Category: Advertising (page 1 of 3)

What law might clear the way for VRM development?

VRM developers shouldn’t have to wait for laws to pave the way through a wall-like status quo.  (And we say that in our Privacy Manifesto.) But a good law or two should help.

That was what we expected the GDPR to do.  We called it  “the world’s most heavily weaponized law protecting personal privacy,” said it was “aimed at companies that track people without asking” and that it would “blow away the (mostly US-based) surveillance economy, especially tracking-based ‘adtech,’ which supports most commercial publishing online.”

That hasn’t happened.

It’s been sixteen months since the GDPR went into effect (May 2018), and violation of personal privacy online today remains as pervasive as ever. Worse, violators take advantage of a loophole* in the GDPR that allows them to continue tracking people by requiring (or appearing to require) “consent” to  cookies and other means of tracking (so you can get”personalized,” “interest-based” or “relevant” advertising, the perpetrators say). As long as various EU countries’ Data Protection Authorities (who enforce the GDPR) fail to focus on simple fact that nearly every website and its third parties are doing the same bad things Google and Facebook are accused of doing, the practice will continue, and the GDPR will remain a failure at stopping widespread spying-based adtech.

And, as another result, most people will continue assuming that each of us remains mere “users” and “data subjects,” with no more freedom and agency online than what potential violators (the websites and services of the world) separately grant us, through their countless, lengthy and infinitely varied privacy policies, terms and “agreements.”

So, what law might actually open the way for VRM development, preferably by simply giving individuals a new power they’ve been lacking, such as real control over just one aspect of their privacy: what Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren called “the right to be let alone” when we’re online?

I like two.

First is the Do-Not-Track Act of 2019. It’s model legislation from DuckDuckGo, and explained this way:

When you turn on the setting in your browser that says “Do Not Track”, you probably expect to no longer be tracked on most websites you visit. Right? Well, you would be wrong. But don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Our recent study on the Do Not Track (DNT) browser setting indicated that about a quarter of people have turned on this setting, and most were unaware big sites do not respect it. That means approximately 75 million Americans, 115 million citizens of the European Union, and many more people worldwide are, right now, broadcasting a DNT signal.

All of these people are actively asking the sites they visit to not track them. Unfortunately, no law requires websites to respect your Do Not Track signals, and the vast majority of sites, including most all of the big tech companies, sadly choose to simply ignore them.

Let’s change that now. Let’s put teeth behind this widely used browser setting by making a law that would align with current consumer expectations and empower people to more easily regain control of their online privacy.

While DuckDuckGo actively supports the passing of strong, comprehensive privacy laws, we also recognize that it will take time for them to take effect worldwide. In the meantime, governments can provide immediate relief by enacting separate, simpler Do Not Track legislation.

It is extremely rare to have such an exciting legislative opportunity like this, where the hardest work — coordinated mainstream technical implementation and widespread consumer adoption — is already done.

That’s why we’re announcing draft legislation that can serve as a starting point for legislators in America and beyond. It’s entitled the “Do-Not-Track Act of 2019” and, if it were to be enacted, would require sites to respect the Do Not Track browser setting in this manner:

  1. No third-party tracking by default. Data brokers would no longer be legally able to use hidden trackers to slurp up your personal information from the sites you visit. And the companies that deploy the most trackers across the web — led by Google, Facebook, and Twitter — would no longer be able to collect and use your browsing history without your permission.
  2. No first-party tracking outside what the user expects. For example, if you use Whatsapp, its parent company (Facebook) wouldn’t be able to use your data from Whatsapp in unrelated situations (like for advertising on Instagram, also owned by Facebook). As another example, if you go to a weather site, it could give you the local forecast, but not share or sell your location history.

Under this proposed law, these restrictions would only come into play if a consumer has turned on the Do Not Track signal for their Internet traffic. To keep the Internet from breaking, these restrictions would have very narrowly tailored exceptions for debugging, auditing, security, non-commercial security research, and reporting, and further limited by mandated data-minimization requirements.

In particular, each of these narrow exceptions would only apply if a site adopts strict data-minimization practices, such as using the least amount of personal information needed, and anonymizing it whenever possible. And importantly, this draft legislation takes a more realistic view of what constitutes anonymous data vs. de-identified data. Legislators need to appreciate that users can be re-identified unless companies implement extra measures of protection.

Katherine Druckman and I also talked about this a bit with Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo, in our Reality 2.0 podcast with him last month.

Patient Privacy Rights Information Governance Label August 19, 2019 Note: 0-to-5 of the boxes to be checked by the application, device, or service provider.1. No sharing: The data is never shared with any external entities. It is not even shared in de-identified form.

2. No aggregation: The data is never aggregated with other types of input or data from external sources. This includes mixing the data gathered via The Service with other data, such as patient-reported outcomes.

3. Always voluntary self-identification: The user of The Service is able to choose their own identity. The user does not need to have their identity verified unless required by law.

4. Digital agent support: The user is able to specify a digital agent, trustee, or equivalent information manager, and this specified agent will not be subject to certification or censorship.

5. No vendor lock-in: The Service is easily and conveniently substitutable, so the user can easily move their data to another vendor providing a similar service. This prevents vendor lock-in and is often accomplished using Open Standards. Indications for Use: The five separately self-asserted statements on the PPR Information Governance Label are subject to legal enforcement as would the privacy policy associated with The Service.

While not proposed as a law, it would be good to have a law that imposes those requirements, and leaves room for individuals to provide for exceptions, for example when they have working relationships with a service provider.

Maciej Ceglowski also has some good suggestions.
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*Part 1 under Article 6 of the GDPR, covering the “Lawfulness of processing,” says, “Processing shall be lawful only if and to the extent that at least one of the following applies: (a) the data subject has given consent to the processing of his or her personal data for one or more specific purposes.” Hence the consent notices with an “accept” button in front of websites.  These are most often presented as “cookie notices.” (Which are actually required by earlier EU law that was to some degree ignored until the GDPR came along.) Whether a notice on the front of a website talks cookies or not, it usually means the site is obtaining your consent to being tracked “to personalize content and advertising” (or whatever) by spying on you. I’ve been told by GDPR experts that this really isn’t a loophole, and that most of these consent notices actually violate the GDPR’s letter and not just its spirit. Still, while that might be true, violation of the GDPR’s spirit remains normative.

On privacy fundamentalism

This is a post about journalism, privacy, and the common assumption that we can’t have one without sacrificing at least some of the other, because (the assumption goes), the business model for journalism is tracking-based advertising, aka adtech.

I’ve been fighting that assumption for a long time. People vs. Adtech is a collection of 129 pieces I’ve written about it since 2008.  At the top of that collection, I explain,

I have two purposes here:

  1. To replace tracking-based advertising (aka adtech) with advertising that sponsors journalism, doesn’t frack our heads for the oil of personal data, and respects personal freedom and agency.

