Category: decentralized (page 1 of 2)

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.

The only path from subscription hell to subscription heaven

I subscribe to Vanity Fair. 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, it took me to a plain old subscription page. So I thought, “Hey, since they have tracking cruft appended to 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 — https://subscribe.condenastdigital.com/s… — 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 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 by 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 of subscription hell, 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 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 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)

Privacy = personal agency + respect by others for personal dignity

Privacy is a state each of us enjoys to the degrees others respect it.

And they respect what economists call signals. We send those signals through our behavior (hand signals, facial expressions) and technologies. Both are expressions of agency: the ability to act with effect in the world.

So, for example, we signal a need not to reveal our private parts  by wearing clothes. We signal a need not to have our private spaces invaded by buttoning our clothes, closing doors, setting locks on those doors, and pulling closed curtains or shades. We signal a need not to be known by name to everybody by not wearing name tags as we walk about the world. (That we are naturally anonymous is a civic grace, but a whole ‘nuther thread.)

All of this has been well understood in the physical world for as long as we’ve had civilization—and perhaps longer. It varies by culture, but remained remarkably non-controversial—until we added the digital world to the physical one.

The digital world, like the physical one, came without privacy. We had to invent privacy in the physical world with technologies (clothing, shelter, doors, locks) and norms such as respect for the simple need for personal dignity.

We have not yet done the same in the digital world. We did, however, invent administrative identities for people, because administrative systems need to know who they’re interested in and dealing with.

These systems are not our own. They belong to administrative entities: companies, government agencies, churches, civic groups, whatever. Nearly 100% of conversation about both identity and privacy take place inside the administrative context. All questions  come down to “How can this system with ways of identifying us give us privacy?” Even Privacy By Design (PbD) is about administrative systems. It is not something you and I have. Not in the way we have clothes.

And that’s what we need: the digital equivalents of clothing and ways of signaling what’s okay and what’s not okay.  Norms should follow, and then laws and regulations restricting violations of those norms.

Unfortunately, we got the laws (e.g. the EU’s GDPR and California’s AB 375) before we got the tech and the norms.

But I’m encouraged about getting both, for two reasons. One is the work going on here among VRM-ish developers. The other is that @GregAEngineer gave a talk this morning on exactly this topic, at the IEEE #InDITA conference in Bangalore.

Oh, and lest we think privacy matters only to those in the fully privileged world, watch Privacy on the Line, a video just shared here.

Why personal agency matters more than personal data

Lately a lot of thought, work and advocacy has been going into valuing personal data as a fungible commodity: one that can be made scarce, bought, sold, traded and so on.  While there are good reasons to challenge whether or not data can be property (see Jefferson and  Renieris), I want to focus on a different problem: the one best to solve first: the need for personal agency in the online world.

I see two reasons why personal agency matters more than personal data.

The first reason we have far too little agency in the networked world is that we settled, way back in 1995, on a model for websites called client-server, which should have been called calf-cow or slave-master, because we’re always the weaker party: dependent, subordinate, secondary. Fortunately, the Net’s and the Web’s base protocols remain peer-to-peer, by design. We can still build on those. And it’s early.

A critical start in that direction is making each of us the first party rather than the second when we deal with the sites, services, companies and apps of the world—and doing that at scale across all of them.

Think about how much more simple and sane it is for websites to accept our terms and our privacy policies, rather than to force each of us, all the time, to accept their terms, all expressed in their own different ways. (Because they are advised by different lawyers, equipped by different third parties, and generally confused anyway.)

Getting sites to agree to our own personal terms and policies is not a stretch, because that’s exactly what we have in the way we deal with each other in the physical world.

For example, the clothes that we wear are privacy technologies. We also have  norms that discourage others from, for example sticking their hands inside our clothes without permission.

The fact that adtech plants tracking beacons on our naked digital selves and tracks us like animals across the digital frontier may be a norm for now, but it is also morally wrong, massively rude and now illegal under the  GDPR.

We can easily create privacy tech, personal terms and personal privacy policies that are normative and scale for each of us across all the entities that deal with us. (This is what ProjectVRM’s nonprofit spin-off, Customer Commons is all about.)

Businesses can’t give us privacy if we’re always the second parties clicking “agree.” It doesn’t matter how well-meaning and GDPR-compliant those businesses are. Making people second parties is a design flaw in every standing “agreement” we “accept,” and we need to correct that.

The second reason agency matters more than data is that nearly the entire market for personal data today is adtech, and adtech is too dysfunctional, too corrupt, too drunk on the data it already has, and absolutely awful at doing what they’ve harvested that data for, which is so machines can guess at what we might want before they shoot “relevant” and “interest-based” ads at our tracked eyeballs.

