Toward better buy ways

For sixteen years, ProjectVRM has encouraged the development of tools and services that solve business problems from the customer side. This work is toward testing a theory: that free customers are more valuable—to themselves and to the businesses they engage—than captive ones. That theory can only be tested when tools for doing that are in place.

We already have some of those tools. Our big four in the digital world are the browser, the phone, email, and texting. In the analog offline world, our best model is cash. From The Cash Model of Customer Experience:

Here’s the handy thing about cash: it gives customers scale. It does that by working the same way for everybody, everywhere it’s accepted. It’s also anonymous by nature, meaning it carries no personal identifiers. Recording what happens with it is also optional, because using it doesn’t require an entry in a ledger (as happens with cryptocurrencies). Cash has also been working this way for thousands of years. But we almost never talk about our “experience” with cash, because we don’t need to.

The problem with our four personal digital tools—browser, phone, email and texting—is that they are not fully ours. So our agency is at best compromised. Specifically,

  • The most popular browsers are also agents of Apple, Google, Microsoft, plus countless thousands of third parties inserting cookies and other tracking instruments into our devices.
  • Our phones are not just ours. They are corporate tentacles of Apple and Google, lined with countless personal data suction cups from unknown surveillance systems. (For more on this, see Apple vs (or plus) Adtech, Part I and Part II.)
  • Apple and Google together supply 87% of all email software and services. Apple promises privacy, while Google makes a business out of knowing the contents of your messages, plus every other Google-provided or -involved piece of software in your life. As for how well Apple delivers on it privacy promises, look up apple+compromised+privacy.
  • The original messaging service for phones, SMS, is owned and run by phone companies. Other major messaging, texting, and chat services are run entirely by private companies.
  • Only email and browsing are based on open and simple standards. The main ones are SMTP, IMAP and POP3 for email, and HTTP/S for browsing. Those share the Internet’s three NEA virtues: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them, and Anybody can improve them.

This is important: If a product or service mostly works for some company, it’s not yours. You are a user or a consumer. You are not a customer; nor are you operating with full agency in a truly free market. So, while it is obvious that all of us are made more valuable to business, and to ourselves, because we use browsers, phones, email, and messaging, we can’t say that we are free while we do.

But the Internet is still young: dating in its current form—supportive of e-commerce—since 30 April 1995, when the NSFNET (one of the Internet’s backbones) was decommissioned, and its policy forbidding commercial traffic on its pipes no longer stood in the way. The Net will also be with us for dozens or hundreds of decades to come, with its base protocol, TCP/IP, continuing to support freedom for every node on it.

More importantly, there are many business problems best or only solved from the customer side. Here is a list:

