too is just an ask — and ignored by nearly every website on Earth.

Much like Do Not Track, App Tracking Transparency is a request — verified as much as Apple can by App Review — to avoid false certainty. Tracking is a pernicious reality of every internet-connected technology. It is ludicrous to think that any company could singlehandedly find and disable all forms of fingerprinting in all apps, or to guarantee that users will not be tracked.

I agree. This too is a problem with the feudal system that the Web + app world has become, and Nick is right to point it out. He continues,

The thing that bugs me is that Searls knows all of this. He’s Doc Searls; he has an extraordinary thirteen year history of writing about this stuff. So I am not entirely sure why he is making arguments like the ones above that, with knowledge of his understanding of this space, begin to feel disingenuous. I have been thinking about this since I read this article last night and I have not come to a satisfactory realistic conclusion.

Here’s a realistic conclusion (or at least the one that’s in my head right now): I was mistaken to assume that Apple has more control here than it really does, and it’s right for all these guys (Nick, John, Augustine, Don and others) to point that out. Hey, I gave in to wishful thinking and unconscious ad hominem argumentation. Mea bozo. I sit corrected.

He continues,

Apple is a big, giant, powerful company — but it is only one company that operates within the realities of legal and technical domains. We cannot engineer our way out of the anti-privacy ad tech mess. The only solution is regulatory. That will not guarantee that bad actors do not exist, but it could create penalties for, say, Google when it ignores users’ choices or Dr. B when it warehouses medical data for unspecified future purposes.

We’ve had the GDPR and the CCPA in enforceable forms for awhile now, and the main result, for us mere “data subjects” (GDPR) and “consumers” (CCPA) is a far worse collection of experiences in using the Web.

At this point my faith in regulation (which I celebrated, at least in the GDPR case, when it went into force) is less than zero. So is my faith in tech, within the existing system.

So I’m moving on, and working on a new approach, outside the whole feudal system, which I describe in A New Way. It’s truly new and small, but I think it can be huge: much bigger than the existing system, simply because we on the demand side will have better ways of informing supply (are you listening, Mark Pritchard?) than even the best surveillance systems can guess at.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world,” Archimedes is said to have said.

For almost all of the last four years, Donald Trump was one hell of an Archimedes. With the U.S. presidency as his lever and Twitter as his fulcrum, the 45th President leveraged an endless stream of news-making utterances into a massive following and near-absolute domination of news coverage, worldwide. It was an amazing show, the like of which we may never see again.

Big as it was, that show ended on January 8, when Twitter terminated the @RealDonaldTrump account. Almost immediately after that, Trump was “de-platformed” from all these other services as well: PayPal, Reddit, Shopify, Snapchat, Discord, Amazon, Twitch, Facebook, TikTok, Google, Apple, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. That’s a lot of fulcrums to lose.

What makes them fulcrums is their size. All are big, and all are centralized: run by one company. As members, users and customers of these centralized services, we are also at their mercy: no less vulnerable to termination than Trump.

So here is an interesting question: What if Trump had his own fulcrum from the start? For example, say he took one of the many Trump domains he probably owns (or should have bothered to own, long ago), and made it a blog where he said all the same things he tweeted, and that site had the same many dozens of millions of followers today? Would it still be alive?

I’m not sure it would. Because, even though the base protocols of the Internet and the Web are peer-to-peer and end-to-end, all of us are dependent on services above those protocols, and at the mercy of those services’ owners.

That to me is the biggest lesson the de-platforming of Donald Trump has for the rest of us. We can talk “de-centralization” and “distribution” and “democratization” along with peer-to-peer and end-to-end, but we are still at the mercy of giants.

Yes, there are work-arounds. The parler.com website, de-platformed along with Trump, is back up and, according to @VickerySec (Chris Vickery), “routing 100% of its user traffic through servers located within the Russian Federation.” Adds @AdamSculthorpe, “With a DDos-Guard IP, exactly as I predicted the day it went offline. DDoS Guard is the Russian equivalent of CloudFlare, and runs many shady sites. RiTM (Russia in the middle) is one way to think about it.” Encrypted services such as Signal and Telegram also provide ways for people to talk and be social. But those are also platforms, and we are at their mercy too.