Not only do tracking-based ads fail to convince us to do a damn thing 99.xx+% of the time, but we’re also not buying something most of the time as well.

As incentive alignments go, adtech’s failure to serve the actual interests of its targets verges on the absolute. (It’s no coincidence that more than a year ago, 1.7 billion people were already blocking ads online.)

And hell, what they do also isn’t really advertising, even though it’s called that. It’s direct marketing, which gives us junk mail and is the model for spam. (For more on this, see Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.)

Privacy is personal. That means privacy is an effect of personal agency, projected by personal tech and personal expressions of intent that others can respect without working at it. We have that in the offline world. We can have it in the online world too.

Privacy is not something given to us by companies or governments, no matter how well they do Privacy by Design or craft their privacy policies. It simply can’t work.

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.

 

Our time has come

For the first time since we launched ProjectVRM, we have a wave we can ride to a shore.

That wave is the GDPR: Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. Here’s how it looks to Google Trends:

It crests just eight days from now, on May 25th.

To prep for the GDPR (and to avoid its potentially massive fines), organizations everywhere are working like crazy to get ready, especially in Europe. (Note: the GDPR protects the privacy of EU citizens, and applies worldwide.)

Thanks to the GDPR, there’s a stink on surveillance capitalism, and companies everywhere that once feasted on big data are now going on starvation diets.

Here’s one measure of that wave: my post “GDPR will pop the adtech bubble” got more than 50,000 after it went up during the weekend, when it also hit #1 on Hacker News and Techmeme. And this Hacker News comment thread about the piece is more than 30,000 words long. So far.

The GDPR dominates all conversations here at KuppingerCole‘s EIC conference in Munich where my keynote Tuesday was titled How Customers Will Lead Companies to GDPR Compliance and Beyond. (That’s the video.)

Ten years ago at this same conference, KuppingerCole gaveEIC award ProjectVRM an award (there on the right) that was way ahead of its time.

Back then we really thought the world was ready for tools that would make individuals both independent and better able to engage—and that these tools that would prove a thesis: that free customers are more valuable than captive ones.

But then social media happened, and platforms grew so big and powerful that it was hard to keep imagining a world online where each of us are truly free.

But we did more than imagine. We worked on customertech that would vastly increase personal agency for each of us, and turn the marketplace into a Marvel-like universe in which all of us are enhanced:

In this liberated marketplace, we would be able to

  1. Make companies agree to our terms, rather than the other way around.
  2. Control our own self-sovereign identities, and manage all the ways we are known to the administrative systems of the world. This means we will be able to —
  3. Get rid of logins and passwords, so we are simply known to others we grace with that privilege. Which we can also withdraw.
  4. Change our email or our home address in the records of every company we deal with, in one move.
  5. Pay what we want, where we want, for whatever we want, in our own ways.
  6. Call for service or support in one simple and straightforward way of our own, rather than in as many ways as there are 800 numbers to call and punch numbers into a phone before we wait on hold while bad music plays.
  7. Express loyalty in our own ways, which are genuine rather than coerced.
  8. Have an Internet of MY Things, which each of us controls for ourselves, and in which every thing we own has its own cloud, which we control as well.
  9. Own and control all our health and fitness records, and how others use them.
  10. Help companies by generously sharing helpful facts about how we use their products and services — but in our own ways, through standard tools that work the same for every company we deal with.
  11. Have wallets of our own, rather than only those provided by platforms.
  12. Have shopping carts of our own, which we could take from store to store and site to site online, rather than ones provided only by the stores themselves.
  13. Have real relationships with companies, based on open standards and code, rather than relationships trapped inside corporate silos.
  14. Remake education around the power we all have to teach ourselves and lean from each other, making optional at most the formal educational systems built more for maintaining bell curves than liberating the inherent genius of every student.

We’ve done a lot of work on most of those things. (Follow the links.) Now we need to work together to bring attention and interest to all our projects by getting behind what Customer Commons, our first and only spin-off, is doing over the next nine days.

First is a campaign to make an annual celebration of the GDPR, calling May 25th #Privmas.

As part of that (same link), launching a movement to take control of personal privacy online by blocking third party cookies. Hashtag #NoMore3rds. Instructions are here, for six browsers. (It’s easy. I’ve been doing it for weeks on all mine, to no ill effects.)

This is in addition to work following our Hack Day at MIT several weeks ago. Stay tuned for more on that.

Meanwhile, all hands on deck. We need more action than discussion here. Let’s finish getting started making VRM work for the world.

How should customers look to business?

The world of business has a default symbol for customers: the ones they put on restroom doors.

Outside of those, there is no universal symbol for a customer.

When business talks to itself, it mostly uses generic cartoon images such as these (from a Bing search) and these (from a Google one):

I’m sure all of us identify more with the restroom symbols (and emojis) than we do with those things.

