Category: Personal Data (page 1 of 6)

A Way to Peace in the Adblock War

Here is what ad blocking looks like in the physical world:


What we want to block in the online world is the same thing, only here it’s called adtech.

Like junk mail, adtech —

  • wants to get personal,
  • is data-driven,
  • is based on as much tracking as possible,
  • wants to follow you around (thats called “retargeting”)
  • mistakes tolerance for approval,
  • clogs distribution pipes,
  • is mostly litter,
  • cheapens its environment, and
  • wastes time and space in our lives.

Worse, adtech is also a vector for malware and fraud. That’s because the supply chain for adtech could include any of the following things you’ve probably never heard of, and which together turn adtech into a four-dimensional shell game:

  • Trading desks
  • SSPs (Supply Side Platforms)
  • DSPs (Demand Side Platforms)
  • Ad exchanges
  • RTB (real time bidding) and other auctions
  • Retargeters
  • DMPs (Data Management Platforms)
  • Tag managers
  • Tata aggregators
  • Brokers
  • Resellers
  • Media management systems
  • Ad servers
  • Gamifiers
  • Real time messagers
  • Social tool makers

And those are just a few I’ve gathered by hearing adtech talk to itself. Ask any publisher to tell you exactly where any adtech-placed ad came from, and they won’t know. Refresh the page and chances are that other ads will appear in the same spaces, fed down through that four-dimensional matrix of possibilities.

Want to opt out? The Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) wants you to click on a little Ad Choices button (placed in a corner of one of the minority of ads in which they appear), and then go through a series of clicks after that. And that’s only for a few participating companies.  Ghostery has a much longer opt-out list. Go there and see how many times you need to hit Page Down before you reach the bottom. Yes, the adtech business is that huge.

And there’s no easy way to know if any of these companies respected your wishes.

In marketing lingo, adtech is a form of direct response marketing, which is descended  from the direct (aka junk) mail business, not from Madison Avenue.

The difference is critical, because what we really need to block is  adtech, not all of advertising.

The baby in the adblocking bathwater is Madison Avenue, which has paid for nearly everything on newsstands, radio and TV since their beginnings. Even if we didn’t like ads fattening our magazines and interrupting our shows, we knew the economic role they played, and we appreciated their best work.

Here are three other good things about Madison Avenue advertising:

  1. It isn’t personal.
  2. It isn’t based on tracking you.
  3. You know where it comes from.

In one simple word, it’s safe. You may not like it, but you don’t have to worry about it.

The simplest way to end to the adblock war is for non-tracking-based ads — the safe Madison Avenue kind — to carry a marker* that ad  blockers can whitelist. I also recommended this in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.

(Adblock Plus, the most popular ad blocker for Web browsers, has an “acceptable ads manifesto” and a whitelist. While that’s a worthy effort, it doesn’t make a sharp distinction between tracking and non-tracking based ads.)

I also suggest that ad blockers call themselves adtech blockers, so it’s clear that the user’s problem is with the online equivalent of junk mail, and not with the kind of advertising that has supported commercial media for the duration.

As for people who want to be tracked, we’ll need an opt-in way provided by standards and code from .orgs on the individual’s side. But for now, let’s fix advertising by fixing ad blocking, and end this “war” that never should have happened.

At ProjectVRM we approve of ad and tracking blockers, because they meet the first requirement of VRM tools: they give us independence. They also give us agency: the power to act with effect in the world. That’s why we list many here on the VRM developments list.

The second requirement of VRM tools is engagement. So far, ad and tracking blockers don’t engage. They just block (or filter, such as with the EFF‘s Privacy Badger).

Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.

But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store. That’s the next VRM challenge here.

Finally, for those who want to block all advertising, it’s cool that you’ve got the tools you want already. I’m sure they’ll get better too. Just bear in mind that there’s a difference between the ads that have sponsored publishing and broadcasting for the duration, and the junky stuff that has taught us to hate all advertising online, and created the market for ad blockers in the process.

*I don’t care who comes up with this, as long as it’s open source and everybody can adopt and/or respect it.


The coming collapse of surveillance marketing

A few minutes ago, on a mailing list, somebody asked me if Google hadn’t shown people don’t mind having personal data harvested as long as they get value in exchange for it. Here’s what I answered:

It’s not about Google — or Google alone. It’s about the wanton and widespread harvesting of personal data without permission, by pretty much the entire digital marketing field, or what it has become while in maximum thrall of Big Data.

That this is normative in the extreme does not make it right, or even sustainable. The market — customers like you and me — doesn’t like it. Technologists, sooner or later, will provide customers with means of control they still lack today.