I bring all this up as a way of thinking out loud toward the talk I’ll be giving in a few hours (also see here), on the topic “Centralized vs. Decentralized.” Here’s the intro:

Centralised thinking is easy. Control sits on one place, everything comes home, there is a hub, the corporate office is where all the decisions are made and it is a power game.

Decentralised thinking is complex. TCP/IP and HTTP created a fully decentralised fabric for packet communication. No-one is in control. It is beautiful. Web3 decentralised ideology goes much further but we continually run into conflicts. We need to measure, we need to report, we need to justify, we need to find a model and due to regulation and law, there are liabilities.

However, we have to be doing both. We have to centralise some aspects and at the same time decentralise others. Whilst we hang onto an advertising model that provides services for free we have to have a centralised business model. Apple with its new OS is trying to break the tracking model and in doing so could free us from the barter of free, is that the plan which has nothing to do with privacy or are the ultimate control freaks. But the new distributed model means more risks fall on the creators as the aggregators control the channels and access to a model. Is our love for free preventing us from seeing the value in truly distributed or are those who need control creating artefacts that keep us from achieving our dreams? Is distributed even possible with liability laws and a need to justify what we did to add value today?

So here is what I think I’ll say.

First, we need to respect the decentralized nature of humanity. All of us are different, by design. We look, sound, think and feel different, as separate human beings. As I say in How we save the world, “no being is more smart, resourceful or original than a human one. Again, by design. Even identical twins, with identical DNA from a single sperm+egg, can be as different as two primary colors. (Examples: Laverne Cox and M.LamarNicole and Jonas Maines.)”

This simple fact of our distributed souls and talents has had scant respect from the centralized systems of the digital world, which would rather lead than follow us, and rather guess about us than understand us. That’s partly because too many of them have become dependent on surveillance-based personalized advertising (which is awful in ways I’ve detailed in 136 posts, essays and articles compiled here). But it’s mostly because they’re centralized and can’t think or work outside their very old and square boxes.

Second, advertising, subscriptions and donations through the likes of (again, centralized) Patreon aren’t the only possible ways to support a site or a service. Those are industrial age conventions leveraged in the early decades of the digital age. There are other approaches we can implement as well, now that the pendulum is started to swing back from the centralized extreme. For example, the fully decentralized EmanciPay. A bunch of us came up with that one at ProjectVRM way back in 2009. What makes it decentralized is that the choice of what to pay, and how, is up to the customer. (No, it doesn’t have to be scary.) Which brings me to—

Third, we need to start thinking about solving business problems, market problems, technical problems, from our side. Here is how Customer Commons puts it:

There is … no shortage of of business problems that can only be solved from the customer’s side. Here are a few examples :