  2. To encourage journalists to grab the third rail of their own publications’ participation in adtech.

I bring that up because Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) of The New York Times grabbed that third rail, in a piece titled  I Visited 47 Sites. Hundreds of Trackers Followed Me.. He grabbed it right here:

News sites were the worst

Among all the sites I visited, news sites, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, had the most tracking resources. This is partly because the sites serve more ads, which load more resources and additional trackers. But news sites often engage in more tracking than other industries, according to a study from Princeton.

Bravo.

That piece is one in a series called the  Privacy Project, which picks up where the What They Know series in The Wall Street Journal left off in 2013. (The Journal for years had a nice shortlink to that series: wsj.com/wtk. It’s gone now, but I hope they bring it back. Julia Angwin, who led the project, has her own list.)

Knowing how much I’ve been looking forward to that rail-grab, people  have been pointing me both to Farhad’s piece and a critique of it by  Ben Thompson in Stratechery, titled Privacy Fundamentalism. On Farhad’s side is the idealist’s outrage at all the tracking that’s going on, and on Ben’s side is the realist’s call for compromise. Or, in his words, trade-offs.

I’m one of those privacy fundamentalists (with a Manifesto, even), so you might say this post is my push-back on Ben’s push-back. But what I’m looking for here is not a volley of opinion. It’s to enlist help, including Ben’s, in the hard work of actually saving journalism, which requires defeating tracking-based adtech, without which we wouldn’t have most of the tracking that outrages Farhad. I explain why 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

To fight adtech, it’s natural to look for help in the form of policy. And we already have some of that, with the GDPR, and soon the CCPA as well. But really we need the tech first. I explain why here:

In the physical world we got privacy tech and norms before we got privacy law. In the networked world we got the law first. That’s why the GDPR has caused so much confusion. It’s the regulatory cart in front of the technology horse. In the absence of privacy tech, we also failed to get the norms that would normally and naturally guide lawmaking.

So let’s get the tech horse back in front of the lawmaking cart. With the tech working, the market for personal data will be one we control. For real.

If we don’t do that first, adtech will stay in control. And we know how that movie goes, because it’s a horror show and we’re living in it now.

The tech horse is a collection of tools that provide each of us with ways both to protect our privacy and to signal to others what’s okay and what’s not okay, and to do both at scale. Browsers, for example, are a good model for that. They give each of us, as users, scale across all the websites of the world. We didn’t have that when the online world for ordinary folk was a choice of Compuserve, AOL, Prodigy and other private networks. And we don’t have it today in a networked world where providing “choices” about being tracked are the separate responsibilities of every different site we visit, each with its own ways of recording our “consents,” none of which are remembered, much less controlled, by any tool we possess. You don’t need to be a privacy fundamentalist to know that’s just fucked.

But that’s all me, and what I’m after. Let’s go to Ben’s case:

…my critique of Manjoo’s article specifically and the ongoing privacy hysteria broadly…

Let’s pause there. Concern about privacy is not hysteria. It’s a simple, legitimate, and personal. As Don Marti and and I (he first) pointed out, way back in 2015, ad blocking didn’t become the biggest boycott in world history in a vacuum. Its rise correlated with the “interactive” advertising business giving the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was never anything more than a polite request not to be followed away from a website:

Retargeting, (aka behavioral retargeting) is the most obvious evidence that you’re being tracked. (The Onion: Woman Stalked Across Eight Websites By Obsessed Shoe Advertisement.)

Likewise, people wearing clothing or locking doors are not “hysterical” about privacy. That people don’t like their naked digital selves being taken advantage of is also not hysterical.

Back to Ben…

…is not simply about definitions or philosophy. It’s about fundamental assumptions. The default state of the Internet is the endless propagation and collection of data: you have to do work to not collect data on one hand, or leave a data trail on the other.

Right. So let’s do the work. We haven’t started yet.

This is the exact opposite of how things work in the physical world: there data collection is an explicit positive action, and anonymity the default.

Good point, but does this excuse awful manners in the online world? Does it take off the table all the ways manners work well in the offline world—ways that ought to inform developments in the online world? I say no.

That is not to say that there shouldn’t be a debate about this data collection, and how it is used. Even that latter question, though, requires an appreciation of just how different the digital world is from the analog one.

Consider it appreciated. (In my own case I’ve been reveling in the wonders of networked life since the 80s. Examples of that are thisthis and this.)

…the popular imagination about the danger this data collection poses, though, too often seems derived from the former [Stasi collecting highly personal information about individuals for very icky purposes] instead of the fundamentally different assumptions of the latter [Google and Facebook compiling massive amounts of data to be read by machines, mostly for non- or barely-icky purposes]. This, by extension, leads to privacy demands that exacerbate some of the Internet’s worst problems.

Such as—

• Facebook’s crackdown on API access after Cambridge Analytica has severely hampered research into the effects of social media, the spread of disinformation, etc.

True.

• Privacy legislation like GDPR has strengthened incumbents like Facebook and Google, and made it more difficult for challengers to succeed.

True.

Another bad effect of the GDPR is urging the websites of the world to throw insincere and misleading cookie notices in front of visitors, usually to extract “consent” that isn’t, to exactly what the GDPR was meant to thwart.

• Criminal networks from terrorism to child abuse can flourish on social networks, but while content can be stamped out private companies, particularly domestically, are often limited as to how proactively they can go to law enforcement; this is exacerbated once encryption enters the picture.

True.

Again, this is not to say that privacy isn’t important: it is one of many things that are important. That, though, means that online privacy in particular should not be the end-all be-all but rather one part of a difficult set of trade-offs that need to be made when it comes to dealing with this new reality that is the Internet. Being an absolutist will lead to bad policy (although encryption may be the exception that proves the rule).

It can also lead to good tech, which in turn can prevent bad policy. Or encourage good policy.

Towards Trade-offs
The point of this article is not to argue that companies like Google and Facebook are in the right, and Apple in the wrong — or, for that matter, to argue my self-interest. The truth, as is so often the case, is somewhere in the middle, in the gray.

Wearing pants so nobody can see your crotch is not gray. That an x-ray machine can see your crotch doesn’t make personal privacy gray. Wrong is wrong.

To that end, I believe the privacy debate needs to be reset around these three assumptions:
• Accept that privacy online entails trade-offs; the corollary is that an absolutist approach to privacy is a surefire way to get policy wrong.

No. We need to accept that simple and universally accepted personal and social assumptions about privacy offline (for example, having the ability to signal what’s acceptable and what is not) is a good model for online as well.