  1. Identity. Logins and passwords are burdensome leftovers from the last millennium. There should be (and already are) better ways to identify ourselves by revealing to others only what we need them to know. Working on this challenge is the SSI—Self-Sovereign Identity—movement.  (Which also goes by many other names. The latest is Web5.) The solution here for individuals is tools of their own that scale. Note that there is a LOT happening here. One good way keep up with it is in the Identisphere newsletter.  You can also participate by attending the twice-yearly Internet Identity Workshop, which has been going strong since 2005.
  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 that 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.” The solution here is terms individuals can proffer and organizations can agree to. The first of these is #NoStalking, and allows a publisher to do all the advertising they want, so long as it’s not based on tracking people. Think of it as the opposite of an ad blocker. (Customer Commons is also involved in the IEEE’s P7012 Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms.
  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 support), 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. Its promise for the music industry alone is enormous.
  5. Intentcasting. Advertising is all guesswork, which involves massive waste. But what if customers could safely and securely advertise what they want, and only to qualified and ready sellers? This is called intentcasting, and to some degree, it already exists. Toward this, the Intention Byway is a core focus of Customer Commons. (Also see a list of intentcasting providers on the ProjectVRM Development Work list.)
  6. Shopping. Why can’t you have your own shopping cart—that you can take from store to store? Because we haven’t invented one yet. But we can. And when we do, all sellers are likely to enjoy more sales than they get with the current system of all-silo’d carts.
  7. Internet of Things. We don’t have this yet. Instead, we have the Apple of things, the Amazon of things, the Google of things, the Samsung of things, the Sonos of things, and so on, each 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 operators, 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 for us to control what’s known about them. They can be, or have, picos.)
  8. 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 a position to truly and fully express it. We should have our own loyalty programs, to which companies are members, rather than the reverse.
  9. 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 watch 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.
  10. Customer service. There are no standard ways for customers and companies to enjoy relationships, with useful data flowing both ways, and for help to come when it’s needed. Instead, every company does it differently, in its own silo’d system. For more on this, see # 12 below.
  11. Regulatory compliance. Especially around privacy. Because really, all the GDPR and the CCPA want is for companies to stop spying on people. Without any privacy tech on the individual’s side, however, responsibility for everyone’s privacy is entirely a corporate burden. This is unfair to people and companies alike, as well as insane—because it can’t work. (Worse, nearly all B2B “compliance” solutions only solve the felt need by companies to obey the letter of a law while ignoring its spirit. But if people have their own ways to signal their privacy requirements and expectations (as they do with clothing and shelter in the natural world), life gets a lot easier for everybody, because there’s something there to respect. We don’t have that yet online, but it shouldn’t be hard. For more on this, see Privacy is Personal and our own Privacy Manifesto.
  12. Real relationships: ones in which both parties actually care about and help each other, and good market intelligence flows both ways. Marketing by itself can’t do it. All you get is the sound of one hand slapping. (Or, more typically, pleasuring itself with mountains of data and fanciful maths first described in Darrell Huff’s How to Lie With Statistics, written in 1954). Sales departments can’t do it either, because their job is done once the relationship is established. CRM can’t do it without a VRM hand to shake on the customer’s side. From What Makes a Good Customer: “Consider the fact that a customer’s experience with a product or service is far more rich, persistent and informative than is the company’s experience selling those things, or learning about their use only through customer service calls (or even through pre-installed surveillance systems such as those which for years now have been coming in new cars). The curb weight of customer intelligence (knowledge, know-how, experience) with a company’s products and services far outweighs whatever the company can know or guess at. So, what if that intelligence were to be made available by the customer, independently, and in standard ways that work at scale across many or all of the companies the customer deals with?”
  13. Any-to-any/many-to-many business: a market environment where anybody can easily do business with anybody else, mostly free of centralizers or controlling intermediaries (with due respect for inevitable tendencies toward federation). There is some movement in this direction around what’s being called Web3.
  14. Life management platforms. KuppingerCole has been writing and thinking about these since not long after they gave ProjectVRM an award for its work, way back in 2007. These have gone by many labels: personal data clouds, vaults, dashboards, cockpits, lockers, and other ways of characterizing personal control of one’s life where it meets and interacts with the digital world. The personal data that matters in these is the kind that matters in one’s life: health (e.g. HIEofOne), finances, property, subscriptions, contacts, calendar, creative works, and so on, including personal archives for all of it. Social data out in the world also matters, but is not the place to start, because that data is less important than the kinds of personal data listed above—most of which has no business being sold or given away for goodies from marketers. (See We can do better than selling our data.)

All of these, however, are ocean-boiling ideas. In other words, not easy, especially without what the military calls “robust funding.” So our strategies are best aimed toward what are called “blue” rather than “red” (blood filled) oceans. One of those is the Byway (or “buyway”) project by Customer Commons, in Bloomington, Indiana. An excerpt:

There are three parts to the Byway project as it now stands (in July 2022): an online community (Small Town/mastodon), a matcher tool (Intently), and a local e-commerce “buyway.” (For more on that one, download the slide deck presented by Doc and Joyce at The Mill in November 2021. Or download this earlier and shorter one.)

We also see the Byway as complementary to, rather than competitive with, developments with similar and overlapping ambitions, such as SSI, DIDcomm, picos, JLINC, Digital Homesteading / Dazzle and many others.

Joyce and I, both founders and board members of Customer Commons, are heading up to DWeb Camp in a few minutes, and plan to make progress there on Byway development. I’ll report here on progress.

[Later…] DWeb Camp was a great success for us. We are now in planning conversations with developers and others. Stay tuned for more on that.

Toward a lexicon for advertising in both directions

We need a lexicon for the different ways buyers and sellers express their intentions to each other. Or, one might say, advertise.

