Category: Privacy (page 1 of 5)

Toward e-commerce 2.0

Phil Windley explains e-commerce 1.0  in a single slide that says this:

One reason this happened is that client-server, aka calf-cow  (illustrated in Thinking outside the browser) has been the default format for all relationships on the Web, and cookies are required to maintain those relationships.  The result is a highly lopsided power asymmetry in which the calves have no more power than the cows give them. As a result,

  1. The calves have no easy way even to find  (much less to understand or create) the cookies in their browsers’ jars.
  2. The calves have no identity of their own, but instead have as many different identities as there are websites that know (via cookies) their visiting browsers. This gives them no independence, much less a place to stand like Archimedes, with a lever on the world. The browser may be a great tool, but it’s neither that place to stand, nor a sufficient lever. (Yes, it should have been, and maybe still could be; but meanwhile, it isn’t.)
  3. All the “agreements” the calves have with the websites’ cows leave no readable record on the calves’ side. This severely limits their capacity for dispute, which is required for a true relationship.
  4. There exists no independent way the calves to signal their intentions—such as interests in purchase, conditions for engagement, or the need to be left alone (which is how Brandeis and Warren define privacy).

In other words, the best we can do in e-commerce 1.0 is what the calf-cow system provides: ways for calves to depend utterly on means the cows provide. And some of those cows are mighty huge.

Nearly all of signaling between demand and supply remains trapped inside these silos and walled gardens. We search inside their systems, we are notified of product and service availability inside their systems, we make agreements inside their systems (to terms and conditions they provide and require), or privacy is dependent on their systems, and product and service delivery is handled either inside their systems or through allied and dependent systems.

Credit where due: an enormous amount of good has come out of these systems. But a far larger amount of good is MLOTT—money left on the table—because there is a boundless sum and variety of demand and supply that still cannot easily signal their interest, intentions of presence to each other in the digital world.

Putting that money on the table is our job in e-commerce 2.0.

So here is a challenge: tell us how we can do that without using browsers.

Some of us here do have ideas. But we’d like to hear from you first.

Cross-posted at the ProjectVRM blog, here.

Is being less tasty vegetables our best strategy?

We are now being farmed by business. The pretense of the “customer is king” is now more like “the customer is a vegetable” — Adrian Gropper

That’s a vivid way to put the problem.

There are many approaches to solutions as well. One is suggested today in the latest by @_KarenHao in MIT Technology Review, titled

How to poison the data that Big Tech uses to surveil you:
Algorithms are meaningless without good data. The public can exploit that to demand change.

An  excerpt:

In a new paper being presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency conference next week, researchers including PhD students Nicholas Vincent and Hanlin Li propose three ways the public can exploit this to their advantage:
Data strikes, inspired by the idea of labor strikes, which involve withholding or deleting your data so a tech firm cannot use it—leaving a platform or installing privacy tools, for instance.
Data poisoning, which involves contributing meaningless or harmful data. AdNauseam, for example, is a browser extension that clicks on every single ad served to you, thus confusing Google’s ad-targeting algorithms.
Conscious data contribution, which involves giving meaningful data to the competitor of a platform you want to protest, such as by uploading your Facebook photos to Tumblr instead.
People already use many of these tactics to protect their own privacy. If you’ve ever used an ad blocker or another browser extension that modifies your search results to exclude certain websites, you’ve engaged in data striking and reclaimed some agency over the use of your data. But as Hill found, sporadic individual actions like these don’t do much to get tech giants to change their behaviors.
What if millions of people were to coordinate to poison a tech giant’s data well, though? That might just give them some leverage to assert their demands.

The sourced paper* is titled Data Leverage: A Framework for Empowering the Public in its Relationship with Technology Companies, and concludes,

In this paper, we presented a framework for using “data leverage” to give the public more influence over technology company behavior. Drawing on a variety of research areas, we described and assessed the “data levers” available to the public. We highlighted key areas where researchers and policymakers can amplify data leverage and work to ensure data leverage distributes power more broadly than is the case in the status quo.