I’ll put it another way: people need pants online. This is not an absolutist position, or even a fundamentalist one. The ability to cover one’s private parts, and to signal what’s okay and what’s not okay for respecting personal privacy are simple assumptions people make in the physical world, and should be able to make in the connected one. That it hasn’t been done yet is no reason to say it can’t or shouldn’t be done. So let’s do it.

• Keep in mind that the widespread creation and spread of data is inherent to computers and the Internet,

Likewise, the widespread creation and spread of gossip is inherent to life in the physical world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have civilized ways of dealing with it.

and that these qualities have positive as well as negative implications; be wary of what good ideas and positive outcomes are extinguished in the pursuit to stomp out the negative ones.

Tracking people everywhere so their eyes can be stabbed with “relevant” and “interest-based” advertising, in oblivity to negative externalities, is not a good idea or a positive outcome (beyond the money that’s made from it).  Let’s at least get that straight before we worry about what might be extinguished by full agency for ordinary human beings.

To be clear, I know Ben isn’t talking here about full agency for people. I’m sure he’s fine with that. He’s talking about policy in general and specifically about the GDPR. I agree with what he says about that, and roughly about this too:

• Focus policy on the physical and digital divide. Our behavior online is one thing: we both benefit from the spread of data and should in turn be more wary of those implications. Making what is offline online is quite another.

Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t use what’s offline to inform what’s online. We need to appreciate and harmonize the virtues of both—mindful that the online world is still very new, and that many of the civilized and civilizing graces of life offline are good to have online as well. Privacy among them.

Finally, before getting to the work that energizes us here at ProjectVRM (meaning all the developments we’ve been encouraging for thirteen years), I want to say one final thing about privacy: it’s a moral matter. From Oxford, via Google: “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior” and “holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct.”

Tracking people without their clear invitation or a court order is simply wrong. And the fact that tracking people is normative online today doesn’t make it right.

Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, does the best job I know of explaining why tracking people online became normative—and why it’s wrong. The book is thick as a brick and twice as large, but fortunately Shoshana offers an abbreviated reason in her three laws, authored more than two decades ago:

First, that everything that can be automated will be automated. Second, that everything that can be informated will be informated. And most important to us now, the third law: In the absence of countervailing restrictions and sanctions, every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control, irrespective of its originating intention.

I don’t believe government restrictions and sanctions are the only ways to  countervail surveillance capitalism (though uncomplicated laws such as this one might help). We need tech that gives people agency and companies better customers and consumers.  From our wiki, here’s what’s already going on. And, from our punch list, here are some exciting TBDs, including many already in the works already:

I’m hoping Farhad, Ben, and others in a position to help can get behind those too.

A citizen-sovereign way to pay for news—or for any creative work

The Aspen Institute just published a 180-page report by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy titled  (in all caps) CRISIS IN DEMOCRACY: RENEWING TRUST IN AMERICA. Its Call to Action concludes,
This is good. Real good.  Having  Aspen and Knight endorse personal sovereignty as a necessity for solving the crises of democracy and trust also means they endorse what we’ve been pushing forward here for more than a dozen years.

Since the report says (under Innovation, on page 73) we need to “use technology to enhance journalism’s roles in fostering democracy,” and that “news companies need to embrace technology to support their mission and achieve sustainability,” it should help to bring up the innovation we proposed in an application for a Knight News Challenge grant in 2011. This innovation was, and still is, called EmanciPay. It’s a citizen-sovereign way to pay for news, plus all forms of creative production where there is both demand and failing or absent sources of funding.

We have not only needed this for a long time, but it is for lack of it (or of any original and market-based approach to paying for creative work) that the EU is poised to further break our one Internet into four or more parts and destroy the open Web that has done so much to bring the world together and generate near-boundless forms of new wealth and productivity. The EU’s hammer for breaking the open Web is the EU Copyright Directive,  which has been under consideration and undergoing steady revision since 2016. Cory Doctorow, writing for the EFF, says The Final Version of the EU’s Copyright Directive Is the Worst One Yet. One offense (among too many to list here):

Under the final text, any online community, platform or service that has existed for three or more years, or is making €10,000,001/year or more, is responsible for ensuring that no user ever posts anything that infringes copyright, even momentarily. This is impossible, and the closest any service can come to it is spending hundreds of millions of euros to develop automated copyright filters. Those filters will subject all communications of every European to interception and arbitrary censorship if a black-box algorithm decides their text, pictures, sounds or videos are a match for a known copyrighted work. They are a gift to fraudsters and criminals, to say nothing of censors, both government and private.

There are much better ways of getting the supply and demand sides of creative markets together. EmanciPay is one of them, and deserves another airing.

Perhaps now that Knight and Aspen are cheering the citizen-sovereign bandwagon, it’s worth open-sourcing our original EmanciPay proposal.

So here it is, copied and pasted out of the last draft before we submitted it. Since much has changed since then (other than the original idea, which is the same as ever only more timely), I’ve added a bunch of notes at the end, and a call for action. Before reading it, please note two things: 1) we are not asking for money now (we were then, but not now); and 2) while this proposal addresses the challenge of paying for news, it applies much more broadly to all creative work.

10:00pm Monday 31 January 2011

Project Title:

EmanciPay: a user-driven system for generating revenue and managing relationships

Requested amount from Knight News Challenge

$325,000

Describe your project:

EmanciPay is the first user-driven payment system for news and information media. It is also the first system by which the consumers of media can create and participate in relationships with media — and the first system to reform the legal means by which those relationships are created and sustained.

With EmanciPay, users can easily choose to pay whatever they like, whenever they like, however they like — on their own terms and not just those controlled by the media’s supply side. EmanciPay will also provide means for building genuine two-way relationships, rather than relationships defined by each organization’s subscription and membership systems. As with Creative Commons, terms will be expressed in text and symbols that can be read easily by both software and people.

While there is no limit to payment choice options with EmanciPay, we plan to test these one at a time. The first planned trials are with Tipsy, which is being developed in alongside EmanciPay, and which also has a Knight News Challenge application. The two efforts are cooperative and coordinated.

EmanciPay belongs to a growing family of VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) tools. Both EmanciPay and VRM grew out of work in ProjectVRM, which I launched in 2006, at the start of my fellowship with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. In the past four years the VRM development community has grown internationally and today involves many allied noncommercial and commercial efforts. Here is the current list of VRM development projects.

How will your project improve the delivery of news and information to geographic communities?:

Two ways.

First is with a new business model. Incumbent local and regional media currently have three business models: paid delivery (subscriptions and newsstand sales), advertising, and (in the case of noncommercial media) appeals for support. All of these have well-known problems and limitations. They are also controlled in a top-down way by media organizations. By reducing friction and lowering the threshold of payment, EmanciPay will raise the number of customers while also providing direct and useful intelligence about the size and nature of demand. This supports geographic customisation of news and information goods.

