Category: Privacy (page 1 of 4)

Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade


Those are the three market conversations happening in the digital publishing world. Let’s look into what they’re saying, and then what more they can say that’s not being said yet.

A: Publisher-Reader

Publishing has mostly been a push medium from the start. One has always been able to write back to The Editor, and in the digital world one can tweet and post in other places, including one’s own blog. But the flow and power asymmetry is still push-dominated, and the conversation remains mostly a one-way thing, centered on editorial content. (There is also far more blocking of ads than talk about them.)

An important distinction to make here is between subscription-based pubs and free ones. The business model of subscription-supported pubs is (or at least includes) B2C: business-to-customer. The business model of free pubs is B2B: business-to-business. In the free pub case, the consumer (who is not a customer, because she isn’t paying anything) is the product sold to the pub’s customer, the advertiser.

Publishers with paying subscribers have a greater stake — and therefore interest — in opening up conversation with customers. I believe they are also less interested in fighting with customers blocking ads than are the free pubs. (It would be interesting to see research on that.)

B. Publisher-Advertiser

In the offline world, this was an uncomplicated thing. Advertisers or their agencies placed ads in publications, and paid directly for it. In the online world, ads come to publishers through a tangle of intermediaries:


Thus publishers may have no idea at any given time what ads get placed in front of what readers, or for what reason. In service to this same complex system, they also serve up far more than the pages of editorial content that attracts readers to the site. Sight unseen, they plant tracking cookies and beacons in readers’ browsers, to follow those readers around and report their doings back to third parties that help advertisers aim ads back at those readers, either on the publisher’s site or elsewhere.

We could explore the four-dimensional shell game that comprises this system, but for our purposes here let’s just say it’s a B2B conversation. That it’s a big one now doesn’t mean it has to be the only one. Many others are possible.

C. Reader-Advertiser

In traditional offline advertising, there was little if any conversation between readers and advertisers, because the main purpose of advertising was to increase awareness. (Or, as Don Marti puts it, to send an economic signal.) If there was a call to action, it usually wasn’t to do something that involved the publisher.

A lot of online advertising is still that way. But much of it is direct response advertising. This kind of advertising (as I explain in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff) is descended not from Madison Avenue, but from direct mail (aka junk mail). And (as I explain in Debugging adtech’s assumptions) it’s hard to tell the difference.

Today readers are speaking to advertisers a number of ways:

  1. Responding to ads with a click or some other gesture. (This tens to happen at percentages to the right of the decimal point.)
  2. Talking back, one way or another, over social media or their own blogs.
  3. Blocking ads, and the tracking that aims them.

Lately the rate of ad and tracking blocking by readers has gone so high that publishers and advertisers have been freaking out. This is characterized as a “war” between ad-blocking readers and publishers. At the individual level it’s just prophylaxis. At the group level it’s a boycott. Both ways it sends a message to both publishers and advertisers that much of advertising and the methods used for aiming it are not welcome.

This does not mean, however, that making those ads or their methods more welcome is the job only of advertisers and publishers. Nor does it mean that the interactions between all three parties need to be confined to the ones we have now. We’re on the Internet here.

The Internet as we know it today is only twenty years old: dating from the end of the NSFnet (on 30 April 1995) and the opening of the whole Internet to commercial activity. There are sand dunes older than Facebook, Twitter — even Google — and more durable as well. There is no reason to confine the scope of our invention to incremental adaptations of what we have. So let’s get creative here, and start by looking at, then past, the immediate crisis.

People started blocking ads for two reasons: 1) too many got icky (see the Acceptable Ads Manifesto for a list of unwanted types); 2) unwelcome tracking. Both arise from the publisher-advertiser conversation, which to the reader (aka consumer) looks like this:


Thus the non-conversation between readers blocking ads and both publishers and advertisers (A and C) looks like this:


So far.

Readers also have an interest in the persistence of the publishers they read. And they have an interest in at least some advertisers’ goods and services, or the marketplace wouldn’t exist.

Thus A and C are conversational frontiers — while B is a mess in desperate need of cleaning up.

VRM is about A and C, and it can help with B. It also goes beyond conversation to include the two other activities that comprise markets: transaction and relationship. You might visualize it as this:


From Turning the customer journey into a virtuous cycle:

One of the reasons we started ProjectVRM is that actual customers are hard to find in the CRM business. We are “leads” for Sales, “cases” in Support, “leads” again in Marketing. At the Orders stage we are destinations to which products and invoices are delivered. That’s it.

Oracle CRM, however, has a nice twist on this (and thanks to @nitinbadjatia of Oracle for sharing it*):

Oracle Twist

Here we see the “customer journey” as a path that loops between buying and owning. The blue part — OWN, on the right — is literally the customer’s own-space. As the text on the OWN loop shows, the company’s job in that space is to support and serve. As we see here…

… the place where that happens is typically the call center.