I am all for screwing with overlords, and the authors suggest some fun approaches. Hell, we should all be doing whatever it takes, lawfully (and there is a lot of easement around that) to stop rampant violation of our privacy—and not just by technology companies. The customers of those companies, which include every website that puts up a cookie notice that nudges visitors into agreeing to be tracked all over the Web (in observance of the letter of the GDPR, while screwing its spirit), are also deserving of corrective measures. Same goes for governments who harvest private data themselves, or gather it from others without our knowledge or permission.

My problem with the framing of the paper and the story is that both start with the assumption that we are all so weak and disadvantaged that our only choices are: 1) to screw with the status quo to reduce its harms; and 2) to seek relief from policymakers.  While those choices are good, they are hardly the only ones.

Some context: wanton privacy violations in our digital world has only been going on for a little more than a decade, and that world is itself barely more than  a couple dozen years old (dating from the appearance of e-commerce in 1995). We will also remain digital as well as physical beings for the next few decades or centuries.

So we need more than these kinds of prescriptive solutions. For example, real privacy tech of our own, that starts with giving us the digital versions of the privacy protections we have enjoyed in the physical world for millennia: clothing, shelter, doors with locks, and windows with curtains or shutters.

We have been on that case with ProjectVRM since 2006, and there are many developments in progress. Some even comport with our Privacy Manifesto (a work in progress that welcomes improvement).

As we work on those, and think about throwing spanners into the works of overlords, it may also help to bear in mind one of Craig Burton‘s aphorisms: “Resistance creates existence.” What he means is that you can give strength to an opponent by fighting it directly. He applied that advice in the ’80s at Novell by embracing 3Com, Microsoft and other market opponents, inventing approaches that marginalized or obsolesced their businesses.

I doubt that will happen in this case. Resisting privacy violations has already had lots of positive results. But we do have a looong way to go.

Personally, I welcome throwing a Theia.

* The full list of authors is Nicholas Vincent, Hanlin Li (@hanlinliii), Nicole Tilly and Brent Hecht (@bhecht) of Northwestern University, and Stevie Chancellor (@snchencellor) of the University of Minnesota,

Let’s zero-base zero-party data

Forrester Research has gifted marketing with a hot buzzphrase: zero-party data, which they define as “data that a customer intentionally and proactively shares with a brand, which can include preference center data, purchase intentions, personal context, and how the individual wants the brand to recognize her.”

Salesforce, the CRM giant (that’s now famously buying Slack), is ambitious about the topic, and how it can “fuel your personalized marketing efforts.” The second person you is Salesforce’s corporate customer.

It’s important to unpack what Salesforce says about that fuel, because Salesforce is a tech giant that fully matters. So here’s text from that last link. I’ll respond to it in chunks. (Note that zero, first and third party data is about you, no matter who it’s from.)

What is zero-party data?

Before we define zero-party data, let’s back up a little and look at some of the other types of data that drive personalized experiences.

First-party data: In the context of personalization, we’re often talking about first-party behavioral data, which encompasses an individual’s site-wide, app-wide, and on-page behaviors. This also includes the person’s clicks and in-depth behavior (such as hovering, scrolling, and active time spent), session context, and how that person engages with personalized experiences. With first-party data, you glean valuable indicators into an individual’s interests and intent. Transactional data, such as purchases and downloads, is considered first-party data, too.

Third-party data: Obtained or purchased from sites and sources that aren’t your own, third-party data used in personalization typically includes demographic information, firmographic data, buying signals (e.g., in the market for a new home or new software), and additional information from CRM, POS, and call center systems.

Zero-party data, a term coined by Forrester Research, is also referred to as explicit data.

They then go on to quote Forrester’s definition, substituting “[them]” for “her.”

The first party in that definition the site harvesting “behavioral” data about the individual. (It doesn’t square with the legal profession’s understanding of the term, so if you know that one, try not to be confused.)

It continues,


Forrester’s Fatemeh Khatibloo, VP principal analyst, notes in a video interview with Wayin (now Cheetah Digital) that zero-party data “is gold. … When a customer trusts a brand enough to provide this really meaningful data, it means that the brand doesn’t have to go off and infer what the customer wants or what [their] intentions are.”