It’s interesting how, even though we comprise 100% of the marketplace, we remain a prevailing absence in nearly every business conference, business book and business school class.

The notion that customers can be independent and fully empowered agents of themselves, with scale across all the businesses they deal with, at best gets the intellectual treatment (seeing customers, for example, as “rational actors”).

At worst, customers are seen as creatures that go moo and squit money if they’re held captive and squeezed the right ways.  Listen to the talk. Typically customers are “targets” that businesses “acquire,” “manage,” “control” or “lock in” as if we are cattle or slaves.

Often customers are simply ignored.

One example that showed up today was this press release announcing “an innovative initiative focused on the overhaul of open account trade finance infrastructure.” It’s from R3, which makes Corda, a ” distributed ledger platform designed specifically for financial services,” and is “a joint undertaking between R3, TradeIX, and twelve financial institutions.” This network, says the release, will “improve access to open account trade for the global ecosystem of banks, buyers, suppliers, technology providers, insurers, and other parties, such as logistics companies, that are critical to facilitating global open account trade flows.”

Never mind that distributed ledgers have been hailed as the second coming (or even the first) of the customer-empowering peer-to-peer world. Instead note the absence of customers: people and institutions who entrust their money and assets to all the parties listed in that long sentence.

Our goal with ProjectVRM is to equip customers (not just “consumers,” or “end users”) to say We’re not just at the same table with you guys. We are that table. And we are much bigger and far more powerful than you can ever make us on your own.

In other words, our job here is to give customers superpowers.

There are lots of people arguing that more policy is the answer. But we already have the GDPR. Huge leverage there. Let’s use it to highlight how own customer-empowering solutions put the companies that serve us in compliance.

In the last post we named one. That and many other forms of #customertech will be featured at VRM Day and IIW, later this month at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. Looking forward to seeing many of you there.

Let’s make customers powerful. Then it won’t matter how they look to business, other than real.

 

“Disruption” isn’t the whole VRM story

250px-mediatetrad-svg

The vast oeuvre of Marshall McLuhan contains a wonderful approach to understanding media called the tetrad (i.e. foursome) of media effects.  You can apply it to anything, from stone tools to robots. McLuhan unpacks it with four questions:

  1. What does the medium enhance?
  2. What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

I suggest that VRM—

  1. Enhances CRM
  2. Obsoletes marketing guesswork, especially adtech
  3. Retrieves conversation
  4. Reverses or flips into the bazaar

Note that many answers are possible. That’s why McLuhan poses the tetrad as questions. Very clever and useful.

I bring this up for three reasons:

  1. The tetrad is also helpful for understanding every topic that starts with “disruption.” Because a new medium (or technology) does much more than just disrupt or obsolete an old one—yet not so much more that it can’t be understood inside a framework.
  2. The idea from the start with VRM has never been to disrupt or obsolete CRM, but rather to give it a hand to shake—and a way customers can pull it out of the morass of market-makers (especially adtech) that waste its time, talents and energies.
  3. After ten years of ProjectVRM, we still don’t have a single standardized base VRM medium (e.g. a protocol), even though we have by now hundreds of developers we call VRM in one way or another. Think of this missing medium as a single way, or set of ways, that VRM demand can interact with CRM supply, and give every customer scale across all the companies they deal with. We’ve needed that from the start. But perhaps, with this handy pedagogical tool, we can look thorugh one framework toward both the causes and effects of what we want to make happen.

I expect this framework to be useful at VRM Day (May 1 at the Computer History Museum) and at IIW on the three days that follow there.

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The distributed future is personal

The End of Cloud Computing, is a prophetic presentation by  Peter Levine, of Andreesen Horowitz, and required viewing by anyone interested in making the distributed future happen.

His key point: “We are returning to an edge-intelligence distributed computing model that’s absolutely thematic with the trends in computing moving from centralized out to distributed,” which he illustrates this way:

back-to-the-future

Later he adds, “We are absolutely going to return to a peer-to-peer computing model where the edge devices connect together creating a network of end point devices not unlike what we sort of saw in the original distributed computing model.” Here’s a graphic for that one:

sensor-data-explosion

I added the face in the middle, because the edge is individuals and not just the technology and data occupying their lives.

Joe Andrieu wrote about this a decade ago in his landmark post VRM: The user as point of integration.  An excerpt:

User Centrism as System Architecture

Doc Searls shared a story about his experience getting medical care while at Harvard recently. As a fellow at the Berkman center, he just gave them his Harvard ID card and was immediately ushered into a doctor’s office–minimal paperwork, maximal service. They even called him a cab to go to Mass General and gave him a voucher for the ride. At the hospital, they needed a bit more paperwork, but as everything was in order, they immediately fixed him up. It was excellent service.

