Category: Personal (page 1 of 2)

The only path from subscription hell to subscription heaven

And from customer service hell to customer service heaven too.

(If you want to jump straight to that path, scroll down to The Path. )

A small example of The Problem…

I subscribe to Vanity Fair magazine. I also get one of its newsletters, replicated on a website called The Hive. At the top of the latest Hive is this come-on: “For all that and more, don’t forget to sign up for our metered paywall, the greatest innovation since Nitroglycerin, the Allman Brothers, and the Hangzhou Grand Canal.”

When I clicked on the metered paywall link (from which I have subtracted the appended tracking cruft), it took me to a plain old subscription page. So I thought, “Hey, since they have tracking cruft on that link, shouldn’t it take me to a page that says something like, “Hi, Doc! Thanks for clicking, but we know you’re already a paying subscriber, so don’t worry about the paywall”?

So I clicked on the Customer Care link to make that suggestion. This took me to a login page, where my password manager filled in the blanks with one of my secondary email addresses. That got me to my account, which says my Condé Nast subscriptions look like this:

Oddly, the email address at the bottom there is my primary one, not the one I just logged in with.  (Also oddly, I still get Wired.)

So I went to the Vanity Fair home page, found myself logged in there, and clicked on “My Account.” This took me to a page that said my email address was my primary one, and provided a way to change my password, to subscribe or unsubscribe to four newsletters, and a way to “Receive a weekly digest of stories featuring the players you care about the most.” The link below said “Start following people.” No way to check my account itself.

So I logged out from the account page I reached through the Customer Care link, and logged in with my primary email address, again using my password manager. That got me to an account page with the same account information you see above.

It’s interesting that I have two logins for one account. But that’s beside more important points, one of which I made with this message I wrote for Customer Care in the box provided for that:

Curious to know where I stand with this new “metered paywall” thing mentioned in the latest Hive newsletter? When I go to the link there —… — I get an apparently standard subscription page. I’m guessing I’m covered, but I don’t know. Also, even as a subscriber I’m being followed online by 20 or more trackers (reports Privacy Badger), supposedly for for personalized advertising purposes, but likely also for other purposes by Condé Nast’s third parties. (Meaning not just Google, Facebook and Amazon, but Parsely and indexww, which I’ve never heard of and don’t trust. And frankly I don’t trust those first three either.) As a subscriber I’d want to be followed only by Vanity Fair and Condé Nast for their own service-providing and analytic purposes, and not who-knows-what by all those others. If you could pass that request along, I thank you. Cheers, Doc

When I clicked on the Submit button, I got this:

An error occurred while processing your request.An error occurred while processing your request.

Please call our Customer Care Department at 1-800-667-0015 for immediate assistance or visit Vanity Fair Customer Care online.

Invalid logging session ID (lsid) passed in on the URL. Unable to serve the servlet you’ve requested.

So there ya go: one among .X zillion other examples differing only in details.

Fortunately, there is a better way. Read on.

The Path

The only way to pave a path from subscription and customer service hell to the heaven we’ve never had is by  normalizing the ways both work, across all of business. And we can only do this from the individual customer’s side. There is no other way. We need standard VRM tools to deal with the CRM and CX systems that exist on the providers’ side.

We’ve done this before.

We fixed networking, publishing and mailing online with the simple and open standards that gave us the Internet, the Web and email. All those standards were easy for everyone to work with, supported boundless economic and social benefits, and began with the assumption that individuals are full-privilege agents in the world.

The standards we need here should make each individual subscriber the single point of integration for their own data, and the responsible party for for changing that data across multiple entities. (That’s basically the heart of VRM.)

This will give each of us a single way to see and manage many subscriptions, see notifications of changes by providers, and make changes across the board with one move. VRM + CRM.

The same goes for customer care service requests. These should be normalized the same way.

In the absence of normalizing how people manage subscription and customer care relationships, all the companies in the world with customers will have as many different ways of doing both as there are companies. And we’ll languish in the login/password hell we’re in now.

The VRM+CRM cost savings to those companies will also be enormous. For a sense of that, just multiply what I went through above by as many people there are in the world with subscriptions, and  multiply that result by the number of subscriptions those people have — and then do the same for customer service.

We can’t fix this inside the separate CRM systems of the world. There are too many of them, competing in too many silo’d ways to provide similar services that work differently for every customer, even when they use the same back-ends from Oracle, Salesforce, SugarCRM or whomever.