Sure. But what if the customer has her own way to be a precious commodity to a brand—one she can use at scale with all the brands she deals with? I’ll unpack that question shortly.

There’s the privacy factor to keep in mind too, another reason why zero-party data – in enabling and encouraging individuals to willingly provide information and validate their intent – is becoming a more important part of the personalization data mix.

Two things here.

First, again, individuals need their own ways to protect their privacy and project their intentions about it.

Second, having as many ways for brands to “enable and encourage” disclosure of private information as there are brands to provide them is hugely inefficient and annoying. But that is what Salesforce is selling here.

As industry regulations such as GDPR and the CCPA put a heightened focus on safeguarding consumer privacy, and as more browsers move to phase out third-party cookies and allow users to easily opt out of being tracked, marketers are placing a greater premium and reliance on data that their audiences knowingly and voluntarily give them.

Not if the way they “knowingly and voluntarily” agree to be tracked is by clicking “AGREE” on website home page popovers. Those only give those sites ways to adhere to the letter of the GDPR and the CCPA while also violating those laws’ spirit.

Experts also agree that zero-party data is more definitive and trustworthy than other forms of data since it’s coming straight from the source. And while that’s not to say all people self-report accurately (web forms often show a large number of visitors are accountants, by profession, which is the first field in the drop-down menu), zero-party data is still considered a very timely and reliable basis for personalization.

Self-reporting will be a lot more accurate if people have real relationships with brands, rather (again) than ones that are “enabled and encouraged” in each brand’s own separate way.

Here is a framework by which that can be done. Phil Windley provides some cool detail for operationalizing the whole thing here, here, here and here.

Even if the countless separate ways are provided by one company (e.g. Salesforce),  every brand will use those ways differently, giving each brand scale across many customers, but giving those customers no scale across many companies. If we want that kind of scale, dig into the links in the paragraph above.

With great data comes great responsibility.

You’re not getting something for nothing with zero-party data. When customers and prospects give and entrust you with their data, you need to provide value right away in return. This could take the form of: “We’d love you to take this quick survey, so we can serve you with the right products and offers.”

But don’t let the data fall into the void. If you don’t listen and respond, it can be detrimental to your cause. It’s important to honor the implied promise to follow up. As a basic example, if you ask a site visitor: “Which color do you prefer – red or blue?” and they choose red, you don’t want to then say, “Ok, here’s a blue website.” Today, two weeks from now, and until they tell or show you differently, the website’s color scheme should be red for that person.

While this example is simplistic, the concept can be applied to personalizing content, product recommendations, and other aspects of digital experiences to map to individuals’ stated preferences.

This, and what follows in that Salesforce post, is a pitch for brands to play nice and use surveys and stuff like that to coax private information out of customers. It’s nice as far as it can go, but it gives no agency to customers—you and me—beyond what we can do inside each company’s CRM silo.

So here are some questions that might be helpful:

  • What if the customer shows up as somebody who already likes red and is ready to say so to trusted brands? Or, better yet, if the customer arrives with a verifiable claim that she is already a customer, or that she has good credit, or that she is ready to buy something?
  • What if she has her own way of expressing loyalty, and that way is far more genuine, interesting and valuable to the brand than the company’s current loyalty system, which is full of gimmicks, forms of coercion, and operational overhead?
  • What if the customer carries her own privacy policy and terms of engagement (ones that actually protect the privacy of both the customer and the brand, if the brand agrees to them)?

All those scenarios yield highly valuable zero-party data. Better yet, they yield real relationships with values far above zero.

Those questions suggest just a few of the places we can go if we zero-base customer relationships outside standing CRM systems: out in the open market where customers want to be free, independent, and able to deal with many brands with tools and services of their own, through their own CRM-friendly VRM—Vendor Relationship Management—tools.

VRM reaching out to CRM implies (and will create)  a much larger middle market space than the closed and private markets isolated inside every brand’s separate CRM system.

We’re working toward that. See here.


What if we called cookies “worms”?

While you ponder that, read Exclusive: New York Times phasing out all 3rd-party advertising data, by Sara Fischer in Axios.

The cynic in me translates the headline as “Leading publishers cut out the middle creep to go direct with tracking-based advertising.” In other words, same can, nicer worms.