On the demand side (⊂) we have what in ProjectVRM we’ve called intentcasting and (earlier) personal RFP. Scott Adams calls it broadcast shopping and John Hagel and David Siegel both (in books by that title) call it pull.

On the sell side (⊃) I can list at least six kinds of advertising alone that desperately need distinctive labels. To pull them apart, these are:

  1. Brand advertising. This kind is aimed at populations. All of it is contextual, meaning placed in media, TV or radio programs, or publications, that appeal broadly or narrowly to a categorized audience. None of it is tracking-based, and none of it is personal. Little of it wants a direct response. It simply means to impress. This is also the form of advertising that burned every brand you can name into your brain. In fact the word brand itself was borrowed from the cattle industry by Procter & Gamble in the 1930s, when it also funded the golden age of radio. Today it is also what sponsors all of sports broadcasting and pays most sports stars their massive salaries.
  2. Search advertising. This is what shows up with search results. There are two very different kinds here:
    1. Context-based. Not based on tracking. This is what DuckDuckGo does.
    2. Context+tracking based. This is what Google and Bing do.
  3. Tracking-based advertising. I’ve called this adtech. Cory Doctorow calls it ad-tech. Others call it ad tech. Some euphemize it as behavioralrelevant, interest-based, or personalized. Shoshana Zuboff says all of them are based on surveillance, which they are. So many critics speak of it as surveillance-based advertising.
  4. Advertising that’s both contextual and personal—but only in the sense that a highly characterized individual falls within a group, or a collection of overlapping groups, chosen by the advertiser. These are Facebook’s Core, Custom and Look-Alike audiences. Talk to Facebook and they’ll tell you these ads are not meant to be personal, though you should not be surprised to see ads for shoes when you have made clear to Facebook’s trackers (on the site, the apps, and wherever the company’s tentacles reach) that you might be in the market for shoes. Still, since Facebook characterizes every face in its audience in almost countless ways, it’s easy to call this form of advertising tracking-based.
  5. Interactive advertising. Vaguely defined by Wikipedia here,  and sometimes called conversational advertising,  the purpose is to get an interactive response from people. The expression is not much used today, even though the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is the leading trade association in the tracking-based advertising field and its primary proponent.
  6. Native advertising, also called sponsored content, is advertising made to look like ordinary editorial material.

The list is actually much longer. But the distinction that matters is between advertising that is tracking-based and the advertising that is not. As I put it in Brands need to fire adtech,

Let’s be clear about all the differences between adtech and real advertising. It’s adtech that spies on people and violates their privacy. It’s adtech that’s full of fraud and a vector for malware. It’s adtech that incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. It’s adtech that gives fake news a business model, because fake news is easier to produce than the real kind, and adtech will pay anybody a bounty for hauling in eyeballs.

Real advertising doesn’t do any of those things, because it’s not personal. It is aimed at populations selected by the media they choose to watch, listen to or read. To reach those people with real ads, you buy space or time on those media. You sponsor those media because those media also have brand value.

With real advertising, you have brands supporting brands.

Brands can’t sponsor media through adtech because adtech isn’t built for that. On the contrary, adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it cares about eyeballs more than media.

Adtech is magic in this literal sense: it’s all about misdirection. You think you’re getting one thing while you’re really getting another. It’s why brands think they’re placing ads in media, while the systems they hire chase eyeballs. Since adtech systems are automated and biased toward finding the cheapest ways to hit sought-after eyeballs with ads, some ads show up on unsavory sites. And, let’s face it, even good eyeballs go to bad places.

This is why the media, the UK government, the brands, and even Google are all shocked. They all think adtech is advertising. Which makes sense: it looks like advertising and gets called advertising. But it is profoundly different in almost every other respect. I explain those differences in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff:

…advertising today is also digital. That fact makes advertising much more data-driven, tracking-based and personal. Nearly all the buzz and science in advertising today flies around the data-driven, tracking-based stuff generally called adtech. This form of digital advertising has turned into a massive industry, driven by an assumption that the best advertising is also the most targeted, the most real-time, the most data-driven, the most personal — and that old-fashioned brand advertising is hopelessly retro.

In terms of actual value to the marketplace, however, the old-fashioned stuff is wheat and the new-fashioned stuff is chaff. In fact, the chaff was only grafted on recently.

See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.

Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.

Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.