Second is by providing ways for both individuals and news organizations to create and sustain relationships that go beyond “membership” (which in too many cases means little more than “we gave money”). EmanciPay will also help consumers of news participate in the news development process. Because EmanciPay is based on open source code and open standards, it can be widely adopted and adapted to meet local needs. CRM (customer relationship management) software companies, many of which supply CRM systems to media organizations, are also awaiting VRM developments. (The cover and much of this CRM Magazine are devoted to VRM.)

What unmet need does your proposal answer?:

EmanciPay meets the need for maximum freedom and flexibility in paying for news and information, and for a media business model that does not depend only on advertising, membership systems, large donors or government grants. (This last one is of special interest at a time when cutting government funding of public broadcasting is a campaign pledge by many freshly elected members of Congress.)

Right now most news and information is free of charge on the Web, even when the same goods are sold on newsstands or through cable TV subscriptions. This fact, plus cumbersome and widely varied membership, pledging and payment systems, serves to discourage payment by media users. Even the membership systems of public broadcasting stations exclude vast numbers of people who would contribute “if it was easy”. EmanciPay overcomes these problems by making it easy for consumers of news to become customers of news. It also allows users to initiate real and productive relationships with news organizations, whether or not they pay those organizations.

How is your idea new?:

Equipping individuals with their own tools for choosing what and how to pay, and for creating and maintaining relationships, is a new idea. Nearly all other sustainability ideas involve creating new intermediators or working on improving services on the supply side.

Tying sustainability to meaningful relationships (rather than just “membership” is also new). So is creating means by which individuals can assert their own “terms of service” — and match those terms with those on the supply side.

EmanciPay is also new in the scope of its ambition. Beyond creating a large new source of revenues, and scaffolding meaningful relationships between supply and demand, EmanciPay intends to remove legal frictions from the marketplace as well. What lawyers call contracts of adhesion (ones in which the dominant party is free to change what they please while the submissive party is nailed to whatever the dominant party dictates) have been pro forma on the Web since the invention of the cookie in 1995. EmanciPay is the first and only system intended to obsolete and replace these onerous “agreements” (which really aren’t).

Once in place and working, EmanciPay’s effects should exceed even those of Creative Commons, because EmanciPay addresses the demand as well as the supply side of the marketplace. And, like Creative Commons, EmanciPay does not require changes in standing law.

Finally, EmanciPay is new in the sense that it is not centralized, and does not require an intermediary. As with email (the protocols of which are open and decentralized, by design), EmanciPay supports both self-hosting and hosting in “the cloud.” It is also both low-level and flexible enough to provide base-level building material for any number of new businesses and services.

What will you have changed by the end of the project?:

First, we will have changed the habits and methods by which people pay for the media goods they receive, starting with news and information.

Second, we will have introduced relationship systems that are not controlled by the media, but driven instead by the individuals who are each at the centers of their own relationships with many different entities. Thus relationships will be user-driven and not just organization-driven.

Third, we will have created a new legal framework for agreements between buyers and sellers on the Web and in the networked world, eliminating many of the legal frictions involved in today’s e-commerce systems.

Fourth, we will have introduced to the world an intention economy, based on the actual intentions of buyers, rather than on guesswork by sellers about what customers might buy. (The latter is the familiar “attention economy” of advertising and promotion.)

Why are you the right person or team to complete this project?:

I know how to get ideas and code moving in the world. I’ve done that while running ProjectVRM for the last four years. As of today VRM tools are being developed in many places, by many programmers, in both commercial and noncommercial capacities, around the world, Those places include BostonLondonJohannesburgDubuqueSantiagoBelfastSalt Lake CitySanta BarbaraVienna, and Seattle. Much of this work has also been advanced at twice-yearly IIW (Internet Identity Workshop) events, which I co-founded in 2005 and continue to help organize.

As Senior Editor of Linux Journal, I’ve been covering open source code development since 1996, contributing to its understanding and widespread adoption. For that and related work, I received a Google-O’Reilly Open Source Award for “Best Communicator” in 2005.

I helped reform both markets and marketing as a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a business bestseller in 2000 that has since become part of the marketing canon. (As of today, Cluetrain is cited by more than 5300 other books.) I also coined Cluetrain’s most-quoted line, “Markets are conversations.”

I helped popularize blogging, a subject to which I have been contributing original thinking and writing since 1999. I also have more than 12,000 followers on Twitter.

EmanciPay is also my idea, and one I have been working on for some time. This includes collaboration with PRX and other members of the public radio community on ListenLog (the brainchild of Keith Hopper at NPR), which can be found today on the Public Radio Player, an iPhone app that has been downloaded more than 2 million times. I am also working on EmanciPay with students at MIT/CSAIL and Kings College London. The MIT/CSAIL collaboration is led by David Karger of the MIT faculty, and ties in with work he and students are doing with Haystack and Tipsy.

I’ve also contributed to other VRM development efforts — on identity and trust frameworks, on privacy assurance, on selective disclosure of personal data, and on personal data stores (PDSes), all of which will help support EmanciPay as it is deployed.

What terms best describe your project?:

Bold, original, practical, innovative and likely to succeed.

What tasks/benchmarks need to be accomplished to develop your project and by when will you complete them? (500 words)

1) Engaging of programmers at MIT and other institutions within two months.

2) Establishment of Customer Commons (similar to Creative Commons) within two months.

3) Getting EmanciPay into clinical law case study by classes at law schools, one semester after the grant money arrives.

4) Beta-level code within six months.

5) Recruitment of first-round participating media entities (journals, sites, blogs, broadcast stations — completed within six months.

6) Relationships established with PayPal, Google Checkout and other payment intermediators within six months.

7) Tipsy trials within three months after beta-level code is ready.

8) Full EmanciPay trials within six months after beta-level code is ready.

9) Research protocols completed by the time beta code is ready.

How will you measure progress?: (500 words)

1) Involvement in open source code development by programmers other than those already paid or engaged (for example, as students) for the work

2) Completion of code

3) Deployment in target software and devices

4) Cooperation by allied development .orgs and .coms

5) Adoption and use by individuals

6) Direct financial benefit for news organizations.

All are measurable. We can count programmers working on code bases, as well as patches and lines of code submitted and added. We can see completed code in downloadable and installable form in the appropriate places. We can see and document cooperation by organizations. We can count downloads and monitor activities by users (with their permission). And we can see measurable financial benefits to news and information organizations. Researching each of these will be part of the project. For example, we will need to provide on our website, or directly, descriptions of accounting methods for the organizations that will benefit directly from individual contributions.

Do you see any risk in the development of your project?: (500 words)

EmanciPay is likely to be seen as disruptive by organizations that are highly vested in existing forms of funding. One example is public broadcasting, which has relied on fund drives for decades.