But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe we’ll only be tracked enough to get put into one of those “45 new proprietary first-party audience segments” or  “at least 30 more interest segments.” And maybe only tracked on site.

But we will be tracked, presumably. Something needs to put readers into segments. What else will do that?

So, here’s another question: Will these publishers track readers off-site to spy on their “interests” elsewhere? Or will tracking be confined to just what the reader does while using the site?

Anyone know?

In a post on the ProjectVRM list, Adrian Gropper says this about the GDPR (in response to what I posted here): “GDPR, like HIPAA before it, fails because it allows an unlimited number of dossiers of our personal data to be made by unlimited number of entities. Whether these copies were made with consent or without consent through re-identification, the effect is the same, a lack of transparency and of agency.”

So perhaps it’s progress that these publishers (the Axios story mentions The Washington Post and Vox as well as the NYTimes) are only keeping limited dossiers on their readers alone.

But that’s not progress enough.

We need global ways to say to every publisher how little we wish them to know about us. Also ways to keep track of what they actually do with the information they have. (And we’re working on those. )

Being able to have one’s data back (e.g. via the CCPA) is a kind of progress (as is the law’s discouragement of collection in the first place), but we need technical as well as legal mechanisms for projecting personal agency online. (Models for this are Archimedes and Marvel heroes.)  Not just more ways to opt out of being observed more than we’d like—especially when we still lack ways to audit what others do with the permissions we give them.

That’s the only way we’ll get rid of the worms.

Bonus link.

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.


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: 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.


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


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.


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 Wurst of the Web

Don’t think about what’s wrong on the Web. Think about what pays for it. Better yet, look at it.

Start by installing Privacy Badger in your browser. Then look at what it tells you about every site you visit. With very few exceptions (e.g. Internet Archive and Wikipedia), all are putting tracking beacons (the wurst cookie flavor) in your browser. These then announce your presence to many third parties, mostly unknown and all unseen, at nearly every subsequent site you visit, so you can be followed and profiled and advertised at. And your profile might be used for purposes other than advertising. There’s no way to tell.

This practice—tracking people without their invitation or knowledge—is at the dark heart and sold soul of what Shoshana Zuboff calls Surveillance Capitalism and Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger call Re-engineering Humanity. (The italicized links go to books on the topic, both of which came out in the last year. Buy them.)

While that system’s business is innocuously and misleadingly called advertising, the surveilling part of it is called adtechThe most direct ancestor of adtech is not old fashioned brand advertising. It’s direct marketing, best known as junk mail. (I explain the difference in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.) 

In the online world, brand advertising and adtech look the same, but underneath they are as different as bread and dirt. While brand advertising is aimed at broad populations and sponsors media it considers worthwhile, adtech does neither. Like junk mail, adtech wants to be personal, wants a direct response, and ignores massive negative externalities. It also uses media to mark, track and advertise at eyeballs, wherever those eyeballs might show up. (This is how, for example, a Wall Street Journal reader’s eyeballs get shot with an ad for, say, Warby Parker, on Breitbart.) So adtech follows people, profiles them, and adjusts its offerings to maximize engagement, meaning getting a click. It also works constantly to put better crosshairs on the brains of its human targets; and it does this for both advertisers and other entities interested in influencing people. (For example, to swing an election.)

For most reporters covering this, the main objects of interest are the two biggest advertising intermediaries in the world: Facebook and Google. That’s understandable, but they’re just the tip of the wurstberg.  Also, in the case of Facebook, it’s quite possible that it can’t fix itself. See here:

How easy do you think it is for Facebook to change: to respond positively to market and regulatory pressures?

Consider this possibility: it can’t.

One reason is structural. Facebook is comprised of many data centers, each the size of a Walmart or few, scattered around the world and costing many $billions to build and maintain. Those data centers maintain a vast and closed habitat where more than two billion human beings share all kinds of revealing personal shit about themselves and each other, while providing countless ways for anybody on Earth, at any budget level, to micro-target ads at highly characterized human targets, using up to millions of different combinations of targeting characteristics (including ones provided by parties outside Facebook, such as Cambridge Analytica, which have deep psychological profiles of millions of Facebook members). Hey, what could go wrong?