  1. Identity. Logins and passwords are burdensome leftovers from the last millennium. There should be (and already are) better ways to identify ourselves, and to reveal to others only what we need them to know. Working on this challenge is the SSI—Self-Sovereign Identity—movement. The solution here for individuals is tools of their own that scale.
  2. Subscriptions. Nearly all subscriptions are pains in the butt. “Deals” can be deceiving, full of conditions and changes that come without warning. New customers often get better deals than loyal customers. And there are no standard ways for customers to keep track of when subscriptions run out, need renewal, or change. The only way this can be normalized is from the customers’ side.
  3. Terms and conditions. In the world today, nearly all of these are ones companies proffer; and we have little or no choice about agreeing to them. Worse, in nearly all cases, the record of agreement is on the company’s side. Oh, and since the GDPR came along in Europe and the CCPA in California, entering a website has turned into an ordeal typically requiring “consent” to privacy violations the laws were meant to stop. Or worse, agreeing that a site or a service provider spying on us is a “legitimate interest.”
  4. Payments. For demand and supply to be truly balanced, and for customers to operate at full agency in an open marketplace (which the Internet was designed to be), customers should have their own pricing gun: a way to signal—and actually pay willing sellers—as much as they like, however they like, for whatever they like, on their own terms. There is already a design for that, called Emancipay.
  5. Internet of Things. What we have so far are the Apple of things, the Amazon of things, the Google of things, the Samsung of things, the Sonos of things, and so on—all silo’d in separate systems we don’t control. Things we own on the Internet should be our things. We should be able to control them, as independent customers, as we do with our computers and mobile devices. (Also, by the way, things don’t need to be intelligent or connected to belong to the Internet of Things. They can be, or have, picos.)
  6. Loyalty. All loyalty programs are gimmicks, and coercive. True loyalty is worth far more to companies than the coerced kind, and only customers are in position to truly and fully express it. We should have our own loyalty programs, to which companies are members, rather than the reverse.
  7. Privacy. We’ve had privacy tech in the physical world since the inventions of clothing, shelter, locks, doors, shades, shutters, and other ways to limit what others can see or hear—and to signal to others what’s okay and what’s not. Instead, all we have are unenforced promises by others not to watching our naked selves, or to report what they see to others. Or worse, coerced urgings to “accept” spying on us and distributing harvested information about us to parties unknown, with no record of what we’ve agreed to.
  8. Customer service. There are no standard ways to call for service yet, or to get it. And there should be.
  9. Advertising. Our main problem with advertising today is tracking, which is failing because it doesn’t work. (Some history: ad blocking has been around since 2004, it took off in 2013, when the advertising and publishing industries gave the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was never more than a polite request in one’s browser not to be tracked off a site. By 2015, ad blocking alone was the biggest boycott i world history. And in 2018 and 2019 we got the GDPR and the CCPA, two laws meant to thwart tracking and unwanted data collection, and which likely wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been given that finger.) We can solve that problem from the customer side with intentcasting,. This is where we advertise to the marketplace what we want, without risk that our personal data won’t me misused. (Here is a list of intentcasting providers on the ProjectVRM Development Work list.)

We already have examples of personal solutions working at scale: the Internet, the Web, email and telephony. Each provides single, simple and standards-based ways any of us can scale how we deal with others—across countless companies, organizations and services. And they work for those companies as well.

Other solutions, however, are missing—such as ones that solve the eight problems listed above.

They’re missing for the best of all possible reasons: it’s still early. Digital living is still new—decades old at most. And it’s sure to persist for many decades, centuries or millennia to come.

They’re also missing because businesses typically think all solutions to business problems are ones for them. Thinking about customers solving business problems is outside that box.

But much work is already happening outside that box. And there already exist standards and code for building many customer-side solutions to problems shared with businesses. Yes, there are not yet as many or as good as we need; but there are enough to get started.

A lot of levers there.

For those of you attending this event, I’ll talk with you shortly. For the rest of you, I’ll let you know how it goes.

When some big outfit with a vested interest in violating your privacy says they are only trying to save small business, grab your wallet. Because the game they’re playing is misdirection away from what they really want.

The most recent case in point is Facebook, which ironically holds the world’s largest database on individual human interests while also failing to understand jack shit about personal boundaries.

This became clear when Facebook placed the ad above and others like it in major publications recently, and mostly made bad news for itself. We saw the same kind of thing in early 2014, when the IAB ran a similar campaign against Mozilla, using ads like this:

That one was to oppose Mozilla’s decision to turn on Do Not Track by default in its Firefox browser. Never mind that Do Not Track was never more than a polite request for websites to not be infected with a beacon, like those worn by marked animals, so one can be tracked away from the website. Had the advertising industry and its dependents in publishing simply listened to that signal, and respected it, we might never have had the GDPR or the CCPA, both of which are still failing at the same mission. (But, credit where due: the GDPR and the CCPA have at least forced websites to put up insincere and misleading opt-out popovers in front of every website whose lawyers are scared of violating the letter—but never the spirit—of those and other privacy laws.)

The IAB succeeded in its campaign against Mozilla and Do Not Track; but the the victory was Pyrrhic, because users decided to install ad blockers instead, which by 2015 was the largest boycott in human history. Plus a raft of privacy laws, with more in the pipeline.