There is also a fear that EmanciPay will raise the number of contributors while lowering the overall funding dollar amount spent by contributors. I don’t expect that to happen. What I do expect is for the market to decide — and for EmanciPay to provide the means. Fortunately, EmanciPay also provides means for non-monetary relationships to grow as well, which will raise the perception of value by users and customers, and the likelihood that more users will become customers.

How will people learn about what you are doing?: (500 words) remaining

We will blog about it, talk about it at conferences, tweet about it, and use every other personal and social medium to spread the word. And we will use traditional media relations as well — which shouldn’t be too hard, since we will be working to bring more income to those media.

We have a good story about an important cause. I’m good at communicating and driving stories forward, and I and have no doubt that the effort will succeed.

Is this a one-time experiment or do you think it will continue after the grant?: (500 words)

EmanciPay will continue after the grant because it will become institutionalized within the fabric of the economy, as will its allied efforts.

In addition to the Knight News Challenge, does your project rely on other revenue sources? (Choose all that apply):

[ ] Advertising
[ ] Paid Subscriptions
[ x ] Crowd-Funded
[ ] Earned Income
[ ] Syndication
[ ] Other

Here’s what happened after that.

  1. Customer Commons was incorporated as a California-based 501(3)(c) nonprofit shortly after this was submitted.  (It is also currently cited in this CNN story  and this one by Fox News.) Almost entirely bootstrapped, Customer Commons has established itself as a Creative Commons-like place where model personal privacy policies and terms of engagement that individuals proffer as first parties can live. Those terms are among a number of other tools for exercising citizen sovereign powers. “CuCo” also plans, immodestly, to be a worldwide membership organization, comprised entirely of customers (possible slogan: “We’re the hundred percent”). In that capacity, it will hold events, publish, develop customer-side code that’s good for both customers and businesses (e.g. a shopping cart of your own that you can take from site to site), and lobby for policies that respect the natural sovereignty and power of customers in the digital world. After years of prep, and not much asking, Customer Commons is at last ready to accept funding, and to start scaling up. If you have money to invest in grass roots citizen-sovereign work, that’s a good place to do it.
  2. Commercial publishers, including nearly all the world’s websites (or so it seems) became deeply dependent on adtech—tracking based advertising—for income. (I reviewed that history here in 2015.) We’ve been fighting that. So have governments. Both the GDPR in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act were called to existence by privacy abuses funded by adtech. (Seriously, without adtech, those laws wouldn’t have happened.)
  3. The current VRM developments list is a large and growing one. So is our list of participants.
  4. Some of the allied projects mentioned in the proposal are gone or have morphed. But some are still there, and there are many other potential collaborators.
  5. Fintech has become a thing, along with blockchain, distributed ledgers and other person-driven solutions to the problem of excessive centralization.
  6. The word cluetrain is now mentioned in more than 13,000 books. And, twenty years since it was first uttered, cluetrain is also tweeted almost constantly.
  7. I am now editor-in-chief of Linux Journal, the first publication ready  to accept terms proffered by readers, starting with a Customer Commons one dubbed #NoStalking.

That list could go on, but it’s not what matters.

What matters is that EmanciPay was a great idea when we proposed it in the first place, and a better idea now. With the right backing, it can scale.

If you want to solve the problem of paying for news (or all of journalism), there is not a more democratic, fair, trust-causing and potentially massive idea on the table, for doing exactly that, than EmanciPay. Nor one better potentiated to address lots of other problems and  goals laid out in that Knight Commission report. One example: An immodest proposal for the music industry.

If you’re interested, talk to me.

Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR

The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is the world’s most heavily weaponized law protecting personal privacy. It is aimed at companies that track people without asking, and its ordnance includes fines of up to 4% of worldwide revenues over the prior year.

The law’s purpose is to blow away the (mostly US-based) surveillance economy, especially tracking-based “adtech,” which supports most commercial publishing online.

The deadline for compliance is 25 May 2018, just a couple hundred days from now.

There is no shortage of compliance advice online, much of it coming from the same suppliers that talked companies into harvesting lots of the “big data” that security guru Bruce Schneier calls a toxic asset. (Go to https://www.google.com/search?q=GDPR and see whose ads come up.)

There is, however, an easy and 100% GDPR-compliant way for publishers to continue running ads and for companies to continue advertising. All the publisher needs to do is agree with this request from readers:

That request, along with its legal and machine-readable expressions, will live here:

The agreements themselves can be recorded anywhere.

There is not an easier way for publishers and advertisers to avoid getting fined by the EU for violating the GDPR. Agreeing to exactly what readers request puts both in full compliance.

Some added PR for advertisers is running what I suggest they call #Safeds. If markets are conversations (as marketers have been yakking about since  The Cluetrain Manifesto), #SafeAds will be a great GDPR conversation for everyone to have:

Here are some #SafeAds benefits that will make great talking points, especially for publishers and advertisers:

  1. Unlike adtech, which tracks eyeballs off a publisher’s site and then shoot ads at those eyeballs anywhere they can be found (including the Web’s cheapest and shittiest sites), #SafeAds actually sponsor the publisher. They say “we value this publication and the readers it brings to us.”
  2. Unlike adtech, #SafeAds carry no operational overhead for the publisher and no cognitive overhead for readers—because there are no worries for either party about where an ad comes from or what it’s doing behind the scenes. There’s nothing tricky about it.
  3. Unlike adtech, #SafeAds carry no fraud or malware, because they can’t. They go straight from the publisher or its agency to the publication, avoiding the corrupt four-dimensional shell game adtech has become.
  4. #SafeAds carry full-power creative and economic signals, which adtech can’t do at all, for the reasons just listed. It’s no coincidence that nearly every major brand you can name was made by #SafeAds, while adtech has not produced a single one. In fact adtech has an ugly history of hurting brands by annoying people with advertising that is unwelcome, icky, or both.
  5. Perhaps best of all for publishers, advertisers will pay more for #SafeAds, because those ads are worth more.

#NoStalking and #SafeAds can also benefit social media platforms now in a world of wonder and hurt (example: this Zuckerberg hostage video). The easiest thing for them to do is go freemium, with little or no ads (and only safe ones on the paid side, and nothing but #SafeAds on the free side, in obedience to #NoStalking requests, whether expressed or not.

If you’re a publisher, an advertiser, a developer, an exile from the adtech world, or anybody else who wants to help out, talk to us. That deadline is a hard one, and it’s coming fast.

VRM Day: Starting Phase Two

VRM Day is today, 24 October, at the Computer History Museum. IIW follows, over the next three days at the same place. (The original version of this post was October 17.)