Fortunately, CRM systems are programmable. So I challenge everybody who will be at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference next week to think about how much easier it will be when individual customers’ VRM meets Salesforce B2B customers’ CRM. I know a number of VRM people  who will be there, including Iain Henderson, of the bonus link below. Let me know you’re interested and I’ll make the connection.

And come work with us on standards. Here’s one.

Bonus link: Me-commerce — from push to pull, by Iain Henderson (@iaianh1)


A few years ago I got a Withings bathroom scale: one that knows it’s me, records my weight, body mass index and fat percentage on a graph informed over wi-fi. The graph was in a Withings cloud.

I got it because I liked the product (still do, even though it now just tells me my weight and BMI), and because I trusted Withings, a French company subject to French privacy law, meaning it would store my data in a safe place accessible only to me, and not look inside. Or so I thought.

Here’s the privacy policy, and here are the terms of use, both retrieved from (Same goes for the link in the last paragraph and the image above.)

Then, in 2016, the company was acquired by Nokia and morphed into Nokia Health. Sometime after that, I started to get these:

This told me Nokia Health was watching my weight, which I didn’t like or appreciate. But I wasn’t surprised, since Withings’ original privacy policy featured the lack of assurance long customary to one-sided contracts of adhesion that have been pro forma on the Web since commercial activity exploded there in 1995: “The Service Provider reserves the right to modify all or part of the Service’s Privacy Rules without notice. Use of the Service by the User constitutes full and complete acceptance of any changes made to these Privacy Rules.” (The exact same language appears in the original terms of use.)

Still, I was too busy with other stuff to care more about it until I got this from  community at two days ago:

Here’s the announcement at the “learn more” link. Sounded encouraging.

So I dug a bit and and saw that Nokia in May planned to sell its Health division to Withings co-founder Éric Carreel (@ecaeca).

Thinking that perhaps Withings would welcome some feedback from a customer, I wrote this in a customer service form:

One big reason I bought my Withings scale was to monitor my own weight, by myself. As I recall the promise from Withings was that my data would remain known only to me (though Withings would store it). Since then I have received many robotic emailings telling me my weight and offering encouragements. This annoys me, and I would like my data to be exclusively my own again — and for that to be among Withings’ enticements to buy the company’s products. Thank you.

Here’s the response I got back, by email:


Thank you for contacting Nokia Customer Support about monitoring your own weight. I’ll be glad to help.

Following your request to remove your email address from our mailing lists, and in accordance with data privacy laws, we have created an interface which allows our customers to manage their email preferences and easily opt-out from receiving emails from us. To access this interface, please follow the link below:

Obviously, the person there didn’t understand what I said.

So I’m saying it here. And on Twitter.

What I’m hoping isn’t for Withings to make a minor correction for one customer, but rather that Éric & Withings enter a dialog with the @VRM community and @CustomerCommons about a different approach to #GDPR compliance: one at the end of which Withings might pioneer agreeing to customers’ friendly terms and conditions, such as those starting to appear at Customer Commons.

We’re done with Phase One

Here’s a picture that’s worth more than a thousand words:


He’s with MAIF, the French insurance company, speaking at MyData 2016 in Helsinki, a little over a month ago. Here’s another:


That’s Sean Bohan, head of our steering committee, expanding on what many people at the conference already knew.

I was there too, giving the morning keynote on Day 2:


It was an entirely new talk. Pretty good one too, especially since  I came up with it the night before.

See, by the end of Day 1, it was clear that pretty much everybody at the conference already knew how market power was shifting from centralized industries to distributed individuals and groups (including many inside centralized industries). It was also clear that most of the hundreds of people at the conference were also familiar with VRM as a market category. I didn’t need to talk about that stuff any more. At least not in Europe, where most of the VRM action is.

So, after a very long journey, we’re finally getting started.

In my own case, the journey began when I saw the Internet coming, back in the ’80s.  It was clear to me that the Net would change the world radically, once it allowed commercial activity to flow over its pipes. That floodgate opened on April 30, 1995. Not long after that, I joined the fray as an editor for Linux Journal (where I still am, by the way, more than 20 years later). Then, in 1999, I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, which delivered this “one clue” above its list of 95 Theses:


And then, one decade ago last month, I started ProjectVRM, because that clue wasn’t yet true. Our reach did not exceed the grasp of marketers in the world. If anything, the Net extended marketers’ grasp a lot more than it did ours. (Shoshana Zuboff says their grasp has metastacized into surveillance capitalism. ) In respect to Gibson’s Law, Cluetrain proclaimed an arrived future that was not yet distributed. Our job was to distribute it.