We also got Apple on our side. That’s good, but not good enough.

What we need are working tools of our own. Examples: Global Privacy Control (and all the browsers and add-ons mentioned there), Customer Commons#NoStalking term, the IEEE’s P7012 – Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms, and other approaches to solving business problems from the our side—rather than always from the corporate one.

In those movies, we’ll win.

Because if only Apple wins, we still lose.

Dammit, it’s still about what The Cluetrain Manifesto said in the first place, in this “one clue” published almost 21 years ago:

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings — and out reach exceeds your grasp.
deal with it.

We have to make them deal. All of them. Not just Apple. We need code, protocols and standards, and not just regulations.

All the projects linked to above can use some help, plus others I’ll list here too if you write to me with them. (Comments here only work for Harvard email addresses, alas. I’m doc at searls dot com.)

December 10, 2020: This matter has been settled now, meaning Flickr appears not to be in trouble, and my account due for renewal will be automatically renewed. I’ve appended what settled the matter to the bottom of this post. Note that it also raises another question, about subscriptions. — Doc

I have two Flickr accounts, named Doc Searls and Nfrastructure. One has 73,355 photos, and the other 3,469. They each cost $60/year to maintain as pro accounts. They’ve both renewed automatically in the past; and the first one is already renewed, which I can tell because it says “Your plan will automatically renew on March 20, 2022.”

The second one, however… I dunno. Because, while my Account page says “Your plan will automatically renew on December 13, 2020,” I just got emails for both accounts saying, “This email is to confirm that we have stopped automatic billing for your subscription. Your subscription will continue to be active until the expiration date listed below. At that time, you will have to manually renew or your subscription will be cancelled.” The dates match the two above. At the bottom of each, in small print, it says “Digital River Inc. is the authorized reseller and merchant of the products and services offered within this store. Privacy Policy Terms of Sale Your California Privacy Rights.”

Hmmm. The Digital River link goes here, which appears to be in Ireland. A look at the email’s source shows the mail server is one in Kansas, and the Flickr.com addressing doesn’t look spoofed. So, it doesn’t look too scammy to me. Meaning I’m not sure what the scam is. Yet. If there is one.

Meanwhile, I do need to renew the subscription, and the risk of not renewing it is years of contributions (captions, notes, comments) out the window.

So I went to “Manage your Pro subscription” on the second one (which has four days left to expiration), and got this under “Update your Flickr Pro subscription information”

Plan changes are temporarily disabled. Please contact support for prompt assistance.

Cancel your subscription

The Cancel line is a link. I won’t click on it.

Now, I have never heard of a company depending on automatic subscription renewals switching from those to the manual kind. Nor have I heard of a subscription-dependent company sending out notices like these while the renewal function is disabled.

I would like to contact customer support; but there is no link for that on my account page. In fact, the words “customer” and “support” don’t appear there. “Help” does, however, and goes to https://help.flickr.com/, where I need to fill out a form. This I did, explaining,

I am trying to renew manually, but I get “Plan changes are temporarily disabled. Please contact support for prompt assistance.” So here I am. Please reach out. This subscription expires in four days, and I don’t want to lose the photos or the account. I’m [email address] for this account (I have another as well, which doesn’t renew until 2022), my phone is 805-705-9666, and my twitter is @dsearls. Thanks!

The robot replied,

Thanks for your message – you’ll get a reply from a Flickr Support Hero soon. If you don’t receive an automated message from Flickr confirming we received your message (including checking your spam folders), please make sure you provided a valid and active email. Thanks for your patience and we look forward to helping you!

Me too.

Meanwhile, I am wondering if Flickr is in trouble again.

I wondered about this in 2011 and again in 2016, (in my most-read Medium post, ever). Those were two of the (feels like many) times Flickr appeared to be on the brink. And I have been glad SmugMug took over the Flickr show in 2018. (I’m a paying SmugMug customer as well.) But this kind of thing is strange and has me worried. Should I be?

[Later, on December 10…]

Heard from Flickr this morning, with this:

Hi Doc,

When we migrated your account to Stripe, we had to cancel your subscription on Digital River. The email you received was just a notice of this event. I apologize for the confusion.