We’ve been doing VRM Days since (let’s see…) this one in 2013, and VRM events since this one in 2007. Coming on our tenth anniversary, this is our last in Phase One.

sisyphusTheRolling snowball difference between Phase One and Phase Two is that between rocks and snowballs. In Phase One we played Sisyphus, pushing a rock uphill. In Phase Two we roll snowballs downhill.

Phase One was about getting us to the point where VRM was accepted by many as a thing bound to happen. This has taken ten years, but we are there.

Phase Two is about making it happen, by betting our energies on ideas and work that starts rolling downhill and gaining size and momentum.

Some of that work is already rolling. Some is poised to start. Both kinds will be on the table at VRM Day. Here are ones currently on the agenda:

  • VRM + CRM via JLINC. See At last: a protocol to link VRM and CRM. , and The new frontier for CRM is CDL: customer driven leads. This is a one form of intentcasting that should be enormously appealing to CRM companies and their B2B corporate customers. Speaking of which, we also have—
  • Big companies welcoming VRM.  Leading this is Fing, a French think tank that brings together many of the country’s largest companies, both to welcome VRM and to research (e.g. through Mesinfos) how the future might play out. Sarah Medjek of Fing will present that work, and lead discussion of where it will head next. We will also get a chance to participate in that research by providing her with our own use cases for VRM. (We’ll take out a few minutes to each fill out an online form.)
  • Terms individuals assert in dealings with companies. These are required for countless purposes. Mary Hodder will lead discussion of terms currently being developed at Customer Commons and the CISWG / Kantara User Submitted Terms working group (Consent and Information Sharing Working Group). Among other things, this leads to—
  • 2016_04_25_vrmday_000-1Next steps in tracking protection and ad blocking. At the last VRM Day and IIW, we discussed CHEDDAR on the server side and #NoStalking on the individual’s side. There are now huge opportunities with both, especially if we can normalize #NoStalking terms for all tracking protection and ad blocking tools.  To prep for this, see  Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers, where you’ll find the image on the right, copied from the whiteboard on VRM Day.
  • Blockchain, Identity and VRM. Read what Phil Windley has been writing lately distributed ledgers (e.g. blockchain) and what they bring to the identity discussions that have been happening for 22 IIWs, so far. There are many relevancies to VRM.
  • Personal data. This was the main topic at two recent big events in Europe: MyData2016 in Helsinki and PIE (peronal information economy) 2016 in London.  The long-standing anchor for discussions and work on the topic at VRM Day and IIW is PDEC (Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium). Dean Landsman of PDEC will keep that conversational ball rolling. Adrian Gropper will also brief us on recent developments around personal health data as well.
  • Hacks on the financial system. Kevin Cox can’t make it, but wants me to share what he would have presented. Three links: 1) a one minute video that shows why the financial system is so expensive, 2) part of a blog post respecting his local Water Authority and newly elected government., and 3) an explanation of the idea of how we can build low-cost systems of interacting agents. He adds, “Note the progression from location, to address, to identity, to money, to housing.  They are all ‘the same’.” We will also look at how small business and individuals have more in common than either do with big business. With a hint toward that, see what Xero (the very hot small business accounting software company) says here.
  • What ProjectVRM becomes. We’ve been a Berkman-Klein Center project from the start. We’ve already spun off Customer Commons. Inevitably, ProjectVRM will itself be spun off, or evolve in some TBD way. We need to co-think and co-plan how that will go. It will certainly live on in the DNA of VRM and VRooMy work of many kinds. How and where it lives on organizationally is an open question we’ll need to answer.

Here is a straw man context for all of those and more.

  • Top Level: Tools for people. These are ones which, in legal terms, give individuals power as first parties. In mathematical terms, they make us independent variables, rather than dependent ones. Our focus from the start has been independence and engagement.
    • VRM in the literal sense: whatever engages companies’ CRM or equivalent systems.
    • Intentcasting.
    • PIMS—Personal Information Management Systems. Goes by many names: personal clouds, personal data stores, life management platforms and so on. Ctrl-Shift has done a good job of branding PIMS, however. We should all just go with that.
    • Privacy tools. Such as those provided by tracking protection (and tracking-protective ad blocking).
    • Legal tools. Such as the terms Customer Commons and the CISWG are working on.
    • UI elements. Such as the r-button.
    • Transaction & payment systems. Such as EmanciPay.

Those overlap to some degree. For example, a PIMS app and data store can do all that stuff. But we do need to pull the concerns and categories apart as much as we can, just so we can talk about them.

Kaliya will facilitate VRM Day. She and I are still working on the agenda. Let us know what you’d like to add to the list above, and we’ll do what we can. (At IIW, you’ll do it, because it’s an unconference. That’s where all the topics are provided by participants.)

Again, register here. And see you there.

 

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Is Facebook working on a VRM system? Or just another way to do ads?

It’s easy to get caught up in news that WhatsApp is starting to accept advertising (after they said they would never do that), and miss the deeper point of what’s really going on: Facebook setting up a new bot-based channel through which companies and customers can communicate. Like this:

vrmcrmbot

The word balloon is Facebook Messenger. But it could be WhatsApp too. From a VRM perspective, what matters is whether or not “Messenger bots” work as VRM tools, meaning they obey the individual user’s commands (and not just those of Facebook’s corporate customers). We don’t know yet. Hence the question mark.

But before we get to exploring the possibilities here (which could be immense), we need to visit and dismiss the main distractions.

Those start with Why we don’t sell ads, posted on the WhatsApp blog on 18 June 2012. Here are the money grafs from that one:

We knew we could do what most people aim to do every day: avoid ads.
No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow. We know people go to sleep excited about who they chatted with that day (and disappointed about who they didn’t). We want WhatsApp to be the product that keeps you awake… and that you reach for in the morning. No one jumps up from a nap and runs to see an advertisement.

Advertising isn’t just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought. At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it’s all being logged and collated and sliced and packaged and shipped out… And at the end of the day the result of it all is a slightly different advertising banner in your browser or on your mobile screen.

Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.

Great stuff. But that was then and this is now. In WhatsApp’s latest post, Looking Ahead for WhatsApp (25 August), we have the about-face:

But by coordinating more with Facebook, we’ll be able to do things like track basic metrics about how often people use our services and better fight spam on WhatsApp. And by connecting your phone number with Facebook’s systems, Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them. For example, you might see an ad from a company you already work with, rather than one from someone you’ve never heard of. You can learn more, including how to control the use of your data, here.

Pretty yucky, huh?

Earlier in the same post, however, WhatsApp says,

we want to explore ways for you to communicate with businesses that matter to you too

Interesting: Mark Zuckerberg said the same thing when he introduced messenger bots, back in April. In the video at that link, Zuck said,

Now that Messenger has scaled, we’re starting to develop ecosystems around it. And the first thing we’re doing is exploring how you can all communicate with businesses.