Which we have. And we can start to see results such as those above. So let’s call Phase One a done thing. And start thinking about Phase Two, whatever it will be.

To get that work rolling, here are a few summary facts about ProjectVRM and related efforts.

First, the project itself could hardly be more lightweight, at least administratively. It consists of:

Second, we have a spin-off: Customer Commons, which will do for personal terms of engagement (one each of us can assert online) what Creative Commons (another Berkman-Klein spinoff) did for copyright.

Third, we have a list of many dozens of developers, which seem to be concentrated in Europe and Australia/New Zealand.  Two reasons for that, both speculative:

  1. Privacy. The concept is much more highly sensitive and evolved in Europe than in the U.S. The reason we most often get goes, “Some of our governments once kept detailed records of people, and those records were used to track down and kill many of them.” There are also more evolved laws respecting privacy. In Australia there have been privacy laws for several years requiring those collecting data about individuals to make it available to them, in forms the individual specifies. And in Europe there is the General Data Protection Regulation, which will impose severe penalties for unwelcome data gathering from individuals, starting in 2018.
  2. Enlightened investment. Meaning investors who want a startup to make a positive difference in the world, and not just give them a unicorn to ride out some exit. (Which seems to have become the default model in the U.S., especially Silicon Valley.)

What we lack is research. And by we I mean the world, and not just ProjectVRM.

Research is normally the first duty of a project at the Berkman Klein Center, which is chartered as a research organization. Research was ProjectVRM’s last duty, however, because we had nothing to research at first. Or, frankly, until now. That’s why we were defined as a development & research project rather than the reverse.

Where and how research on VRM and related efforts happens is a wide open question. What matters is that it needs to be done, starting soon, while the “before” state still prevails in most of the world, and the future is still on its way in delivery trucks. Who does that research matters far less than the research itself.

So we are poised at a transitional point now. Let the conversations about Phase Two commence.











VRM at MyData2016


As it happens I’m in Helsinki right now, for MyData2016, where I’ll be speaking on Thursday morning. My topic: The Power of the Individual. There is also a hackathon (led by going on during the show, starting at 4pm (local time) today. In no order of priority, here are just some of the subjects and players I’ll be dealing with,  talking to, and talking up (much as I can):

Please let me know what others belong on this list. And see you at the show.


If it weren’t for retargeting, we might not have ad blocking

jblflip2This is a shopping vs. advertising story that starts with the JBP Flip 2 portable speaker I bought last year, when Radio Shack was going bankrupt and unloading gear in “Everything Must Go!” sales. I got it half-off for $50, choosing it over competing units on the same half-bare shelves, mostly because of the JBL name, which I’ve respected for decades. Before that I’d never even listened to one.

The battery life wasn’t great, but the sound it produced was much better than anything my laptop, phone or tablet put out. It was also small, about the size of a  beer can, so I could easily take it with me on the road. Which I did. A lot.

Alas, like too many other small devices, the Flip 2’s power jack was USB micro-b. That’s the tiny flat one that all but requires a magnifying glass to see which side is up, and tends to damage the socket if you don’t slip it in exactly right, or if you force it somehow. While micro-b jacks are all design-flawed that way, the one in my Flip 2 was so awful that it took great concentration to make sure the plug jacked in without buggering the socket.

Which happened anyway. One day, at an AirBnB in Maine, the Flip 2’s USB socket finally failed. The charger cable would fit into the socket, but the socket was loose, and the speaker wouldn’t take a charge. After efforts at resuscitation failed, I declared the Flip 2 dead.

But I was still open to buying another one. So, to replace it, I did what most of us do: I went to Amazon. Naturally, there were plenty of choices, including JBL Flip 2s and newer Flip 3s, at attractive prices. But Consumer Reports told me the best of the bunch was the Bose Soundlink Color, for $116.

So I bought a white Bose, because my wife liked that better than the red JBL.

The Bose filled Consumer Reports’ promise. While it isn’t stereo, it sounds much better than the JBL (voice quality and bass notes are remarkable). It’s also about the same size (though with a boxy rather than a cylindrical shape), has better battery life, and a better user interface. I hate that it  charges through a micro-b jack, but at least this one is easier to plug and unplug than the Flip 2 had been. So that story had a happy beginning, at least for me and Bose.

It was not happy, however, for me and Amazon.

Remember when Amazon product pages were no longer than they needed to be? Those days are gone. Now pages for every product seem to get longer and longer, and can take forever to load. Worse, Amazon’s index page is now encrusted with promotional jive. Seems like nearly everything “above the fold” (before you scroll down) is now a promo for Amazon Fashion, the latest Kindle, Amazon Prime, or the company credit card—plus rows of stuff “inspired by your shopping trends” and “related to items you’ve viewed.”