Just to confirm, there is no action needed at this time. You have an active Pro subscription in good standing and due for renewal on an annual term on December 14th, 2020.

To answer your initial question, since your account has been migrated to Stripe, while you can update your payment information, changes to subscription plans are temporarily unavailable. We expect this functionality to be restored soon.

I appreciate your patience and hope this helps.

For more information, please consult our FAQ here: https://help.flickr.com/faq-for-flickr-members-about-our-payment-processor-migration-SyN1cazsw

Before this issue came up, I hadn’t heard of Digital River or Stripe. Seems they are both “payment gateway” services (at least according to Finances Online). If you look down the list of what these companies can do, other than payment processing alone—merchandising, promotions, channel partner management, dispute handling, cross-border payment optimization, in-app solutions, risk management, email services, and integrations with dozens of different tools, products and extensions from the likes of Visa, MasterCard, Sage and many other companies with more obscure brand names—you can understand how a screw-up like this one can happen when moving from one provider to another.

Now the question for me is whether subscription systems really have to be this complex.

(Comments here only work for Harvard people; so if you’re not one of those, please reply elsewhere, such as on Twitter, where I’m @dsearls.)

The goal here is to obsolesce this brilliant poster by Despair.com:

I got launched on that path a couple months ago, when I got this email from  The_New_Yorker at e-mail.condenast.com:

Why did they “need” a “confirmation” to a subscription which, best I could recall, was last renewed early this year?

So I looked at the links.

The “renew,” Confirmation Needed” and “Discounted Subscription” links all go to a page with a URL that began with https://subscriptions.newyorker.com/pubs…, followed by a lot of tracking cruft. Here’s a screen shot of that one, cut short of where one filled in a credit card number. Note the price:

I was sure I had been paying $80-something per year, for years. As I also recalled, this was a price one could only obtain by calling the 800 number at NewYorker.com.

Or somewhere. After digging around, I found it at
 https://w1.buysub.com/pubs/N3/NYR/accoun…, which is where the link to Customer Care under My Account on the NewYorker website goes. It also required yet another login.

So, when I told the representative at the call center that I’d rather not “confirm” a year for a “discount” that probably wasn’t, she said I could renew for the $89.99 I had paid in the past, and that the deal would be good  through February of 2022. I said fine, let’s do that. So I gave her my credit card, said this was way too complicated, and added that a single simple subscription price would be better. She replied,  “Never gonna happen.” Let’s repeat that:

Never gonna happen.

Then I got this by email:

This appeared to confirm the subscription I already had. To see if that was the case, I went back to the buysub.com website and looked under the Account Summary tab, where it said this:

think this means that I last renewed on February 3 of this year, and what I did on the phone in August was commit to paying $89.99/year until February 10 of 2022.

If that’s what happened, all my call did was extend my existing subscription. Which was fine, but why require a phone call for that?

And WTF was that “Account Confirmation Required” email about? I assume it was bait to switch existing subscribers into paying $50 more per year.

Then there was this, at the bottom of the Account summary page:

This might explain why I stopped getting Vanity Fair, which I suppose I should still be getting.

So I clicked on”Reactivate and got a login page where the login I had used to get this far didn’t work.

After other failing efforts that I neglected to write down, I decided to go back to the New Yorker site and work my way back through two logins to the same page, and then click Reactivate one more time. Voila! ::::::

So now I’ve got one page that tells me I’m good to March 2021 next to a link that takes me to another page that says I ordered 12 issues last December and I can “start” a new subscription for $15 that would begin nine months ago. This is how one “reactivates” a subscription?  OMFG.

I’m also not going into the hell of moving the print subscription back and forth between the two places where I live. Nor will I bother now, in October, to ask why I haven’t seen another copy of Vanity Fair. (Maybe they’re going to the other place. Maybe not. I don’t know, and I’m too weary to try finding out.)

I want to be clear here that I am not sharing this to complain. In fact, I don’t want The New YorkerVanity Fair, Wred, Condé Nast (their parent company) or buysub.com to do a damn thing. They’re all FUBAR. By design. (Bonus link.)