And yes, a lot of brand advertising is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.

So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hard to tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.

Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” (Or the remake by the same name?) Same thing here. Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.

This whole problem wouldn’t exist if the alien replica wasn’t chasing spied-on eyeballs, and if advertisers still sponsored desirable media the old-fashioned way.

Bonus link.

I wrote that in 2017. The GDPR became enforceable in 2018 and the CCPA in 2020.  Today more laws and regulations are being instituted to fight tracking-based advertising, yet the whole advertising industry remains drunk on digital, deeply corrupt and delusional, and growing like a Stage IV cancer.

We live digital lives now, and most of the advertising we see and hear is on or through glowing digital rectangles. Most of those are personal as well. So, naturally, most advertising on those media is personal—or wishes it was. Regulations that require “consent” for the tracking that personalization requires do not make the practice less hostile to personal privacy. They just make the whole mess easier to rationalize.

So I’m trying to do two things here.

One is to make clearer the distinctions between real advertising and direct marketing.

The other is to suggest that better signaling from demand to supply, starting with intentcasting, may serve as chemo for the cancer that adtech has become. It will do that by simply making clear to sellers what buyers actually want and don’t want.

 

 

Democracy vs. Surveillance

That’s the choice. We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.

That’s what Shoshana Zuboff says, in The Coup We Are Not Talking About.

What we have now—and have fallen into, largely unawares—is a surveillance society. We do not have democracies of the kind that the U.S.  founders would want us to have. We do not even have the democracies we had, flawed as they all were, prior to our digital age. Specifically, Shoshana says, our lives are now governed by

surveillance empires powered by global architectures of behavioral monitoring, analysis, targeting and prediction that I have called surveillance capitalism. On the strength of their surveillance capabilities and for the sake of their surveillance profits, the new empires engineered a fundamentally anti-democratic epistemic coup marked by unprecedented concentrations of knowledge about us and the unaccountable power that accrues to such knowledge.

In an information civilization, societies are defined by questions of knowledge — how it is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that authority. Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern. This is the essence of the epistemic coup. They claim the authority to decide who knows by asserting ownership rights over our personal information and defend that authority with the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures.

Shoshana is the one who introduced surveillance capitalism into the lexicons of economics, social studies, policy, and other fields. Her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2019) is an international bestseller now in 23 languages, and essential reading for everyone involved in this fight.

And she will be with us to talk about this coup, and how to fight it, at the Ostrom Workshop’s Beyond the Web Salon one week from today, at 2pm Eastern Time. It’s free and you can get on at that link.

If you’re already fighting this coup (which we’ve been doing, in our own many different ways, in ProjectVRM), or if your own life is affected in any way by the struggle to break free of creepy systems that trash our privacy and nudge us into warring tribes, this is a can’t-miss event. See you there.

The Rise of Robot Retail

end of personal dealings
From Here Comes the Full Amazonification of Whole Foods, by Cecelia Kang (@CeceliaKang) in The New York Times:

…In less than a minute, I scanned both hands on a kiosk and linked them to my Amazon account. Then I hovered my right palm over the turnstile reader to enter the nation’s most technologically sophisticated grocery store…

Amazon designed my local grocer to be almost completely run by tracking and robotic tools for the first time.

The technology, known as Just Walk Out, consists of hundreds of cameras with a god’s-eye view of customers. Sensors are placed under each apple, carton of oatmeal and boule of multigrain bread. Behind the scenes, deep-learning software analyzes the shopping activity to detect patterns and increase the accuracy of its charges.

The technology is comparable to what’s in driverless cars. It identifies when we lift a product from a shelf, freezer or produce bin; automatically itemizes the goods; and charges us when we leave the store. Anyone with an Amazon account, not just Prime members, can shop this way and skip a cash register since the bill shows up in our Amazon account.

And this is just Amazon. Soon it will be every major vendor of everything, most likely with Amazon as the alpha sphincter among all the chokepoints controlled by robotic intermediaries between first sources and final customers—with all of them customizing your choices, your prices, and whatever else it takes to engineer demand in the marketplace—algorithmically, robotically, and most of all, personally.

Some of us will like it, because it’ll be smooth, easy and relatively cheap. It will also subordinate us utterly to machines. Or perhaps udderly, because we will be calves raised to suckle on the teats of retail’s robot cows.