But at least that stuff risks being useful. What happens when you leave the site, however, isn’t. That’s because, unless you’re running an ad blocker or tracking protection, Amazon ads for stuff you just viewed, or put in your shopping cart, follow you from one ad-supported site to another, barking at you like a crazed dog. For example:


I lost count of how many times, and in how many places, I saw this Amazon ad, or one like it, for one speaker, the other, or both, after I finished shopping and put the Bose speaker in my cart.

Why would Amazon advertise something at me that I’ve already bought, along with a competing product I obviously chose not to buy? Why would Amazon think it’s okay to follow me around when I’m not in their store? And why would they think that kind of harassment is required, or even okay, especially when the target has been a devoted customer for more than two decades, and sure to return and buy all kinds of stuff anyway?  Jeez, they have my business!

And why would they go out of their way to appear both stupid and robotic?

The answers, whatever they are, are sure to be both fully rationalized and psychotic, meaning disconnected from reality, which is the marketplace where real customers live, and get pissed off.

And Amazon is hardly alone at this. In fact the practice is so common that it became an Onion story in October 2018: Woman Stalked Across 8 Websites By Obsessed Shoe Advertisement.

The ad industry’s calls this kind of stalking “retargeting,” and it is the most obvious evidence that we are being tracked on the Net. The manners behind this are completely at odds with those in the physical world, where no store would place a tracking beacon on your body and use it to follow you everywhere you go after you leave. But doing exactly that is pro forma for marketing in the digital world.

When you click on that little triangular symbol in the corner of the ad, you can see how the “interactive” wing of the advertising business, generally called adtech, rationalizes surveillance:

adchoices1The program is called AdChoices, and it’s a creation of those entities in the lower right corner. The delusional conceits behind AdChoices are many:

  1. That Ad Choices is “yours.” It’s not. It’s theirs.
  2. That “right ads” exist, and that we want them to find us, at all times.
  3. That making the choices they provide actually gives us control of advertising online.
  4. That our personal agency—the power to act with full effect in the world—is a grace of marketers, and not of our own independent selves.

Not long after I did that little bit of shopping on Amazon, I also did a friend the favor of looking for clothes washers, since the one in her basement crapped out and she’s one of those few people who don’t use the Internet and never will. Again I consulted Consumer Reports, which recommended a certain LG washer in my friend’s price range. I looked for it on the Web and found the best price was at Home Depot. So I told her about it, and that was that.

For me that should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t, because now I was being followed by Home Depot ads for the same LG washer and other products I wasn’t going to buy, from Home Depot or anybody else. Here’s one:


Needless to say, this didn’t endear me to Home Depot, to LG, or to any of the sites where I got hit with these ads.

All these parties failed not only in their mission to sell me something, but to enhance their own brands. Instead they subtracted value for everybody in the supply chain of unwelcome tracking and unwanted message targeting. They also explain (as Don Marti does here) why ad blocking has grown exactly in pace with growth in retargeting.

I subjected myself to all this by experimentally turning off tracking protection and ad blockers on one of my browsers, so I could see how the commercial Web works for the shrinking percentage of people who don’t protect themselves from this kind of abuse. I do a lot of that, as part of my work with ProjectVRM. I also experiment a lot with different kinds of tracking protection and ad blocking, because the developers of those tools are encouraged by that same work here.

For those new to the project, VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management, the customer-side counterpart of Customer Relationship Management, the many-$billion business by which companies manage their dealings with customers—or try to.

Our purpose with ProjectVRM is to encourage development of tools that give us both independence from the companies we engage with, and better ways of engaging than CRM alone provides: ways of engaging that we own, and are under our control. And relate to the CRM systems of the world as well. Our goal is VRM+CRM, not VRM vs. CRM.

Ad blocking and tracking protection are today at the leading edge of VRM development, because they are popular and give us independence. Engagement, however, isn’t here yet—at least not at the same level of popularity. And it probably won’t get here until we finish curing business of the brain cancer that adtech has become.

[Later…] After reading this, a friend familiar with the adtech business told me he was sure Bose’s and JPL’s agencies paid Amazon’s system for showing ads to “qualified leads,” and that Amazon’s system preferred to call me a qualified lead rather than a customer whose purchase of a Bose speaker (from Amazon!) mattered less than the fact that its advertising system could now call me a qualified lead. In other words, Amazon was, in a way, screwing Bose and JPL. If anyone has hard facts about this, please send them along. Until then I’ll consider this worth sharing but still unproven.