You probably interact with dozens of businesses every day. And some of them are probably really meaningful to you. But I’ve never met anyone who likes calling a business. And no one wants to have to install a new app for every service or business they want to interact with. So we think there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

We think you should be able to message a business the same way you message a friend. You should get a quick response, and it shouldn’t take your full attention, like a phone call would. And you shouldn’t have to install a new app.

Note the similarities in the set-up:

  1. Zuck:  “how you can all communicate with business.”
  2. WhatsApp: “explore ways for you to communicate with businesses.”

This is, or should be, pure VRM:  a way for a customer to issue a service request, or to intentcast for bids on a new washing machine or a car. In other words, what they seem to be talking about here is a new communication channel between customers and businesses that can relieve  the typical pains of being a customer while also opening the floodgates of demand notifying supply when it’s ready to buy. Back to Zuck:

So today we’re launching Messenger Platform. So you can build bots for Messenger.

By “you” Zuck means the developers he was addressing that day. I assume these were developers working for businesses that avoid customer contact and would rather have robots take over everything possible, because that’s the norm these days. But I could be wrong. He continues,

And it’s a simple platform, powered by artificial intelligence, so you can build natural language services to communicate directly with people. So let’s take a look.

CNN, for example, is going to be able to send you a daily digest of stories, right into messenger. And the more you use it, the more personalized it will get. And if you want to learn more about a specific topic, say a Supreme Court nomination or the zika virus, you just send a message and it will send you that information.

The antecedents of “you” move around here. Could be he’s misdirecting attention away from surveillance. Can’t tell. But it is clear that he’s looking past advertising alone as a way to make money.

Back to the WhatsApp post:

Whether it’s hearing from your bank about a potentially fraudulent transaction, or getting notified by an airline about a delayed flight, many of us get this information elsewhere, including in text messages and phone calls.

This also echoes what Zuck said in April. In both cases it’s about companies communicating with you, not about you communicating with companies. Would bots work both ways?

In “‘Bot’ is the wrong name…and why people who think it’s silly are wrong”, Aaron Batalion says all kinds of functionality now found only in apps will move to bots—Messenger’s in particular. “In a micro app world, you build one experience on the Facebook platform and reach 1B people.”

How about building a one-experience bot so 1B people can reach businesses the same way?

Imagine, for example, that you can notify every company you deal with that your last name has changed, or you’ve replaced a credit card. It would be great to do that in one move. It would also be VRM 101. But, almost ten years into our project, nobody has built that yet. Is Facebook doing it?

Frankly, I hope not, because I don’t want to see VRM trapped inside a giant silo.

That’s why I just put up Market intelligence that flows both ways, over in Medium. (It’s a much-updated version of a post I put up here several years ago.)

In that post I describe a much better approach, based on open source code, that doesn’t require locating your soul inside a large company for which, as WhatsApp put it four years ago, you’re the product.

Here’s a diagram that shows how one person (myself, in this case) can relate to a company whose moccasins he owns:

vrmcrmconduit

The moccasins have their own pico: a cloud on the Net for a thing in the physical world. For VRM and CRM purposes, this one is a relationship conduit between customer and company.

A pico of this type comes in to being when the customer assigns the QR code to the moccasins and scans it. The customer and company can then share records about the product, or notify the other party when there’s a problem, a bargain on a new pair, or whatever. It’s tabula rasa: wide open.

The current code for this is called Wrangler. It’s open source and in Github. For the curious, Phil Windley explains how picos work in Reactive Programming With Picos.

I’ll continue on this theme in the next post. Meanwhile, my main purpose with this one is to borrow interest in where Facebook is going (if I’m guessing right) with Messenger bots, and do it one better in the open and un-silo’d world, while we still have one to hack.

 

 

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It’s People vs. Advertising, not Publishers vs. Adblockers

By now hundreds of millions of people have gone to the privacy aisles of the pharmacy departments  in their local app stores and chosen a brand of sunblock to protect themselves from unwanted exposure to the harmful rays of advertising online.

There are many choices among potions on those shelves, but basically they do one, two or three of these things:

blockers

The most popular ad blocker, Adblock Plus, is configurable to do all three, but defaults to allow “acceptable”* ads and not to block tracking.

Tracking protection products, such as Baycloud Bouncer, Ghostery, Privacy Badger and RedMorph, are not ad blockers, but can be mistaken for them. (That’s what happens for me when I’m looking at Wired through Privacy Badger on Firefox.)

It is important to recognize these distinctions, for two reasons:

  1. Ad blocking, allowing “acceptable” ads, and tracking protection are different things.
  2. All three of those things answer market demand. They are clear evidence of the marketplace at work.

Meanwhle, nearly all press coverage of what’s going on here defaults to “(name of publisher or website here) vs. ad blockers.”

This  misdirects attention away from what is actually going on: people making choices in the open market to protect themselves from intrusions they do not want.

Ad blocking and tracking protection are effects, not causes. Blame for them should not go to the people protecting themselves, or to those providing them with means for protection, but to the sources and agents of harm. Those are:

  1. Companies producing ads (aka brands)
  2. Companies distributing the ads
  3. Companies publishing the ads
  4. All producers of unwanted tracking

That’s it.

Until we shift discussion to the simple causes and effects of supply and demand, with full respect for individual human beings and the legitimate choices they make in the open marketplace, to protect the sovereign personal spaces in their lives online, we’ll be stuck in war and sports coverage that misses the simple facts underlying the whole damn thing.

Until we get straight what’s going on here, we won’t be able to save those who pay for and benefit from advertising online.

Which I am convinced we can do. I’ve written plenty about that already here.

* These are controversial. I don’t go into that here, however, because I want to shift attention from spin to facts.

 

 

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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:

amazon1

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:

homedepot1

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.

Humanizing the Great Ad Machine

This is a comment I couldn’t publish under this post before my laptop died. (Fortunately I sent it to my wife first, so I’m posting it here, from her machine.)

OMMA’s theme is “Humanizing the Great Ad Machine”  Good one. Unfortunately, the agenda and speaker list suggest that industry players are the only ones in a position to do that. They aren’t..

The human targets of the Great Ad Machine are actually taking the lead—by breaking it.

Starting with ad blocking and tracking protection.

I see no evidence of respect for that fact, however, in the posts and tweets (at #MPOMMA) coming out of the conference so far. Maybe we can change that.

Let’s start by answering the question raised by the headline in Ad Blocking and DVRs: How Similar? I can speak as an operator of both technologies, and as a veteran marketer as well. So look at the rest of this post as the speech I’d give if I was there at OMMA…

Ad blocking and DVRs have four main things in common.