Now let’s pause to consider the curb weight of “solutions” in the world of interactivity between company and customer today. In the BUY loop of the customer journey, we have:

  1. All of advertising, which Magna Global expects to pass $.5 trillion this year
  2. All of CRM, which Gartner pegs at $18b)
  3. All the rest of marketing, which has too many segments for me to bother looking up

In the OWN loop we have a $0trillion greenfield. This is where VRM started, with personal data lockers, stores, vaults, services and (just in the last few months) clouds.

Now look around your home. What you see is mostly stuff you own. Meaning you’ve bought it already. How about basing your relationships with companies on those things, rather than over on the BUY side of the loop, where you are forced to stand under a Niagara of advertising and sales-pitching, by companies and agencies trying to “target” and “acquire” you. From marketing’s traditional point of view (the headwaters of that Niagara), the OWN loop is where they can “manage” you, “control” you, “own” you and “lock” you in. To see one way this works, check your wallets, purses, glove compartments and kitchen junk drawers for “loyalty” cards that have little if anything to do with genuine loyalty.

But what if the OWN loop actually belonged to the customer, and not to the CRM system? What if you had VRM going there, working together with CRM, at any number of touch points, including the call center?

So here are two questions for the VRM community:

  1. What are we already doing in those areas that can help move forward in A and B?
  2. What can we do that isn’t being done now?

Among things we’re already doing are:

  • Maintaining personal clouds (aka vaults, lockers, personal information management systems, from which data we control can be shared on a permitted basis with publishers and companies that want to sell us stuff, or with which we already enjoy relationships.
  • Employing intelligent personal assistants of our own.
  • Intentcasting, in which we advertise our intentions to buy (or seek services of some kind).
  • Terms individuals can assert, to start basing interactions and relationships on equal power, rather than the defaulted one-way take-it-or-leave-it non-agreements we have today.

The main challenge for publishers and advertisers is to look outside the box in which their B2B conversation happens — and the threats to that box they see in ad blocking — and to start looking at new ways of interacting with readers. And look for leadership coming from tool and service providers representing those readers. (For example, Mozilla.)

The main challenge for VRM developers is to provide more of those tools and services.

Bonus links for starters (again, I’ll add more):

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).

Signs of progress

In Fightback against internet giants’ stranglehold on personal data starts here, , John Naughton of The Guardian writes,

When the history of this period comes to be written, our great-grandchildren will marvel at the fact that billions of apparently sane individuals passively accepted this grotesquely asymmetrical deal. (They may also wonder why our governments have shown so little interest in the matter.) And future historians, diligently hunting through digital archives, will discover that there were only a few voices crying in the wilderness at the time.

Of these prophets, the most prominent are Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who was one of the pioneers of virtual reality, and Doc Searls, one of the elder statesman of the old internet who is now at the Berkman Centre at Harvard. In his book Who Owns the Future?, Lanier argued that by convincing users to give away valuable information about themselves in exchange for “free” services, firms such as Google and Facebook have accumulated colossal amounts of data (and corresponding amounts of wealth) at virtually no cost. His proposed solution is to make online transactions bidirectional, to ensure that the economic value of personal data can be realised by individuals, who at the moment just give it away.

Doc Searls has much the same argument in his book The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge but proposes a different kind of software solution – “vendor relationship management”. The basic idea is that “many market problems (including the widespread belief that customer lock-in is a ‘best practice’) can only be solved from the customer side: by making the customer a fully empowered actor in the market place, rather than one whose power in many cases is dependent on exclusive relationships with vendors, by coerced agreement provided entirely by those vendors”. In that sense, just as most big companies now use “customer relationship management” systems to manage their interactions with users, Searls thinks that customers need systems that can manage their interactions with companies, but on customers’ terms.

The underlying philosophy underpinning all attempts to level the online playing field is a belief that an individual’s data belongs to him or herself and that no one should have access to it except on terms that are controlled by the data owner. The hunt is on, therefore, for technologies (software and/or hardware) that would make this both possible and be easy to use.

Also in the UK, Lee Henshaw asks, Is Advertising Broken?  Specifics:

We’re currently reading The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge by Doc Searls, an American journalist working from Harvard University who writes about the future of business.

Advertising is broken, he says.

He argues against the trend in online advertising for reducing customers to data points and delivering us personal advertising.

“Perfectly personal advertising is a dream of advertisers, not of customers,” he writes.

Personal advertising puts us in the uncanny valley, he says. In the uncanny valley, robots start freaking us out because they appear too human.

His alternative is the intention economy. In the intention economy, we – the customers – tell the market of our intention to buy something then companies compete to sell it to us.

“The intention economy is about buyers finders sellers, not sellers finding (or ‘capturing’) buyers,” he writes.

He invites advertisers to give up what he calls their cat and mouse game and start building more meaningful relationships with customers through our personal data stores instead.

“Nothing big data offers today, in any business, is a substitute for intentionally delivered intelligence from real customers who are engaged, one to one, with retailers in a marketplace, in their own ways, on their own terms,” he writes.

Searls works from Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, where he runs Project VRM – VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management.

“VRM tools work as the demand-side counterpart of vendors’ CRM (customer relationship management) systems,” he explains.