IoT & IoM next week at IIW


(This post was updated and given a new headline on 20 April 2016.)

In  The Compuserve of Things, Phil Windley issues this call to action:

On the Net today we face a choice between freedom and captivity, independence and dependence. How we build the Internet of Things has far-reaching consequences for the humans who will use—or be used by—it. Will we push forward, connecting things using forests of silos that are reminiscent the online services of the 1980’s, or will we learn the lessons of the Internet and build a true Internet of Things?

In other words, an Internet of Me (#IoM) and My Things. Meaning things we own that belong to us, under our control, and not puppeted by giant companies using them to snarf up data about our lives. Which is the  #IoT status quo today.

A great place to work on that is  IIW— the Internet Identity Workshop , which takes place next Tuesday-Thursday, April 26-28,  at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. Phil and I co-organize it with Kaliya Hamlin.

To be discussed, among other things, is personal privacy, secured in distributed and crypto-secured sovereign personal spaces on your personal devices. Possibly using blockchains, or approaches like it.

So here is a list of some topics, code bases and approaches I’d love to see pushed forward at IIW:

  • OneName is “blockchain identity.”
  • Blockstack is a “decentralized DNS for blockchain applications” that “gives you fast, secure, and easy-to-use DNS, PKI, and identity management on the blockchain.” More: “When you run a Blockstack node, you join this network, which is more secure by design than traditional DNS systems and identity systems. This  is because the system’s registry and its records are secured by an underlying blockchain, which is extremely resilient against tampering and control. In the registry that makes up Blockstack, each of the names has an owner, represented by a cryptographic keypair, and is associated with instructions for how DNS resolvers and other software should resolve the name.” Here’s the academic paper explaining it.
  • The Blockstack Community is “a group of blockchain companies and nonprofits coming together to define and develop a set of software protocols and tools to serve as a common backend for blockchain-powered decentralized applications.” Pull quote: “For example, a developer could use Blockstack to develop a new web architecture which uses Blockstack to host and name websites, decentralizing web publishing and circumventing the traditional DNS and web hosting systems. Similarly, an application could be developed which uses Blockstack to host media files and provide a way to tag them with attribution information so they’re easy to find and link together, creating a decentralized alternative to popular video streaming or image sharing websites. These examples help to demonstrate the powerful potential of Blockstack to fundamentally change the way modern applications are built by removing the need for a “trusted third party” to host applications, and by giving users more control.” More here.
  • IPFS (short for InterPlanetary File System) is a “peer to peer hypermedia protocol” that “enables the creation of completely distributed applications.”
  • OpenBazaar is “an open peer to peer marketplace.” How it works: “you download and install a program on your computer that directly connects you to other people looking to buy and sell goods and services with you.” More here and here.
  • Mediachain, from Mine, has this goal: “to unbundle identity & distribution.” More here and here.
  • telehash is “a lightweight interoperable protocol with strong encryption to enable mesh networking across multiple transports and platforms,” from @Jeremie Miller and other friends who gave us jabber/xmpp.
  • Etherium is “a decentralized platform that runs smart contracts: applications that run exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third party interference.”
  • Keybase is a way to “get a public key, safely, starting just with someone’s social media username(s).”
  • ____________ (your project here — tell me by mail or in the comments and I’ll add it)

In tweet-speak, that would be @BlockstackOrg, @IPFS, @OpenBazaar, @OneName, @Telehash, @Mine_Labs #Mediachain, and @IBMIVB #ADEPT

On the big company side, dig what IBM’s Institute for Business Value  is doing with “empowering the edge.” While you’re there, download Empowering the edge: Practical insights on a decentralized Internet of Things. Also go to Device Democracy: Saving the Future of the Internet of Things — and then download the paper by the same name, which includes this graphic here:


Put personal autonomy in that top triangle and you’ll have a fine model for VRM development as well. (It’s also nice to see Why we need first person technologies on the Net , published here in 2014, sourced in that same paper.)

Ideally, we would have people from all the projects above at IIW. For those not already familiar with it, IIW is a three-day unconference, meaning it’s all breakouts, with topics chosen by participants, entirely for the purpose of getting like-minded do-ers together to move their work forward. IIW has been doing that for many causes and projects since the first one, in 2005.

Register for IIW here:

Also register, if you can, for VRM Day: That’s when we prep for the next three days at IIW. The main focus for this VRM Day is here.

Bonus link: David Siegel‘s Decentralization.