The plain fact is that most people don’t like surveillance-based marketing. Study after study (by TRUSTe, Pew, Customer Commons and others) have shown that 90+% of people have problems with the way their data and their privacy are abused online.

The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers Are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploitation” by Annenberg (at the U. of Pa) says,

a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data—and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs. Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them. The study reveals that more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened.

More from Penn News:

Survey respondents were asked whether they would accept “tradeoffs,” such as discounts, in exchange for allowing their supermarkets to collect information about their grocery purchases.  Among the key findings:

    • 91 percent disagree (77 percent of them strongly) that “if companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about me without my knowing.”
    • 71 percent disagree (53 percent of them strongly) that “it’s fair for an online or physical store to monitor what I’m doing online when I’m there, in exchange for letting me use the store’s wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, without charge.”
    • 55 percent disagree (38 percent of them strongly) that “it’s okay if a store where I shop uses information it has about me to create a picture of me that improves the services they provide for me.”
Only about 4 percent agree or agree strongly with all three propositions.

But 58 percent agreed with both of the following two statements that together indicate resignation:  “I want to have control over what marketers know about me online” and “I’ve come to accept that I have little control over what marketers can learn about me online.”

The Net we know today was born only twenty years ago, when it opened to commercial activity. We are still naked there, lacking in clothing and shelter (to name two familiar privacy technologies in the physical world). Eventually we’ll have clothing and shelter in many forms, good means for preventing and permitting the ways others deal with us, and full agency in our dealings with business and government.

In the meantime we’ll have a status quo to which we remain resigned.

I suspect that even Google knows this will change.

Bonus Link.

Think about an irony here. Most brick-and-mortar merchants would be appalled at the thought of placing tracking beacons on visiting customers, to spy on them after they leave the store, just so they can be “delivered” a better “advertising experience.” And obviously, customers would hate it too. Yet many of the same merchants hardly think twice about doing the same online.

This will change because there is clear market sentiment against it. We see this through pressure toward regulation (especially in Europe), and through ad and tracking blocking rates that steadily increase.

But both regulation and blockers are stone tools. Eventually we’ll get real clothing and shelter.

That’s what we’ve been working on here with ProjectVRM. It’s taking longer than we expected at first, but it will happen, and not just because there is already a lot of VRM development going on.

It will happen because we have the Net, and the Net is not just Google and Facebook and other modern industrial giants. The Net is where all of those companies live, in the company of customers, to whom, — sooner or later, they become accountable.

Right now marketing is not taking the massive negative externalities of surveillance into account, mostly because marketing is a B2B rather than a B2C business, and there persists a blindered mania around Big Data. But they will take those externalities into account eventually, because the Cs of the world will gain the power to protect themselves against unwanted surveillance, and will provide far more useful economic signaling to the businesses of the world than marketing can ever guess at.

Once that happens, the surveillance marketing business, and what feeds it, will collapse.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln said. That was in 1858, and in respect to slavery. In 2015 the language of marketing — in which customers are “targets” to be “acquired,” “controlled,” “managed” and “locked in” — is not much different than the language of slave owners in Lincoln’s time.

This will change for the simple reason that we are not slaves. We are the ones with the money, the choice about patronage, and the network. Companies that give us full respect will be the winners in the long run. Companies that continue to treat us as less than human will suffer the consequences.

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

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

a·gen·cy (ā′jən-sē)

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

It is derived from agere: Latin for to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Baran, On Distributed Communications Networks, 1962

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




First we take Oz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus links:

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

Declaration of Customer Independence

I published one of these five years ago, way ahead of its time, which I believe has now come. (Evidence:  @BenGrubb‘s victory over Telstra.*)

So here we go again:


We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all customers are born free, that they are endowed by their creator with innate abilities to relate, to converse and and to transact — on their own terms, and in their own ways. When sellers have labored long and hard to restrict those freedoms, and to ignore and insult the capacities enjoyed naturally by customers — by speaking, for example, of “targeting,” “capturing,” “acquiring,” “retaining,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” customers as if they were slaves  — and when sellers work to inconvenience customers to the exclusive benefit of sellers themselves, for example through “loyalty programs” that require customers to carry around cards that thicken’ wallets and slow checkout in stores, it is the right of customers to obsolete the coercive systems to which both sellers and customers have become accustomed. We do this by providing ourselves with new tools for leveraging our native human powers, for the good of ourselves and sellers alike.