This system can’t be fixed from within. Nor can it be fixed by regulation, though some of that might help. It can only be obsolesced by customers who bring more to the market’s table than cash, credit, appetites and acquiescence to systematic training.

What more?

Start with information. What do we actually want (including, crucially, to not be bothered by hype or manipulated by surveillance systems)?

Add intelligence. What do we know about products, markets, needs, and how things actually work than roboticized systems can begin to guess at?

Then add values, such as freedom, choice, agency, care for others, and the ability to collectivize in constructive and helpful ways on our own.

Then add tech. But this has to be our tech: customertech that we bring to market as independent, sovereign and capable human beings. Not just as “users” of others’ systems, or consumers (which Jerry Michalski calls “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”) of whatever producers want to feed us.

Time for solutions. Here is a list of fourteen market problems that can only be solved from the customers’ side.

And yes, we do need help from the sellers’ side. But not with promises to make their systems more “customer centric.” (We’ve been flagging that as a fail since 2008.) We need CRM that welcomes VRM. B2C that welcomes Me2B.

And money. Our startups and nonprofits have done an amazing job of keeping the VRM and Me2B embers burning. But they could do a lot more with some gas on those things.

The impossible fix

choice of captors

Imagine a world in which there are only mainframes, and all individuals have are mainframe terminals. Then imagine that personal rights (e.g. to privacy) are violated in many ways by the mainframes and their operators. Then imagine that these violations have attracted regulations meant to protect the rights of mainframe terminal users—and that those regulations have made things worse for users, because the violations haven’t stopped, and users now have to hurdle “consent” notices, usually by clicking “accept” to the mainframe’s continued privacy violations.

Of course, you don’t need to imagine any of that, because this is the world we are in today. Our browsers and apps are terminals of mainframes operated by the sites and services of the digital world. And no regulations will give us the tools we need to create and sustain our independence and freedom, and to create a better economy than the one we have, in which freedom is “your choice of captor.”

This status quo will persist as long as our work is confined to fixing it. Because it can’t be fixed. By design.

What should our work be? Start here: We need customertech. Simple as that. Then read back through this blog.


Image by Hugh McLeod.

How yours is your car?

Peugeot

I’ve owned a lot of bad cars in my decades.  But some I’ve loved, at least when they were on the road. One was the 1965 Peugeot 404 wagon whose interior you see above, occupied by family dog Christy, guarding the infant seat next to her. You’ll note that the hood is open, because I was working on it at the time, which was constantly while I owned it.

I shot that photo in early 1974, not long after arriving at our new home in Graham, North Carolina. The trip down from our old home in far northern New Jersey was one of the most arduous I’ve ever taken, with frequent stops to fix whatever went wrong along the way, which was plenty.

Trouble started when a big hunk of rusted floor fell away beneath my feet, so I could see the New Jersey Turnpike whizzing by down there, while worrying that the driver’s seat itself might fall to the moving pavement, and my ass with it.

The floor had rusted because rainwater would gather in the air vents between the far side of the windshield and the dashboard, and suddenly splat down on one’s feet, and the floor, soon as the car began to move.  (The floor was prepared for this with a drainage system of tubes laminated between layers of metal, meant to carry downward whatever water fell on top. Great foresight, I suppose. But less prepared was the metal itself, which was determined to rust.)

Later a can attached to the exhaust manifold blew to pieces so sound and exhaust straight from the engine sounded like a machine gun and could be heard to the horizons in all directions, and echoed into the cabin off the pavement through the new hole in the floor. I am sure that the hearing loss I have now began right then.

I replaced the lost metal with an emptied V8 juice can that I filled with steel wool for percussive exhaust damping, and fastened into place with baling wire that I carried just in case of, well, anything. I also always carried a large toolbox, because you never know. If you owned a cheap used car back in those days, you had to be ready for anything.

The car did have its appeals, some of which were detailed by coincidence a month ago by Raphael Orlove in Jalopnik, calling this very model the best wagon he’s ever driven. His reasons were correct—for a working car. The best feature was a cargo area was so far beyond capacious that I once loaded a large office desk into it with room to spare. It also had double shocks on the rear axle, to help handle the load, plus other arcane graces meant for heavy use, such as a device in the brake fluid line to the rear axle that kept the brakes from locking up when both rear wheels were spinning but off the ground. This, I was told, was for drivers on rough dirt roads in Africa.