1) They are instruments of personal independence;

2) They answer demand for avoiding advertising. That demand exists because most advertising wastes time and space in people’s lives, and people value those two things more than whatever good advertising does for the “content” economy;

3) Advertising agents fail to grok this message; which is why—

4) Advertising agents and the “interactive” ad industry cry foul and blame the messengers (including the makers of ad blockers and other forms of tracking protection), rather than listening to, or respecting, what the market tells them, loudly and clearly.

Wash, rinse and repeat.

The first wash was VCRs. Those got rinsed out by digital TV. The second wash was DVRs. Those are being rinsed out right now by the Internet. The third wash is ad blocking.

The next rinse will happen after ad blocking succeeds as chemo for the cancer of ads that millions on the receiving end don’t want.

The next wash will be companies spending their marketing money on listening for better signals of demand from the marketplace, and better ways of servicing existing customers after the sale.

This can easily happen because damn near everybody is on the Net now, or headed there. Not trapped on TV or any other closed, one-way, top-down, industry-controlled distribution system.

On the Net, everybody has a platform of their own. There is no limit to what can be built on that platform, including much better instruments for expressing demand, and much better control over private personal spaces and the ways personal data are used by others. Ad blocking is just the first step in that direction.

The adtech industry (including dependent publishers) can come up with all the “solutions” they want to the ad blocking “problem.” All will fail, because ad blocking is actually a solution the market—hundreds of millions of real human beings—demands. Every one of adtech’s “solutions” is a losing game of whack-a-mole where the ones with hammers bang their own heads.

For help looking past that game, consider these:

1) The Interent as we know it is 21 years old. Commercial activity on it has only been possible since April 30, 1995. The history of marketing on the Net since then has been a series of formative moments and provisional systems, not a permanent state. In other words, marketing on the Net isn’t turtles all the way down, it’s scaffolding. Facebook, Google and the rest of the online advertising world exist by the grace of provisional models that have been working for only a few years, and can easily collapse if something better comes along. Which it will. Inevitably. Because…

2) When customers can signal demand better than adtech can manipulate it or guess at it, adtech will collapse like a bad soufflé.

3) Plain old brand advertising, which has always been aimed at populations rather than people, isn’t based on surveillance, and has great brand-building value, will carry on, free of adtech, doing what only it can do. (See the Ad Contrarian for more on that.)

In the long run (which may be short) winners will be customers and the companies that serve them  respectfully. Not more clueless and manipulative surveillance-based marketing schemes.

Winning companies will respect customers’ independence and intentions. Among those intentions will be terms that specify what can be done with shared personal data. Those terms will be supplied primarily by customers, and companies will agree to those terms because they will be friendly, work well for both sides, and easily automated.

Having standard ways for signaling demand and controlling use of personal data will give customers the same kind of scale companies have always had across many customers. On the Net, scale can work in both directions.

Companies that continue to rationalize spying on and abusing people, at high costs to everybody other than those still making hay while the sun shines, will lose. The hay-makers will also lose as soon as the light of personal tolerance for abuse goes out, which will come when ad blocking and tracking protection together approach ubiquity.

But the hay-makers can still win if they start listening to high-value signals coming from customers. It won’t be hard, and it will pay off.

The market is people, folks. Everybody with a computer or a smart mobile device is on the Net now. They are no longer captive “consumers” at the far ends of one-way plumbing systems for “content.” The Net was designed in the first place for everybody, not just for marketers who build scaffolding atop customer dislike and mistake it for solid ground.

It should also help to remember that the only business calling companies “advertisers” is advertising. No company looks in the mirror and sees an advertiser there. That’s because no company goes into business just so they can advertise. They see a car maker, a shoe store, a bank, a brewer, or a grocer. Advertising is just overhead for them. I learned this lesson the hard way as a partner for 20 years in a very successful ad agency. Even if our clients loved us, they could cut their ad budget to nothing in an instant, or on a whim.

There’s a new world of marketing waiting to happen out there in the wide-open customer-driven marketplace. But it won’t grow out of today’s Great Ad Machine. It’ll grow out of new tech built on the customers’ side, with ad blocking and tracking protection as the first examples. Maybe some of that tech is visible at OMMA. Or at least maybe there’s an open door to it. If either is there, let’s see it. Hashtag: #VRM. (For more on that, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vendor_relationship_management.)

If not, you can still find developers here .

The Castle Doctrine

home castle

The Castle doctrine has been around a long time. Cicero (106–43 BCE) wrote, “What more sacred, what more strongly guarded by every holy feeling, than a man’s own home?” In Book 4, Chapter 16 of his Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone (1723–1780 CE) added, “And the law of England has so particular and tender a regard to the immunity of a man’s house, that it stiles it his castle, and will never suffer it to be violated with impunity: agreeing herein with the sentiments of ancient Rome…”

Since you’re reading this online, let me ask, what’s your house here? What sacred space do you strongly guard, and never suffer to be violated with impunity?

At the very least, it should be your browser.

But, unless you’re running tracking protection in the browser you’re using right now, companies you’ve never heard of (and some you have) are watching you read this, and eager to use or sell personal data about you, so you can be delivered the human behavior hack called “interest based advertising.”

Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, has a term for this:surveillance capitalism, defined as “a wholly new subspecies of capitalism in which profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behavior.”

Almost across the board, advertising-supported publishers have handed their business over to adtech, the surveillance-based (they call it “interactive”) wing of advertising. Adtech doesn’t see your browser as a sacred personal space, but instead as a shopping cart with ad space that you push around from site to site.

So here is a helpful fact: we don’t go anywhere when we use our browsers. Our browser homes are in our computers, laptops and mobile devices. When we “visit” a web page or site with our browsers, we actually just request its contents (using the hypertext protocol called http or https).

In no case do we consciously ask to be spied on, or abused by content we didn’t ask for or expect. That’s why we have every right to field-strip out anything we don’t want when it arrives at our browsers’ doors.

The castle doctrine is what hundreds of millions of us practice when we use tracking protection and ad blockers. It is what called the new Brave browser into the marketplace. It’s why Mozilla has been cranking up privacy protections with every new version of Firefox . It’s why Apple’s new content blocking feature treats adtech the way chemo treats cancer. It’s why respectful publishers will comply with CHEDDAR. It’s why Customer Commons is becoming the place to choose No Trespassing signs potential intruders will obey. And it’s why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers.

The job of every entity I named in the last paragraph — and every other one in a position to improve personal privacy online — is to bring as much respect to the castle doctrine in the virtual world as we’ve had in the physical one for more than two thousand years.

It should help to remember that it’s still early. We’ve only had commercial activity on the Internet since April 1995. But we’ve also waited long enough. Let’s finish making our homes online the safe places they should have been in the first place.

 

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