Privacy isn’t about secrecy and freedom isn’t about license. Both are about agency.

Agency is the power to act with effect in the world. We have agency when we type on a keyboard, hammer a nail, ride a horse or drive a car.  Here’s a dictionary definition:

a·gen·cy (ā′jən-sē)

  1. The condition of being in action; operation.
  2. The means or mode of acting; instrumentality.

It is derived from agere: Latin for to do.

We are built to do a lot: with our brains, our opposable thumbs, our lack of fur, our capacity to sweat and to learn — and our strange ability to walk or run on two feet instead of four (almost ceaselessly, at least when we are young and fit) — we can do an amazing variety of things with our bodies.

For what we can’t do, we invent tools and machines. These extend our agency outward through technology. A hammer becomes another length of arm. With one in our hand, we have the power to drive nails with a metal fist. A car gives us an engine and wheels, so we can zoom down roads at dozens of miles (or kilometers) per hour. A plane gives us engines and wings, so we can fly far and high.  Each expands our agency to distant horizons of effect and experience in the world.

Infrastructure and services expand what each and all of us can do as well. But at the base of human capacity is the individual’s ability to do stuff in the world. Or, in a word, agency.

Which brings me to the second world we built alongside the physical one we all share. That second world is the Internet: a Giant Zero shaped by an oddly simple protocol: TCP/IP. Never mind how it works. Just note what it does: reduce to zero the functional distance between everything and everybody on it. Also the cost.

As a way to expand human agency, the Internet has no rivals. It gives all our voices, all our ideas, all our actions, worldwide scale. Any of us can speak, write, publish and much more, across any distance, at levels of inconvenience and cost that veer toward zero.

And we’ve been doing that, routinely, ever since the Internet assumed its current form. (That happened in April 1995, when the NSFnet‘s backbone — one network within the Internet — was decommissioned and commercial activity, which the NSFnet forbade, could begin to flourish across the whole Net.)

The Net has an end-to-end architecture. Every body and every thing is an end point, and the Net’s protocol does its best to move data between any and all of those. This is what Paul Baran, one of the Net’s fathers, described as a distributed design, rather than a centralized or decentralized one. Here is how he illustrated the difference, way back in 1962:

Paul Baran, On Distributed Communications Networks, 1962

And that became the Net’s basic design. Or at least its ideal.

Yet, for the sake of convenience — especially in the early days of the Net, when most of us were still on dial-up — we defaulted to a client-server architecture for deploying servers and services. With client-server, each server is a central point, which makes the Net, in a practical sense, a decentralized thing, rather than a distributed one.

And yet the distributed nature of the Net persists, grounding our agency in the world it defines.

Conflicts between centralized, decentralized and distributed capacities on the Net — and uneven development of tools and services enlarging our agency — are behind many of our crises on the Net today.

Take privacy for example. It’s a huge issue. Survey after survey (e.g. from Pew, TRUSTe and Customer Commons) say that 90% and more of us are concerned about personal privacy on the Net, don’t trust many service providers, or lie and hide to obscure personal identity. Advertising and tracking blockers are the most popular browser extensions, and with good reason: we are still naked on the Net.

That’s because the Net, like nature in the physical world, doesn’t come with privacy installed. We have to make it for ourselves. In the physical world we did it by inventing clothing and shelter. In the virtual world we still don’t have either. Tracking blockers are fig leaves at best. They also all work differently. We are still in early times.

Since we have no privacy yet (other than by staying off the Net, or by isolating ourselves on it by declining to accept cookies and staying away from services such as Google’s and Facebook’s), we tend to think about privacy in terms of secrets: things we don’t want others to know about us. But think instead about what we do to create privacy in the physical world, with clothing and shelter. Both do more than cover our bodies and and our lives. We express both. We also express with them. Our clothing and shelter send signals about ourselves. They speak of our tastes, our gender, our status, our memberships. Most of these speakings are subtle, but many are not. What matters is that they all valve our exposure to others. Buttons and zippers on our clothes speak of what can, can’t and shouldn’t be opened by others, without permission. Doors, shades and shutters on our homes do the same.

All of those things facilitate our agency. We need the same in the networked world.

The main difference is that we’ve had thousands of years to work them out in the physical world, and just twenty in the networked one. In the history of civilization, and even of business, this is close to nothing. We’re barely started.

There will, inevitably, emerge a symbiosis between centralized, decentralized and distributed capacities. Brian Behlendorf uses the term “minimum viable centralization” to label what we’re looking for here. Meanwhile we have maximum viable centralization on a network that is also distributed by design. Just like the humans on it.