While the Peugeot 404 was not as weird in its time as the Citroën DS or 2CV (both of which my friend Julius called “triumphs of French genius over French engineering”), it was still weird as shit in some remarkably impractical ways.

For example, screw-on hubcaps. These meant no tire machine could handle changing a tire, and you had to do the job by hand with tire irons and a sledgehammer. I carried those too. For unknown reasons, Peugeot also also hid spark plugs way down inside the valve cover, and fed them electricity through a spring inside a bakelite sleeve that was easy to break and would malfunction even if they weren’t broken.

I could go on, but all that stuff is beside my point, which is that this car was, while I had it, mine. I could fix it myself, or take it to a mechanic friendly to the car’s oddities. While some design features were odd or crazy, there were no mysteries about how the car worked, or how to fix or replace its parts. More importantly, it contained no means for reporting its behavior or use back to Peugeot, or to anybody.

It’s very different today. That difference is nicely unpacked in A Fight Over the Right to Repair Cars Turns Ugly, by @Aarian Marshall in Wired. At issue are right-to-repair laws, such as the one currently raising a fuss in Massachusetts.

See, all of us and our mechanics had a right to repair our own cars for most of the time since automobiles first hit the road. But cars in recent years have become digital as well as mechanical beings. One good thing about this is that lots of helpful diagnostics can be revealed. One bad thing is that many of those diagnostics are highly proprietary to the carmakers, as the cars themselves become so vertically integrated that only dealers can repair them.

But there is hope. Reports Aarian,

…today anyone can buy a tool that will plug into a car’s port, accessing diagnostic codes that clue them in to what’s wrong. Mechanics are able to purchase tools and subscriptions to manuals that guide them through repairs.

So for years, the right-to-repair movement has held up the automotive industry as the rare place where things were going right. Independent mechanics remain competitive: 70 percent of auto repairs happen at independent shops, according to the US trade association that represents them. Backyard tinkerers abound.

But new vehicles are now computers on wheels, gathering an estimated 25 gigabytes per hour of driving data—the equivalent of five HD movies. Automakers say that lots of this information isn’t useful to them and is discarded. But some—a vehicle’s location, how specific components are operating at a given moment—is anonymized and sent to the manufacturers; sensitive, personally identifying information like vehicle identification numbers are handled, automakers say, according to strict privacy principles.

These days, much of the data is transmitted wirelessly. So independent mechanics and right-to-repair proponents worry that automakers will stop sending vital repair information to the diagnostic ports. That would hamper the independents and lock customers into relationships with dealerships. Independent mechanics fear that automakers could potentially “block what they want” when an independent repairer tries to access a car’s technified guts, Glenn Wilder, the owner of an auto and tire repair shop in Scituate, Massachusetts, told lawmakers in 2020.

The fight could have national implications for not only the automotive industry but any gadget that transmits data to its manufacturer after a customer has paid money and walked away from the sales desk. “I think of it as ‘right to repair 2.0,’” says Kyle Wiens, a longtime right-to-repair advocate and the founder of iFixit, a website that offers tools and repair guides. “The auto world is farther along than the rest of the world is,” Wiens says. Independents “already have access to information and parts. Now they’re talking about data streams. But that doesn’t make the fight any less important.”

As Cory Doctorow put it two days ago in Agricultural right to repair law is a no-brainer, this issue is an extremely broad one that basically puts Big Car and Big Tech on one side and all the world’s gear owners and fixers on the other:

Now, there’s new federal agricultural Right to Repair bill, courtesy of Montana Senator Jon Tester, which will require Big Ag to supply manuals, spare parts and software access codes:

 https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/2…

The legislation is very similar to the Massachusetts automotive Right to Repair ballot initiative that passed with a huge margin in 2020:

 https://pluralistic.net/2020/09/03/rip-d…

Both initiatives try to break the otherwise indomitable coalition of anti-repair companies, led by Apple, which destroyed dozens of R2R initiatives at the state level in 2018:

 https://pluralistic.net/2021/02/02/eutha…

It’s a bet that there is more solidarity among tinkerers, fixers, makers and users of gadgets than there is among the different industries who depend on repair price-gouging. That is, it’s a bet that drivers will back farmers’ right to repair and vice-versa, but that Big Car won’t defend Big Ag.