In three words, the whole thing.

The other reason is operational. We can see that in how Facebook has handed fixing what’s wrong with it over to thousands of human beings, all hired to do what The Wall Street Journal calls “The Worst Job in Technology: Staring at Human Depravity to Keep It Off Facebook.” Note that this is not the job of robots, AI, ML or any of the other forms of computing magic you’d like to think Facebook would be good at. Alas, even Facebook is still a long way from teaching machines to know what’s unconscionable. And can’t in the long run, because machines don’t have a conscience, much less an able one.

You know Goethe’s (or hell, Disney’s) story of The Sorceror’s Apprentice? Look it up. It’ll help. Because Mark Zuckerberg is both the the sorcerer and the apprentice in the Facebook version of the story. Worse, Zuck doesn’t have the mastery level of either one.

Nobody, not even Zuck, has enough power to control the evil spirits released by giant machines designed to violate personal privacy, produce echo chambers beyond counting and amplify tribal prejudices (including genocidal ones)—besides whatever good it does for users and advertisers.

The hard work here is lsolving the problems that corrupted Facebook so thoroughly, and are doing the same to all the media that depend on surveillance capitalism to re-engineer us all.

Meanwhile, because lawmaking is moving apace in any case, we should also come up with model laws and regulations that insist on respect for private spaces online. The browser is a private space, so let’s start there.

Here’s one constructive suggestion: get the browser makers to meet next month at IIW, an unconference that convenes twice a year at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, and work this out.

Ann Cavoukian (@AnnCavoukian) got things going on the organizational side with Privacy By Design, which is now also embodied in the GDPR. She has also made clear that the same principles should apply on the individual’s side.  So let’s call the challenge there Privacy By Default. And let’s have it work the same in all browsers.

I think it’s really pretty simple: the default is no. If we want to be tracked for targeted advertising or other marketing purposes, we should have ways to opt into that. But not some modification of the ways we have now, where every @#$%& website has its own methods, policies and terms, none of which we can track or audit. That is broken beyond repair and needs to be pushed off a cliff.

Among the capabilities we need on our side are 1) knowing what we have opted into, and 2) ways to audit what is done with information we have given to organizations, or has been gleaned about us in the course of our actions in the digital world. Until we have ways of doing both,  we need to zero-base the way targeted advertising and marketing is done in the digital world. Because spying on people without an invitation or a court order is just as wrong in the digital world as it is in the natural one. And you don’t need spying to target.

And don’t worry about lost business. There are many larger markets to be made on the other side of that line in the sand than we have right now in a world where more than 2 billion people block ads, and among the reasons they give are “Ads might compromise my online privacy,” and “Stop ads being personalized.”

Those markets will be larger because incentives will be aligned around customer agency. And they’ll want a lot more from the market’s supply side than surveillance based sausage, looking for clicks.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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. In defaulted regulatory terms, we clients are mere “data subjects,” and only server operators are privileged to be “data controllers,” “data processors,” or both.

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 doing rude things, such as sticking their hands inside our clothes without permission.

We don’t yet have those norms online, because we have no clothing there. The browser should have been clothing, but instead it became an easy way for adtech and its dependents in digital publishing to plant tracking beacons on our naked digital selves, so they could track us like marked animals across the digital frontier. That this normative is no excuse. Tracking people without their conscious and explicit invitation—or a court order—is morally wrong, massively rude, and now (at least hopefully) illegal under the GDPR and other privacy laws.

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 about.)

It is the height of fatuity for websites and services to say their cookie notice settings are “your privacy choices” when you have no power to offer, or to make, your own privacy choices, with records of those choices that you keep.

The simple fact of the matter is that 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 in all cases 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 absolute. (It’s no coincidence that more than a year ago, up to 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 by 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. Top-down privacy 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. Good and helpful though it may be, it is 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. 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 most leveraged VRM Day yet

VRM Day is coming up soon: Monday, 2 April.

Register at that link. Or, if it fails, this one. (Not sure why, but we get reports of fails with the first link on Chrome, but not other browsers. Go refigure.)