Nor do I want any action out of Spectrum, SiriusXM, Dish Network or the other subscription-based whatevers whose customer disservice systems have recently soaked up many hours of my life.

See, with too many subscription systems (especially ones for periodicals), FUBAR is the norm. A matter of course. Pro forma. Entrenched. A box outside of which nobody making, managing or working in those systems can think.

This is why, when an alien idea appears, for example from a loyal customer just wanting a single and simple damn price, the response is “Never gonna happen.”

This is also why the subscription fecosystem can only be turned into an ecosystem from the outside. Our side. The subscribers’ side.

I’ll explain how at Customer Commons, which we created for exactly that purpose. Stay tuned for that.


Two exceptions are Consumer Reports and The Sun.

door knocker

Remember the dot com boom?

Doesn’t matter if you don’t. What does matter is that it ended. All business manias do.

That’s why we can expect the “platform economy” and “surveillance capitalism” to end. Sure, it’s hard to imagine that when we’re in the midst of the mania, but the end will come.

When it does, we can have a “privacy debate.” Meanwhile, there isn’t one. In fact there can’t be one, because we don’t have privacy in the online world.

We do have privacy in the offline world, and we’ve had it ever since we invented clothing, doors, locks and norms for signaling what’s okay and what’s not okay in respect to our personal spaces, possessions and information.

That we hardly have the equivalent in the networked world doesn’t mean we won’t. Or that we can’t. The Internet in its current form was only born in the mid-’90s. In the history of business and culture, that’s a blip.

Really, it’s still early.

So, the fact that websites, network services, phone companies, platforms, publishers, advertisers and governments violate our privacy with wanton disregard for it doesn’t mean we can’t ever stop them. It means we haven’t done it yet, because we don’t have the tech for it. (Sure, some wizards do, but muggles don’t. And most of us are muggles.)

And, since we don’t have privacy tech yet, we lack the simple norms that grow around technologies that give us ways signal our privacy preferences. We’ll get those when we have the digital equivalents of buttons, zippers, locks, shades, curtains, door knockers and bells.

This is what many of us have been working on at ProjectVRM, Customer Commons, the Me2B Alliance, MyData and other organizations whose mission is getting each of us the tech we need to operate at full agency when dealing with the companies and governments of the world.

I bring all this up as a “Yes, and” to a piece in Salon by Michael Corn (@MichaelAlanCorn), CISO of UCSD, titled We’re losing the war against surveillance capitalism because we let Big Tech frame the debate. Subtitle: “It’s too late to conserve our privacy — but to preserve what’s left, we must stop defining people as commodities.”

Indeed. And we do need the “optimism and activism” he calls for. In the activism category is code. Specifically, code that gives us the digital equivalents of buttons, zippers, locks, shades, curtains, door knockers and bells

Some of those are in the works. Others are not—yet. But they will be. Inevitably. Especially now that it’s becoming clearer every day that we’ll never get them from any system with a financial interest in violating it*. Or from laws that fail at protecting it.

If you want to help, join one or more of the efforts in the links four paragraphs up. And, if you’re a developer already on the case, let us know how we can help get your solutions into each and all of our digital hands.

For guidance, this privacy manifesto should help. Thanks.


*Especially publishers such as Salon, which Privacy Badger tells me tries to pump 20 potential trackers into my browser while I read the essay cited above. In fact, according to WhoTracksMe.com, Salon tends to run 204 tracking requests per page load, and the vast majority of those are for tracking-based advertising purposes. And Salon is hardly unique. Despite the best intentions of the GDPR and the CCPA, surveillance capitalism remains fully defaulted on the commercial Web—and will continue to remain entrenched until we have the privacy tech we’ve needed from the start.

For more on all this, see People vs. Adtech.

[This is the third of four posts. The last of those, Zoom’s new privacy policy, visits the company’s positive response to input such as mine here. So you might want to start with that post (because it’s the latest) and look at the other three, including this one, after that.]