The opposing side in the repair wars is on the ropes. Their position is getting harder and harder to maintain with a straight face. It helps that the Biden administration is incredibly hostile to that position:

 https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/07/instr…

It’s no coincidence that this legislation dropped the same week as Aaron Perzanowski’s outstanding book “The Right to Repair” — R2R is an idea whose time has come to pass.

 added this in a follow-up newsletter and post:

…remember computers are intrinsically universal. Even if manufacturers don’t cooperate with interop, we can still make new services and products that plug into their existing ones. We can do it with reverse-engineering, scraping, bots – a suite of tactics we call Adversarial Interoperability or Competitive Compatibility (AKA “comcom”):

 https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/10/ad…

These tactics have a long and honorable history, and have been a part of every tech giant’s own growth…

Read all three of those pieces. There is much to be optimistic about, especially once the fighting is mostly done, and companies have proven knowledge that free customers—and truly free markets—are more valuable than captive ones. That has been our position at ProjectVRM from the start. Perhaps, once #R2R and #comcom start paying off, we’ll finally have one of the proofs we’ve wanted all along.

Salon with Robin Chase

Robin Chase, co-founder and original CEO of Zipcar and author of Peers Inc: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, will speak at the Ostrom Workshop s Beyond the Web Salon Series at Indiana University at 2:00 PM Eastern this coming Monday, February 7, 2022. The event link is here, where you’ll also find the Zoom link.

The full theme of the salon series is Beyond the Web: Making a platform-free online marketplace for goods, ideas and everything else, about which you can read more here.

Robin’s work with transportation and peer production has been VRooMy from the start, and especially consistent with our work with the Ostrom Workshop on the Intention Byway in Bloomington, Indiana.

Upcoming speakers in the Salon Series (mark your calendars) are Ethan Zuckerman and Shoshana Zuboff. Both are BKC veterans and, like Robin, devoted to moving beyond status quos that vex us all. Ethan will be with us on March 7 and Shoshana on April 11. Days and times for both are Mondays at 2:00 PM Eastern. Details at those links.<

These events are all participatory, informative, challenging and fun. Please join us.

Shall we commit advercide?

On our mailing list, there is a suggestion that we need a browser that kills all the advertising it sees on the Web. Not just the rude kind, or the tracking-based kind. The idea is to waste it all. The business model is, “$10 a month for a browser which guarantees no adverts, ever. If you see an advert, you file a bug report.”

I dismissed the idea a few years ago, when it first came up, for what seemed good and obvious reasons: that lots of advertising is informative and useful, that good and honest (e.g. non-tracking-based) advertising supports most of the world’s journalism, and so on.

But now most advertising on the Web is tracking-based (“programmatic” mostly means tracking-based), and most of the businesses involved seem hellbent on keeping it that way.

As for regulations, the GDPR and CCPA mean well, but they’ve done little to stop tracking, and much to make it worse.  Search for gdpr+compliance on Google and right now and see how many results you get. (I get way over a billion.) Nearly all of the finds you’ll see are pitches for ways sites and services can obey the letter of the GDPR while screwing its spirit. In other words, the GDPR and the CCPA have created a giant market for working around them.

Clearly the final market for goods and services on the Net—that’s you and me, ordinary human beings—don’t like being tracked like marked animals, and all the lost privacy that tracking involves. And hell, ad blocking alone was the biggest boycott in world history, way back in 2015. That says plenty.

So why not give our market a way to speak? Why not incentivize publishers to start making money in ways that respect everyone’s privacy?

Also, we’re not alone. Dig CheckMyAds.org and their efforts, such as this one.

Comments work on this blog again, so feel free to weigh in.

 

Making Me2B happen

me2b symbol
The IEEE P7012 working group has been baking a Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms for the last two years. What’s original here is that these are terms that you proffer. Not ones that sites and services present on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. P7012 is one of several overlapping efforts that work on empowering you and me—customers, users, consumers, individual human beings—and not just entities selling us stuff, or requiring that everything we do with them is confined to an account they control.