We are seeing today a collapse of intermediary institutions. Publishing (e.g. blogs) Hospitality (e.g. Airbnb), dispatch (e.g. Uber), broadcast (e.g. Meerkat and Periscope) and payments (e.g.  Bitcoin) come quickly to mind, and many more are coming along. Yet through all of those there must remain some degree of trust in the graces that institutions — governments and companies — alone can provide. How can their minimum viable agencies help us enlarge our own? That’s the main challenge for the coming years.

The question we need to ask, as we address that challenge through VRM, is this: What is best done by the individual, and what is best done by the institution — and how an the two work together?

To answer that, agency must be key. Without it we’ll only get more centralized BS to distrust.




First we take Oz

Sydneydoc 017-018_combined_medAustralia’s privacy principles are among the few in the world that require organizations to give individuals personal information gathered about them.* This opens the path to proving that we can do more with our own data than anybody else can.

Estimating the size of the personal data management business is like figuring the size of the market for talking or driving. (Note: we can also do more with those than companies can.)

Starting us down this path is  Ben Grubb (@BenGrubb) of the Sydney Morning Herald. Ben requested personal data held by the Australian telco giant Telstra, and found himself in a big fightwhich he won. (Here’s the decision. Telstra is appealing, but they’re still gonna lose.)

Bravo to Ben — not just for whupping a giant, but for showing a path forward for individual empowerment in the marketplace. Thanks to Australia’s privacy principles, and Ben’s illustrative case, the yellow brick road to the VRM future is widest in Oz.

Here (and in New Zealand) we not only have lots of VRM developers (Flamingo, Fourth Party, Geddup, Meeco, MyWave, OneExus, Welcomer and others I’ll insulting by not listing yet), but legal easement toward proving that individuals can do the more with their own data than can the companies that follow us. And proving as well that individuals managing their own data will be good for those companies as well. The data they get will be richer, more accurate,  more contextual, and more useful.

This challenge is not new. It’s as old as our species. The biggest tech revolutions have always been inventions individuals could put to the best use:

  • Stone tools
  • Weaving
  • Smithing
  • Musical instruments
  • Hand-held hunting and fighting tools
  • Automobiles
  • PCs
  • The Internet (which is a node-to-node invention, not an advanced phone or cable company, even though we pay those things for access to it)
  • Mobile phones and tablets
  • Movable type (which would be nowhere without individual authors — and writing tools in the hands of those authors)

There should be symbiosis here. There are things big organizations do best, and things individuals do best. And much that both do best when they work together.

Look at cars, which are a VRM technology: we use them to get around the marketplace, and to help us do business with many companies. They give us ways to be both independent and engaging. But companies don’t drive them. We do. Companies provide parking lots, garages, drive-up windows and other conveniences for drivers. Symbiosis.

So, while Telstra is great at building and managing communication infrastructure and services, its customers will be great at doing useful stuff with the kind of data Ben requested, such as locations, calls and texts — especially after customers get easy-to-use tools and services that help them work as points of integration for their own data, and managers of what gets done with it. There are many VRM developers working toward that purpose, around the world, And many more that will come once they smell the opportunities.

These opportunities are only apparent when you look at the market through your own eyes as a sovereign human being. The same opportunities are mostly invisible when you look at the market from the eye at the top of the industrial pyramid.

Bonus links:

* My understanding is that privacy principles such as the OECD’s and Ontario’s provide guidance but not the full force of law, or means of enforcement. Australia’s differ because they have teeth. See the Determination on page 36 of the Privacy Commissioner’s investigation and decision. Canada’s also has teeth. See the list of orders issued in Ontario. If there are other examples of decisions like this one, anywhere in the world, please let us know.

Preparing for the 3D/VR future

Look in the direction that meerkatMeerkat and periscopeappPeriscope both point.

If you’ve witnessed the output of either, several things become clear about their evolutionary path:

  1. Stereo sound is coming. So is binaural sound, with its you-are-there qualities.
  2. 3D will come too, of course, especially as mobile devices start to include two microphones and two cameras.
  3. The end state of both those developments is VR, or virtual reality. At least on the receiving end.

The production end is a different animal. Or herd of animals, eventually. Expect professional gear from all the usual sources, showing up at CES starting next year and on store shelves shortly thereafter. Walking around like a dork holding a mobile in front of you will look in 2018 like holding a dial-phone handset to your head looks today.