Project VRM, he hopes, will liberate customers through tools that help us make requests for proposals to companies that are selling something we want to buy. This kind of engagement, he writes, “is the only evolutionary path out of the pure guess-work game that advertising has been for the duration”.

And he asks for answers. Feel free to volunteer some.

Also see Meaningful Consent in the Digital Economy (aka MCDE) I’ll be participating in a  workshop on MCDE  on 23- 24 February in Southampton, UK.  It’s described as “an interdisciplinary workshop on issues related to giving and obtaining user consent online, with special emphasis on privacy and data protection.”

Bonus Links: Dave Winer on How VRM works, and Consumers vs. Data Science Bad Guys, by @kinglevi) in Techcrunch.

On its 10th Anniversary, Firefox gets even more VRooMy

I just upgraded Firefox from 33.0.1 to 33.1 — the 10th Anniversary edition. When it came up, I was greeted by welcome notes and a tour that begins with this:

Firefox screen shot


And that’s just one of the new privacy-respecting goodies that come with the latest version. watch this video:


Here’s the script (with a different voice for each line), which I just transcribed:

Who owns the Internet?

The answer is no one.

The answer is everyone.

Which is why thousands of volunteers around the globe give  their time and talent

To create an Internet experience that’s owned by everyone.

And  doesn’t own you.

Where your information isn’t being bought and sold.

Where power is in your hands.

Not in a corporate database.

That’s why ten years ago we created Firefox.

Nonprofit. Non-corporate. Non-compromised.

Choosing Firefox isn’t just choosing a browser.

It’s a vote for personal freedom.

It’s how we keep your independence online burning bright.

ProjectVRM has been about two things from the start: engagement and independence. All browsers are tools for engagement. But only one stands for independence.  Hat’s off to the Mozilla and Firefox teams for standing on the side of everybody. And happy 10th anniversary.

Bonus link: a search for more on Firefox v.33.1.

Getting Respect

Respect Network (@RespectConnect) is a new kind of corporate animal: a for-profit company that is also a collection of developers and other interested parties (including nonprofits) gathered around common goals and principles. Chief among the latter is OIX‘s Respect Trust Framework, which is “designed to be self-reinforcing through use of a peer-to-peer reputation system.” Every person and organization agreeing to the framework is a peer. Here are the five principles to which all members agree:

Promise We will respect each other’s digital boundaries

Every Member promises to respect the right of every other Member to control the Member Information they share within the network and the communications they receive within the network.

Permission We will negotiate with each other in good faith

As part of this promise, every Member agrees that all sharing of Member Information and sending of communications will be by permission, and to be honest and direct about the purpose(s) for which permission is sought.

Protection We will protect the identity and data entrusted to us

As part of this promise, every Member agrees to provide reasonable protection for the privacy and security of Member Information shared with that Member.

Portability We will support other Members’ freedom of movement

As part of this promise, every Member agrees that if it hosts Member Information on behalf of another Member, the right to possess, access, control, and share the hosted information, including the right to move it to another host, belongs to the hosted Member.

Proof We will reasonably cooperate for the good of all Members

As part of this promise, every Member agrees to share the reputation metadata necessary for the health of the network, including feedback about compliance with this trust framework, and to not engage in any practices intended to game or subvert the reputation system.

The Respect Network’s founding partners are working, each in their own way, to bring the Respect Trust Framework into common use. I like it as a way to scaffold up a market for VRM tools and services.

This summer Respect Network launched a world tour on which I participated as a speaker and photographer. (Disclosures: Respect Network paid my way, and The Searls Group, my consultancy, has had a number of Respect Network partners as clients. I am also on the board of Flamingo and  Customer Commons, a nonprofit. I don’t however, play favorites. I want to see everybody doing VRM succeed, and I help all of them every way I can. ) We started in London, then hit San Francisco, Sydney and Tel Aviv before heading home to the U.S. Here’s the press coverage:

In the midst of that, Respect Network also announced crowd funding of this button:


It operates on the first  promise of the Respect Trust Framework: We will respect each others’ digital boundaries. Think of it as a safe alternative to the same kind of button by Facebook.

The campaign also launched =names (“equals names”) to go with the Respect Connect button, and much else, eventually. These names are yours alone, unlike, say, your Twitter @ handle, which Twitter owns.

There is a common saying: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product” In respect of that, =names cost something (like domain names), though not much. Selling =names are CSPs: Cloud Service Providers. There are five so far (based, respectively, in Las Vegas, Vienna, London, New York/Jerusalem and Perth):

bosonweb-logo danube_clouds-logo paoga-logo emmett_global-logo onexus-logo

They  are substitutable. Meaning you can port your =name and data cloud from one to the other as easily as you port your phone number from one company to another. (In fact the company that does this in the background for both your =name and your phone number is Neustar, another Respect Network partner.) You can also self-host your own personal cloud. Mine =name is =Doc, and it’s managed through Danube Clouds. (I actually got it a few years back. The tech behind =names has been in the works for awhile.)

The tour was something of a shakedown cruise. Lots was learned along the way, and everybody involved is re-jiggering their products, services and plans to make the most of what they picked up. I’ll share some of my own learnings for ProjectVRM in the next post.



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