We therefore resolve to construct relationships in which we, the customers, control our own data, hold rights to metadata about ourselves, express loyalty at our own grace, deal in common and standard ways with all sellers and other second and third parties, protect our private persons and spaces, assert fair terms and means of engagement that work in mutually constructive ways for both ourselves and the other parties we engage, for the good of all.

We make this Declaration as free and independent persons, each with full agency, ready to form agreements, make choices, assert commitments, transact business, and otherwise function in the free and open environment we call The Marketplace.

To this we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our precious time and attention.

Comments and improvements welcome.

*Read the whole thing. It matters. Hugely.

By the way, I’ll be in New Zealand and Australia the week after next, keynoting Identity 2015 in Wellington and Customer Tech X in Melbourne, where I will also be on a number of panels. I’ll also be in Sydney for one day before heading back. Hope I can also hook up with some  of the growing number of VRM companies there. There are many on the VRM Developers List. (More on a separate post later.)

Of vaults and honey pots

Personal Blackbox ( is a new #VRM company — or so I gather, based on what they say they offer to users: “CONTROL YOUR DATA & UNLOCK ITS VALUE.”

So you’ll find them listed now on our developers list.

Here is the rest of the text on their index page:


PBB is a technology platform that gives you control of the data you produce every day.

PBB lets you gain insights into your own behaviors, and make money when you choose to give companies access to your data. The result? A new and meaningful relationship between you and your brands.

At PBB, we believe people have a right to own their data and unlock its benefits without loss of privacy, control and value. That’s why we created the Personal Data Independence Trust. Take a look and learn more about how you can own your data and its benefits.

In the meantime we are hard at work to provide you a service and a company that will make a difference. Join us to participate and we will keep you posted when we are ready to launch.

That graphic, and what seems to be said between the lines, tells me Personal Blackbox’s customers are marketers, not users.  And, as we so often hear, “If the service is free, you’re the product being sold.”

But, between the last paragraph and this one, I ran into Patrick Deegan, the Chief Technology Officer of Personal Blackbox, at the PDNYC meetup. When I asked him if the company’s customers are marketers, he said no — and that PBB (as it’s known) is doing something much different that’s not fully explained by the graphic and text above, and is tied with the Personal Data Independence Trust, about which not much is said at the link to it. (At least not yet. Keep checking back.) So I’ll withhold judgement about it until I know more, and instead pivot to the subject of VRM business models, which that graphic brings up for me.

I see two broad ones, which I’ll call vault and honey pot.

The vault model gives the individual full control over their personal data and what’s done with it, which could be anything, for any purpose. That data primarily has use value rather than sale value.

The honey pot model also gives the individual control over their personal data, but mostly toward providing a way to derive sale value for that data (or something similar, such as bargains and offers from marketers).

The context for the vault model is the individual’s whole life, and selective sharing of data with others.

The context for the honey pot model is the marketplace for qualified leads.

The vault model goes after the whole world of individuals. Being customers, or consumers, is just one of the many roles we play in that world. Who we are and what we do — embodied in our data — is infinitely larger that what’s valuable to marketers. But there’s not much money in that yet.

But there is in the honey pot model, at least for now. Simply put, the path to market success is a lot faster in the short run if you find new ways to help sellers sell.  $zillions are being spent on that, all the time. (Just look at the advertising coming along with that last link, to a search).

FWIW, I think the heart of VRM is in the vault model. But we have a big tent here, and many paths to explore. (And many metaphors to mix.)

Toward VRooMy privacy policies

Canofworms1In The nightmare of easy and simple, T.Rob unpacks the can of worms that is:

  1. one company’s privacy policy,
  2. provided by another company’s automatic privacy policy generating system, which is
  3. hosted at that other company, and binds you to their privacy policy, which binds you to
  4. three other companies’ privacy policies, none of which assure you of any privacy, really. Then,
  5. the last of these is Google’s, which “is basically summed up as ‘we own your ass'” — and worse.

The company was GeniCan — a “smart garbage can” in the midst of being crowdfunded. GeniCan, like so many other connected devices, lives in the Internet of Things, or IoT. After exploring some of the many ways that IoT is already FUBAR in the privacy realm, T.Rob offers some constructive help:

The VRM Version
There is a possible version of this device that I’d actually use.  It would be the one with the VRM-ypersonal cloud architecture.  How does that work?  Same architecture I described in San Francisco:

  • The device emits signed data over pub/sub so that secondary and tertiary recipients of data can trust it.

  • By default, the device talks to the vendor’s service so users don’t need any other service or device to make it work.

  • The device can be configured to talk to a service of the user’s choosing instead of, or in addition to that of the manufacturer.

  • The device API is open.

