February 7, 2014

You are currently browsing the daily archive for February 7, 2014.

— is happening this weekend in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. Read all about it here, here and here.

I’ll be there to help start things off, at 10am tomorrow. (Registration starts at 9am.) My job on the opening panel is to make a 2-3 minute statement of what I’d like to see in the form of legal hackery. Here goes:

  1. Restore freedom of contract and obsolete contracts of adhesion by creating standardized terms individuals can assert. I have two chapters in The Intention Economy devoted to this. (The Cyberlaw Clinic at the Berkman Center is also working on these — and corresponding terms on the business side — for Customer Commons. What gets hacked this weekend can feed into that work.)
  2. Create better means for expressing personal policies and preferences (such as Do Not Track) than are currently available — and putting these in the individual’s own tool box, rather than appearing only as choices presented by others, such as browser makers.
  3. Create graphical elements (e.g. the r-button) for both the above.

On the panel I will advocate for individuals as independent entities with full agency, rather than merely “users” of others’ systems, or victims of privacy abuse awaiting policy relief. This means I will argue for thinking and hacking toward building and filing the individual’s own tool box, rather than just tweaking the broken technical and legal systems we already have. (Though doing that is good too. Others will be there to advocate and hack on that.)

It is essential that we think outside the browser for this. While the browser began as something like your car on the information superhighway, it has since become a shopping cart that gets re-skinned with every commercial site you visit, and infested at each with tracking beacons so you can be a subject of constant surveillance. This is even true of Firefox, which I love (and within which I am writing this), and which (through Mozilla) is providing space for the San Francisco hackathon.

Let me go a little deeper on this. An example of what’s right and wrong in the browser space right now can be found Christian Heilmann‘s post, Why “Just Use Adblock” Should Never Be a Professional Answer. In it he says many good things that I agree with, enthusiastically. But he also gets one big thing wrong:

Whether we like it or not, ads are what makes the current internet work. They are what ensures the “free” we crave and benefit from, and if you dig deep enough you will find that nobody working in web development or design is not in one way or another paid by income stemming from ad sales on the web.

Saying ads are what make the Internet work is like like saying cities are what make geology work. Yes, the Internet supports commercial activity, but it is not reducible to it. For each of us to enjoy full agency on the Web, this distinction needs to be clear from the start.

Browser makers are stuck right now between many rocks (their users) and a hard place (advertising-supported websites). On the one hand they want to do right for users, and on the other they want to do right for what the ad industry now calls “publishers”. Since surveillance-fed “personalization” is big with those publishers, and lots of users don’t like it (AdBlock Plus is the top browser extention, by far), the browser makers are caught in the middle. You can see the trouble they have with this conflict in A User Personalization Proposal for Firefox, which was floated by Justin Fox of Mozilla last July. In it he writes,

We want to see even more personalization across the Web from large and small sites, but in a transparent way that retains user control. The team at Mozilla Labs is focused on exploring ways to move the Web forward, and has thought a lot about how the browser could play a role in making useful content personalization a reality.

The blowback in the comments was harsh and huge. One sample:

The last thing the internet needs is more “personalization” (read: “invasion of my privacy”). All your marketing jargon does nothing to hide the fact that this is just another tool to allow advertisers, website owners, the NSA, and others to track users online habits and, despite any good intentions you might have, it’s rife with the potential for abuse.

I’m not bringing this up to give Mozilla or the other browser makers a hard time, but to suggest that the solutions we need start outside the browser. (And seeing them that way may also be good for the browser folks.)

Simply put, what we need most are tools for ourselves, that help in our dealings with all other parties. Not just protections from bad actors, or ways to make bad practices less bad.

See ya there.