Why this one is more leveraged than any other, so far:::

Thanks to the GDPR, there is more need than ever for VRM, and more interest than ever in solutions to compliance problems that can only come from the personal side.

For example, the GDPR invites this question: What can we do as individuals that can put all the companies we deal with in compliance with the GDPR because they’re in compliance withour terms and our privacy policies? We have some answers, and we’ll talk about those.

We also have two topics we need to dive deeply into, starting at VRM Day and continuing over the following three days at IIW, also at the Computer History Museum. These too are impelled by the GDPR.

First is lexicon, or what the techies call ontology: “a formal naming and definition of the types, properties, and interrelationships of the entities that really exist in a particular domain of discourse.” In other words, What are we saying in VRM that CRM can understand—and vice versa? We’re at that point now—where VRM meets CRM. On the table will be not just be the tools and services customers will use to make themselves understood by the corporate systems of the world, but the protocols, standard code bases, ontologies and other necessities that will intermediate between the two.

Second is cooperation. The ProjectVRM wiki now has a page called Cooperative Work that needs to be substantiated by actual cooperation, now that the GDPR is approaching. How can we support each other?

Bring your answers.

See you there.

A positive look at Me2B

Somehow Martin Geddes and I were both at PIE2017 in London a few days ago and missed each other. That bums me because nobody in tech is more thoughtful and deep than Martin, and it would have been great to see him there. Still, we have his excellent report on the conference, which I highly recommend.

The theme of the conference was #Me2B, a perfect synonym (or synotag) for both #VRM and #CustomerTech, and hugely gratifying for us at ProjectVRM. As Martin says in his report,

This conference is an important one, as it has not sold its soul to the identity harvesters, nor rejected commercialism for utopian social visions by excluding them. It brings together the different parts and players, accepts the imperfection of our present reality, and celebrates the genuine progress being made.

Another pull-quote:

…if Facebook (and other identity harvesting companies) performed the same surveillance and stalking actions in the physical world as they do online, there would be riots. How dare you do that to my children, family and friends!

On the other hand, there are many people working to empower the “buy side”, helping people to make better decisions. Rather than identity harvesting, they perform “identity projection”, augmenting the power of the individual over the system of choice around them.

The main demand side commercial opportunity at the moment are applications like price comparison shopping. In the not too distant future is may transform how we eat, and drive a “food as medicine” model, paid for by life insurers to reduce claims.

The core issue is “who is my data empowering, and to what ends?”. If it is personal data, then there needs to be only one ultimate answer: it must empower you, and to your own benefit (where that is a legitimate intent, i.e. not fraud). Anything else is a tyranny to be avoided.

The good news is that these apparently unreconcilable views and systems can find a middle ground. There are technologies being built that allow for every party to win: the user, the merchant, and the identity broker. That these appear to be gaining ground, and removing the friction from the “identity supply chain”, is room for optimism.

Encouraging technologies that enable the individual to win is what ProjectVRM is all about. Same goes for Customer Commons, our nonprofit spin-off. Nice to know others (especially ones as smart and observant as Martin) see them gaining ground.

Martin also writes,

It is not merely for suppliers in the digital identity and personal information supply chain. Any enterprise can aspire to deliver a smart customer journey using smart contracts powered by personal information. All enterprises can deliver a better experience by helping customers to make better choices.


The only problem with companies delivering better experiences by themselves is that every one of them is doing it differently, often using the same back-end SaaS systems (e.g. from Salesforce, Oracle, IBM, et. al.).

We need ways customers can have their own standard ways to change personal data settings (e.g. name, address, credit card info), call for support and supply useful intelligence to any of the companies they deal with, and to do any of those in one move.

See, just as companies need scale across all the customers they deal with, customers need scale across all the companies they deal with. I visit the possibilities for that here, here, here, and here.

On the topic of privacy, here’s a bonus link.

And, since Martin takes a very useful identity angle in his report, I invite him to come to the next Internet Identity Workshop, which Phil Windley, Kaliya @IdentityWoman and I put on twice a year at the Computer History Museum. The next, our 26th, is 3-5 April 2018.



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