Born in 2006, ProjectVRM is the oldest of these efforts. Customer Commons, spun out of ProjectVRM in 2013, is another. The most recent is the Me2B alliance, founded and run by Lisa LeVasseur, who now also chairs P7012.

Progress forward on all of these efforts is steady, incremental, and not nearly fast enough. But here is something that I hope will speed things up: supporting the Me2B label. The need for this was made clear by Lisa on our last P7012 call, when she explained that Me2B is its own thing. A category. A term of art. Meaning it’s not about the Me2B Alliance, just like VRM is not about ProjectVRM.

By now it should be clear that Me2B a better name for our category than VRM. As I said in VRM is Me2B, Me2B is blessed by containing an actual word: Me—a first-person singular pronoun we all use—and far better than the unclear V in the TLA that is VRM. It also doesn’t help that “vendor” is used more often in business to refer to B2B suppliers, rather than to B2C retailers or service providers.

We also have experience with tissue rejection of the VRM label within our own community. Throughout the history of ProjectVRM, not one developer has called what they do VRM. Worse, some have avoided using the VRM label because they were afraid competing developers would also use it.  In other words, VRM developers, across the board, would rather differentiate with exclusive offerings than establish VRM as a category. So our own internal market has spoken on that.

Meanwnhile, one of those companies did us a big favor by calling what they did “Me2B.” So did the analyst house CtrlShift, with The Me2B Opportunity. Then Lisa came up with Me2B independently. I think in all three cases we heard the market speaking.

So I encourage all of us to start talking about Me2B, rather than VRM.

To be clear, “VRM” won’t go away. It’s in Wikipedia as well as in the name of our project here. And it’s a good way to label the customer hand that a CRM system will need to shake. But it has proven inadequate as the name for the business category we wish to see cohere in the world, while Me2B shows promise to succeed at the same. We should support it.

Thoughts welcome.

Homeless on the Web

Do you have a home on the Web?

I mean a page or a site that is yours. Not one that belongs to some .com, .org or .edu. One that’s truly yours, with a name you gave to it, nobody else has, and you fully inhabit.

Some of us do. I’m one of those, but with nothing to brag about. Go to searls.com and you’ll find a placeholder I’ve been updating every couple of years since the mid-’90s.  Behind that façade is a garage full of files I keep stored online but blocked from search engines. That’s so I can find them from anywhere, or so I can point other people to them every once in a while.

Like the rest of us, most of what I’ve done on the Web are on the sites that belong others. The goods in those sites are mine in the sense that I’ve created them. But where they are is not mine. Not in the least.

Nearly all the pages called “home” are those of what in the trade we call enterprises. Mine here is in an enterprise called Harvard University. I thank it for that grace.

Still, in a literal sense, most of us are homeless here. In a literal way maybe all of us are, because we don’t own our domain names. We rent them. Searls.com will exist only so long as I, or my heirs, continue paying to keep it active.

This isn’t a bad thing. Hell, the benefits of the Web are enormous in the extreme. I’m not knocking those.

I am, however, saying we are homeless. Here.

Yet there is nothing about the Internet that says you can’t have a home there—which is a deeper here, underneath the Web.

This is important because we need to clearly and finally make a sharp distinction between the Web and the Internet. Because they are not the same. The Internet is what the Web sits on. And, big and broad as it is, the Web is not the only thing that can sit on the Internet. This was true for Web as it was in the first place,  for what we called Web 2 in the early ’00s, and for what we call Web 3 today.

The Internet is different.  And there are few limits to what the Internet can support, much as there are few limits to what can be built on land or float on ocean.

But there are limits to what we can build on the Web. One of those is a home for ourselves. A real home. One that does not require renting a domain name. One that lets us zero-base what we can do upon the infinite grace granted us by simply connecting to a worldwide network of networks that exists only to move packets of data from any end to any other end.

So let’s start thinking about that.

Some of us (present company included) are on the case already. We need more.

While we ponder that, here’s a thought: Maybe one reason VRM has been slow to happen is that we’ve been trying to do it on the Web.


The photo above is on Love Ranch Road, in the center of Wyoming. The story of the ranch, and the home now abandoned there, is central to John McPhee’s Rising from the Plains. I was there to shoot the solar eclipse of August 2017, which was at its totality there. The darkness on the horizon is the shadow of the moon, approaching from the west.

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