Since privacy policy writing for IoT is pretty much a wide-open greenfield, that provides a helpful starting point. It will be good to see who picks up on it, and how.

Preparing for the 3D/VR future

Look in the direction that meerkatMeerkat and periscopeappPeriscope both point.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most important event, ever

IIW XXIIW_XX_logothe 20th IIW — comes at a critical inflection point in the history of VRM. If you’re looking for a point of leverage on the future of customer liberation, independence and empowerment, this is it. Wall Street-sized companies around the world are beginning to grok what Main Street ones have always known: customers aren’t just “targets” to be “acquired,” “managed,” “controlled” and “locked in.” In other words, Cluetrain was right when it said this, in 1999:

if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

Now it is finally becoming clear that free customers are more valuable than captive ones: to themselves, to the companies they deal with, and to the marketplace.

But how, exactly? That’s what we’ll be working on at IIW, which runs from April 7 to 9 at the Computer History Museum, in the heart of Silicon Valley: the best venue ever created for a get-stuff-done unconference. Focusing our work is a VRM maturity framework that gives every company, analyst and journalist a list of VRM competencies, and every VRM developer a context in which to show which of those competencies they provide, and how far along they are along the maturity path. This will start paving the paths along which individuals, tool and service providers and corporate systems (e.g. CRM) can finally begin to fit their pieces together. It will also help legitimize VRM as a category. If you have a VRM or related company, now is the time to jump in and participate in the conversation. Literally. Here are some of the VRM topics and technology categories that we’ll be talking about, and placing in context in the VRM maturity framework:

Up next: a master app to give customers scale

Businesses love to say “the customer comes first,” “the customer is in charge” and that they need to “let the customer lead.” But for those things to happen, the customer customer needs to actually have the ability to do all three:  to come first, to be in charge, and to lead.

In the networked marketplace, the customer has none of those. And she’ll never get it from the companies she deals with, no matter how well-intended they might be. They can greet her by name, give her a hug and lavish discounts and benefits on her, and it won’t make a damn bit of difference, because they are only one company, and they are not her.

What she needs is native power of her own. Without it, she’s up against CRM and other B2B systems sold to the companies she deals with, all of which are designed to “target,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” customers — all terms better suited to ranching and slavery than to anything that aspires to genuine relationship.

To really come first, to really be in charge, to really lead, the customer needs powers of her own that extend across all the companies she deals with. In another word, she needs scale.

Just as companies need to scale their relationships across many customers, customers need to scale their relationships across many companies.

The customer can only get scale through tools for both independence and engagement. She already has those with her car, her purse, her phone, her personal computer, her email, her browsers, her computer. Every company she deals with respects the independence she gets from those tools, and every company has the same base-level ways of interacting with them. Those tools are also substitutable. The customer can swap them for others like it and maintain her autonomy, independence and ability to engage.

For the last eight years many dozens of developers around ProjectVRM have been working on tools and services that give customers scale. You’ll find a partial list of them here, a report on their progress here — and soon a maturity framework will appear here.

What’s still missing, I believe, is a master app for running all the customer’s relationships: an app that applies standard ways of managing relationships with companies that make and sell her things. That app should include —

  • Ways to manage gradual, selective and trust-based disclosure of
    personal identifiers, starting from a state that is anonymous
    (literally, nameless).
  • Ways to express terms and policies with which companies can agree
    (preferably automatically).
  • Ways to change personal data records (e.g. name, address, phone
    number) for every company she deals with, in one move.
  • Ways to share personal data (e.g. puchase or service intentions)
    selectively and in a mutually trusting way, with every company she
    deals with.
  • Ways to exercise full control over data spaces (“clouds”) for every thing she owns, and within which reside her relationships with companies that support
    those things.
  • Ways to engage with existing CRM, call center and other relationship systems on the vendors’ side.

I believe we have most or all of the technologies, standards, protocols, specifications and APIs we need already. What we need now is thinking and development that goes meta: one level up, to where the customer actually lives, trying to manage all these different relationships with all these different cards, apps, websites, logins, passwords and the rest of it.

The master app would not subsume all those things, but make it easier to drive them.

The master app should also be as substitutable as a car, a wallet, a purse, a phone, an email client. In other words, we should have a choice of master apps, and not be stuck again inside the exclusive offering of a single company.

Only with scale can free customers prove more valuable than captive ones. And only with mastery will customers get scale. We can’t get there with a zillion different little apps, most of which are not ours. We need a master app of our own.

And we’ll get one. I have faith that VRM developers will come through. (And I know some that are headed this way already.)

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