But what Doc noticed was that at every point where some sort of paperwork was done, there were errors. His name was spelled wrong. They got the wrong birthdate. Wrong employer. Something. As he shuffled from Berkman to the clinic to the cabbie to the hospital to the pharmacy, a paper (and digital trail) followed him through archaic legacy systems with errors accumulating as he went. What became immediately clear to Doc was that for the files at the clinic, the voucher, the systems at the hospital, for all of these systems, he was the natural point of data integration… he was the only component gauranteed to contact each of these service providers. And yet, his physical person was essentially incidental to the entire data trail being created on his behalf.

User as Point of Integration

But what if those systems were replaced with a VRM approach? What if instead of individual, isolated IT departments and infrastructure, Doc, the user was the integrating agent in the system? That would not only assure that Doc had control over the propagation of his medical history, it would assure all of the service providers in the loop that, in fact, they had access to all of Doc’s medical history. All of his medications. All of his allergies. All of his past surgeries or treatments. His (potentially apocryphal) visits to new age homeopathic healers. His chiropractic treatments. His crazy new diet. All of these things could affect the judgment of the medical professionals charged with his care. And yet, trying to integrate all of those systems from the top down is not only a nightmare, it is a nightmare that apparently continues to fail despite massive federal efforts to re-invent medical care.

(See The Emergence of National Electronic Health Record Architectures in the United States and Australia: Models, Costs, and Questions and Difficulties Implementing an Electronic Medical Record for Diverse Healthcare Service Providers for excellent reviews of what is going on this area, both pro and con.)

Profoundly Different

Doc’s insight–and that of user-centric systems–isn’t new. What’s new is the possibility to utilize the user-centric Identity meta-system to securely and efficiently provide seamless access to user-managed data stores. With that critical piece coming into place, we have the opportunity to completely re-think what it means to build out our IT infrastructure.

Which brings us to Peter Levine’s final point, and slide:

entireworld-it

That world will be comprised of individuals operating with full agency, rather than as peripheral entities, and concerns, of centralized systems. Which is exactly what we’ve been fostering here at ProjectVRM from the start, ten years ago.

To obtain full agency, with control over the data and machine power suffusing our connected lives, we will need what’s been called first person or self-sovereign technologies. Not “personal power as a service” from some centralized system.

One immediate example is Adrian Gropper‘s Free Independent Health Records, which he’ll talk about on Thursday, January 26, at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University.  At that link: “Gropper’s research centers on self-sovereign technology for management of personal information both in control of the individual and as hosted or curated by others.”

For other efforts in the same direction, see our VRM Development Work page.

 

 

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The new frontier for CRM is CDL: Customer Driven Leads

cdlfunnelImagine customers diving, on their own, straight down to the bottom of the sales funnel.

Actually, don’t imagine it. Welcome it, because it’s coming, in the form of leads that customers generate themselves, when they’re ready to buy something. Here in the VRM world we call this intentcasting. At the receiving end, in the  CRM world, they’re CDLs, or Customer Driven Leads.

Because CDLs come from fully interested customers with cash in hand, they’re worth more than MQLs (Marketing Qualified Leads) or  SQLs (Sales Qualifed Leads), both of which need to be baited with marketing into the sales funnel.

CDLs are also free.  When the customer is ready to buy, she signals the market with an intentcast that CRM systems can hear as a fresh CDL. When the CRM system replies, an exchange of data and permissions follows, with the customer taking the lead.

It’s a new dance, this one with the customer taking the lead. But it’s much more direct, efficient and friendly than the old dances in which customers were mere “targets” to be “acquired.”

The first protocol-based way to generate CDLs for CRM is described in At last, a protocol to connect VRM and CRM, posted here in August. It’s called JLINC. We’ll be demonstrating it working on a Salesforce system on VRM Day at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, on Monday, October 24. VRM Day is free, but space is limited, so register soon, here.

We’ll also continue to work on CDL development  over the next three days in the same location, at the IIW, the Internet Identity Workshop. IIW is an unconference that’s entirely about getting stuff done. No keynotes, no panels. Just working sessions run by attendees. This next one will be our 23rd IIW since we started them in 2005. It remains, in my humble estimation, the most leveraged conference I know. (And I go to a lot of them, usually as a speaker.)

As an additional temptation, we’re offering a 25% discount on IIW to the next 20 people who register for VRM Day. (And it you’ve already reigstered, talk to me.)

Iain Henderson, who works with JLINC Labs, will demo CDLs on Salesforce. We also invite all the other CRM companies—IBM, Microsoft Dynamics, SAP, SugarCRM… you know who you are—to show up and participate as well. All CRM systems are programmable. And the level of programming required to hear intentcasts is simple and easy.

See you there!

 

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