I expect the most handy way to produce 3D and VR streams will be with  glasses like these:


(That’s my placeholder design, which is in the public domain. That’s so it has no IP drag, other than whatever submarine patents already exist, and I am sure there are some.)

Now pause to dig @ctrlzee‘s Fast Company report on Facebook’s 10-year plan to trap us inside The Matrix. How long before Facebook buys Meerkat and builds it into Occulus Rift? Or buys Twitter, just to get Periscope and do the same?

Whatever else happens, the rights clearing question gets very personal. Do you want to be broadcast and/or recorded by others or not? What are the social and device protocols for that? (The VRM dev community has designed one for the glasses above. See the ⊂ ⊃ in the glasses? That’s one. Each corner light is another.)

We should start zero-basing the answers today, while the inevitable is in sight but isn’t here yet. Empathy is the first requirement. (Take the time to dig Dave Winer’s 12-minute podcast on the topic. It matters.) Getting permission is another.

As for the relevance of standing law, almost none of it applies at the technical level. Simply put, all copyright laws were created in times when digital life was unimaginable (e.g. Stature of Anne, ASCAP), barely known (Act of 1976), or highly feared (WIPO, CTEA, DMCA).

How would we write new laws for an age that has barely started? Or why start with laws at all? (Nearly all regulation protects yesterday from last Thursday. And too often its crafted by know-nothings.)

We’ve only been living the networked life since graphical browsers and ISPs arrived in the mid-90’s. Meanwhile we’ve had thousands of years to develop civilization in the physical world. Which means that, relatively speaking, networked life is Eden. It’s brand new here, and we’re all naked. That’s why it’s so easy anybody to see everything about us online.

How will we create the digital equivalents of the privacy technologies we call clothing and shelter? Is the first answer a technical one, a policy one, or both? Which should come first? (In Europe and Australia, policy already has.)

Protecting the need for artists to make money is part of the picture. But it’s not the only part. And laws are only one way to protect artists, or anybody.

Manners come first, and we barely have those yet, if at all. None of the big companies that currently dominate our digital lives have fully thought out how to protect anybody’s privacy. Those that come closest are ones we pay directly, and are financially accountable to us.

Apple, for example, is doing more and more to isolate personal data to spaces the individual controls and the company can’t see. Google and Facebook both seem to regard personal privacy as a bug in online life, rather than a feature of it. (Note that, at least for their most popular services, we pay those two companies nothing. We are mere consumers whose lives are sold to the company’s actual customers, which are advertisers.)

Bottom line: the legal slate is covered in chalk, but the technical one is close to clean. What do we want to write there?

We’ll be talking about this, and many other things, at VRM Day (6 April) and IIW (7-9 April) in the Computer History Museum in downtown Silicon Valley (101 & Shoreline, Mountain View).

Designing the VRM future at IIW

A veteran VRooMeriiwxx tells me a design fiction would be a fun challenge for VRM Day and IIW (which will run from April 6-9 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA).

He describes one as “basically a way of peeking into the near future by demonstrating an imaginary product that doesn’t exist, but could. For example, instead of talking about a possible VRM product, one instead would create a marketing brochure, screen mockups or a fake video advertisement for this imaginary product as a way to help others understand where the world is headed and possibly even further the underlying technologies or driving concepts.”

Coincidentally, the subject of VRM Day (and a focus for the three days that will follow at IIW) is a maturity model framework that will provide every VRM developer the same single sheet (or set of them) on which to show where they stand in developing VRM capabilities into their company, product, code base or whatever else they’re working on. Work has already started on it, and those doing the work will present a first draft of it on VRM Day.

You know the old saying, “all singing from the same song sheet”? The VRM maturity model framework is it. Think of it as a musical score that is starting to be written, for an orchestra will come together. When we’re done with this round, we’ll at least know what the score describes, and give the players of different instruments enough of a framework so they know where they, and everybody else, fits.

By the end of IIW, it should be ready to do several things:

  1. Provide analysts with a single framework for understanding all VRM developers and development, and the coherencies among them.
  2. Give VRM developers a way to see how their work complements and/or competes with other VRM work that’s going on — and guide future developments.
  3. Give each developer a document to use for their own internal and external purposes.
  4. Give CRM, CE. CX and other vendor-side systems a clear picture of what pieces in the VRM development community will connect with their systems, and how, so buyer-side and seller-side systems can finally connect and grow together.

While we do this, it might also be fun to work out a design fiction as a summary document or video. What would the complete VRM solution (which will surely be a collection of them) look like? How would we present it as a single thing?

All of this is food for thinking and re-thinking. Suggestions invited.

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