I really don’t want to bust Zoom. No tech company on Earth is doing more to keep civilization working at a time when it could so easily fall apart. Zoom does that by providing an exceptionally solid, reliable, friendly, flexible, useful (and even fun!) way for people to be present with each other, regardless of distance. No wonder Zoom is now to conferencing what Google is to search. Meaning: it’s a verb. Case in point: between the last sentence and this one, a friend here in town sent me an email that began with this:

That’s a screen shot.

But Zoom also has problems, and I’ve spent two posts, so far, busting them for one of those problems: their apparent lack of commitment to personal privacy:

  1. Zoom needs to cleanup its privacy act
  2. More on Zoom and privacy

With this third post, I’d like to turn that around.

I’ll start with the email I got yesterday from a person at a company engaged by Zoom for (seems to me) reputation management, asking me to update my posts based on the “facts” (his word) in this statement:

Zoom takes its users’ privacy extremely seriously, and does not mine user data or sell user data of any kind to anyone. Like most software companies, we use third-party advertising service providers (like Google) for marketing purposes: to deliver tailored ads to our users about Zoom products the users may find interesting. (For example, if you visit our website, later on, depending on your cookie preferences, you may see an ad from Zoom reminding you of all the amazing features that Zoom has to offer). However, this only pertains to your activity on our Zoom.us website. The Zoom services do not contain advertising cookies. No data regarding user activity on the Zoom platform – including video, audio and chat content – is ever used for advertising purposes. If you do not want to receive targeted ads about Zoom, simply click the “Cookie Preferences” link at the bottom of any page on the zoom.us site and adjust the slider to ‘Required Cookies.’

I don’t think this squares with what Zoom says in the “Does Zoom sell Personal Data?” section of its privacy policy (which I unpacked in my first post, and that Forbes, Consumer Reports and others have also flagged as problematic)—or with the choices provided in Zoom’s cookie settings, which list 70 (by my count) third parties whose involvement you can opt into or out of (by a set of options I unpacked in my second post). The logos in the image above are just 16 of those 70 parties, some of which include more than one domain.

Also, if all the ads shown to users are just “about Zoom,” why are those other companies in the picture at all? Specifically, under “About Cookies on This Site,” the slider is defaulted to allow all “functional cookies” and “advertising cookies,” the latter of which are “used by advertising companies to serve ads that are relevant to your interests.” Wouldn’t Zoom be in a better position to know your relevant (to Zoom) interests, than all those other companies?

More questions:

  1. Are those third parties “processors” under GDPR, or “service providers by the CCPAs definition? (I’m not an authority on either, so I’m asking.)
  2. How do these third parties know what your interests are? (Presumably by tracking you, or by learning from others who do. But it would help to know more.)
  3. What data about you do those companies give to Zoom (or to each other, somehow) after you’ve been exposed to them on the Zoom site?
  4. What targeting intelligence do those companies bring with them to Zoom’s pages because you’re already carrying cookies from those companies, and those cookies can alert those companies (or others, for example through real time bidding auctions) to your presence on the Zoom site?
  5. If all Zoom wants to do is promote Zoom products to Zoom users (as that statement says), why bring in any of those companies?

Here is what I think is going on (and I welcome corrections): Because Zoom wants to comply with GDPR and CCPA, they’ve hired TrustArc to put that opt-out cookie gauntlet in front of users. They could just as easily have used Quantcast‘s system, or consentmanager‘s, or OneTrust‘s, or somebody else’s.

All those services are designed to give companies a way to obey the letter of privacy laws while violating their spirit. That spirit says stop tracking people unless they ask you to, consciously and deliberately. In other words, opting in, rather than opting out. Every time you click “Accept” to one of those cookie notices, you’ve just lost one more battle in a losing war for your privacy online.

I also assume that Zoom’s deal with TrustArc—and, by implication, all those 70 other parties listed in the cookie gauntlet—also requires that Zoom put a bunch of weasel-y jive in their privacy policy. Which looks suspicious as hell, because it is.

Zoom can fix all of this easily by just stopping it. Other companies—ones that depend on adtech (tracking-based advertising)—don’t have that luxury. But Zoom does.

If we take Zoom at its word (in that paragraph they sent me), they aren’t interested in being part of the adtech fecosystem. They just want help in aiming promotional ads for their own services, on their own site.

Three things about that:

  1. Neither the Zoom site, nor the possible uses of it, are so complicated that they need aiming help from those third parties.
  2. Zoom is the world’s leading sellers’ market right now, meaning they hardly need to advertise at all.
  3. Being in adtech’s fecosystem raises huge fears about what Zoom and those third parties might be doing where people actually use Zoom most of the time: in its app. Again, Consumer Reports, Forbes and others have assumed, as have I, that the company’s embrasure of adtech in its privacy policy means that the same privacy exposures exist in the app (where they are also easier to hide).

By severing its ties with adtech, Zoom can start restoring people’s faith in its commitment to personal privacy.

There’s a helpful model for this: Apple’s privacy policy. Zoom is in a position to have a policy like that one because, like Apple, Zoom doesn’t need to be in the advertising business. In fact, Zoom could follow Apple’s footprints out of the ad business.

And then Zoom could do Apple one better, by participating in work going on already to put people in charge of their own privacy online, at scale. In my last post. I named two organizations doing that work. Four more are the Me2B Alliance, Kantara, ProjectVRM, and MyData.

I’d be glad to help with that too. If anyone at zoom is interested, contact me directly this time. Thanks.

 

 

 

Facial recognition by machines is out of control. Meaning our control. As individuals, and as a society.

Thanks to ubiquitous surveillance systems, including the ones in our own phones, we can no longer assume we are anonymous in public places or private in private ones.

This became especially clear a few weeks ago when Kashmir Hill (@kashhill) reported in the New York Times that a company called Clearview.ai “invented a tool that could end your ability to walk down the street anonymously, and provided it to hundreds of law enforcement agencies, ranging from local cops in Florida to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security.”

If your face has ever appeared anywhere online, it’s a sure bet to assume that you are not faceless to any of these systems. Clearview, Kashmir says, has “a database of more than three billion images” from “Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites ” and “goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.”

Among law enforcement communities, only New Jersey’s has started to back off on using Clearview.

Worse, Clearview is just one company. Laws also take years to catch up with developments in facial recognition, or to get ahead of them, if they ever can. And let’s face it: government interests are highly conflicted here. The need for law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ need to know all they can is at extreme odds with our need, as human beings, to assume we enjoy at least some freedom from being known by God-knows-what, everywhere we go.

Personal privacy is the heart of civilized life, and beats strongest in democratic societies. It’s not up for “debate” between companies and governments, or political factions. Loss of privacy is a problem that affects each of us, and calls fo0r action by each of us as well.

A generation ago, when the Internet was still new to us, four guys (one of which was me) nailed a document called The Cluetrain Manifesto to a door on the Web. It said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Since then their grasp has exceeded our reach. And with facial recognition they have gone too far.

Enough.

Now it’s time for our reach to exceed their grasp.

Now it’s time, finally, to make them deal with it.

I see three ways, so far. I’m sure ya’ll will think of other and better ones. The Internet is good for that.

First is to use an image like the one above (preferably with a better design) as your avatar, favicon, or other facial expression. (Like I just did for @dsearls on Twitter.) Here’s a favicon we can all use until a better one comes along:

Second, sign the Stop facial recognition by surveillance systems petition I just put up at that link. Two hashtags:

  • #GOOMF, for Get Out Of My Face
  • #Faceless

Third is to stop blaming and complaining. That’s too easy, tends to go nowhere and wastes energy. Instead,

Fourth, develop useful and constructive ideas toward what we can do—each of us, alone and together—to secure, protect and signal our privacy needs and intentions in the world, in ways others can recognize and respect. We have those in the natural world. We don’t yet in the digital one. So let’s invent them.

Fifth is to develop the policies we need to stop the spread of privacy-violating technologies and practices, and to foster development of technologies that enlarge our agency in the digital world—and not just to address the wrongs being committed against us. (Which is all most privacy laws actually do.)

 

 

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