Tag: ProjectVRM

Do we have to “trade off” privacy?

Look up privacy trade-offs and you’ll get more than 150,000,000 results. The assumption in many of those is that privacy is something one can (and often should) trade away. Also that privacy trading is mostly done with marketers and advertisers, the most energetic of which take advantage of social media such as and .

I don’t think this has to be so.

One example of a trade-off story is this one on public radio’s Marketplace program, which I heard this evening. It begins with the case of Shea Sylvia, a FourSquare user who got creeped out by an unwelcome call from a follower who knew her location. Marketplace’s Sally Herships says,

There are millions of Sylvias out there, giving away their private information for social reasons. More and more, they’re also trading it in for financial benefits, like coupons and discounts. Social shopping websites like Blippy and Swipely let shoppers post about what they buy. But first they turn over the logins to their e-mail accounts or their credit card numbers, so their purchases can be tracked online.

Later, there’s this (the voice is Herships again):

Alessandro Acquisti researches the economics of privacy at Carnegie Mellon, and he says the value we put on privacy can easily shift. In other words, if giving away your credit card information or even your location in return for a discount or a deal seems normal, it must be OK.

ALESSANDRO ACQUISTI: Five years ago, if someone told you that there’d be lots of people going online to show, to share with strangers their credit card purchases, you probably would have been surprised, you probably would thought, “No, I can’t believe this. I wouldn’t have believed this.”

But Acquisti says, when new technologies are presented as the norm, people accept them that way. Like social shopping websites.

HERSHIPS: So the more we use sites like Blippy, the more we’ll use sites like Blippy?

ACQUISTI: Or Blippy 2.0.

Which Acquisti says will probably be even more invasive, because as time passes, we’re going to care less and less about privacy.

Back in Kansas City Shea Sylvia is feeling both better and worse. She thinks the phone call she got that night at the restaurant was probably a prank. But it was a wake up call.

What we’re dealing with here is an evanescent norm. A fashion. A craze. I’ve indulged in it myself with FourSquare, and at one point was the “mayor” of ten different places, including the #77 bus on Mass Ave in Cambridge. (In fact, I created that location.) Gradually I came to believe that it wasn’t worth the hassle of “checking in” all over the place, and was worth nothing to know Sally was at the airport, or Bill was teaching a class, or Mary was bored waiting in some check-out line, much as I might like all those people. The only time FourSquare came in handy was when a friend intercepted me on my way out of a stop in downtown Boston, and even then it felt strange.

The idea, I am sure, is that FourSquare comes to serve as a huge central clearing house for contacts between companies selling stuff and potential buyers (that’s you and me) wandering about the world. But is knowing that a near-infinite number of sellers can zero in on you at any time a Good Thing? And is the assumption that we’re out there buying stuff all the time not so wrong as to be insane?

Remember that we’re the product being sold to advertisers. The fact that our friends may be helping us out might be cool, but is that the ideal way to route our demand to supply? Or is it just one that’s fun at the moment but in the long term will produce a few hits but a lot of misses—some of which might be very personal, as was the case with Shea Silvia? (Of course I might be wrong about both assumptions. What I’m right about is that FourSquare’s business model will be based on what they get from sellers, not from you or me.)

The issue here isn’t how much our privacy is worth to the advertising mills of the world, or to intermediaries like FourSquare. It’s how we maintain and control our privacy, which is essentially priceless—even if millions of us give it away for trinkets or less. Privacy is deeply tied with who we are as human beings in the world. To be fully human is to be in control of one’s self, including the spaces we occupy.

An excellent summary of our current privacy challenge is this report by Joy L. Pitts (developed as part of health sciences policy development process at the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences). It sets context with these two quotes:

“The makers of the Constitution conferred the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by all civilized men—the right to be let alone.”

—Justice Louis Brandeis (1928)

“You already have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

—Scott McNealy, Chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems (1999)

And, in the midst of a long, thoughtful and well-developed case, it says this (I’ve dropped the footnotes, which are many):

Privacy has deep historical roots. References to a private domain, the private or domestic sphere of family, as distinct from the public sphere, have existed since the days of ancient Greece.  Indeed, the English words “private” and “privacy” are derived from the Latin privatus, meaning “restricted to the use of a particular person; peculiar to oneself, one who holds no public office.” Systematic evaluations of the concept of privacy, however, are often said to have begun with the 1890 Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis article, “The Right of Privacy,” in which the authors examined the law’s effectiveness in protecting privacy against the invasiveness of new technology and business practices (photography, other mechanical devices and newspaper enterprises). The authors, perhaps presciently, expressed concern that modern innovations had “invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and . . . threatened to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’” They equated the right of privacy with “the right to be let alone” from these outside intrusions.

Since then, the scholarly literature prescribing ideal definitions of privacy has been “extensive and inconclusive.” While many different models of privacy have been developed, they generally incorporate concepts of:

  • Solitude (being alone)
  • Seclusion (having limited contact with others)
  • Anonymity (being in a group or in public, but not having one’s name or identity known to others; not being the subject of others’ attention)
  • Secrecy or reserve (information being withheld or inaccessible to others)

In essence, privacy has to do with having or being in one’s own space.

Some describe privacy as a state or sphere where others do not have access to a person, their information, or their identity. Others focus on the ability of an individual to control who may have access to or intrude on that sphere. Alan Westin, for example, considered by some to be the “father” of contemporary privacy thought, defines privacy as “the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.” Privacy can also be seen as encompassing an individual’s right to control the quality of information they share with others.

In the context of personal information, concepts of privacy are closely intertwined with those of confidentiality and security. Privacy addresses “the question of what personal information should be collected or stored at all for a given function.” In contrast, confidentiality addresses the issue of how personal data that has been collected for one approved purpose may be held and used by the organization that collected it, what other secondary or further uses may be made of it, and when the permission of the individual is required for such uses.Unauthorized or inadvertent disclosures of data are breaches of confidentiality. Informational security is the administrative and technological infrastructure that limits unauthorized access to information. When someone hacks into a computer system, there is a breach of security (and also potentially, a breach of confidentiality). In common parlance, the term privacy is often used to encompass all three of these concepts.

Take any one of these meanings, or understandings, and be assured that it is ignored or violated in practice by large parts of today’s online advertising business—for one simple reason (I got from long ago): Individuals have no independent status on the Web. Instead we have dependent status. Our relationships (and we have many) are all defined by the entities with which we choose to relate via the Web. All those dependencies are silo’d in the systems of sellers, schools, churches, government agencies, social media, associations, whatever. You name it. You have to deal with all of them separately, on their terms, and in their spaces. Those spaces are not your spaces. (Even if they’re in a place called . Isn’t it weird to have somebody else using the first person possessive pronoun for you? It will be interesting to see how retro that will seem after it goes out of fashion.)

What I’m saying here is that, on the Web, we do all our privacy-trading in contexts that are not out in the open marketplace, much less in our own private spaces (by any of the above definitions). They’re all in closed private spaces owned by the other party—where none of the rules, none of the terms of engagement, are yours. In other words, these places can’t be private, in the sense that you control them. You don’t. And in nearly all cases (at least here in the U.S.), your “agreements” with these silos are contracts of adhesion that you can’t break or change, but the other party can—and often does.

These contexts have been so normative, for so long, that we can hardly imagine anything else, even though we have that “else” out here in the physical world. We live and sleep and travel and get along in the physical world with a well-developed understanding of what’s mine, what’s yours, what’s ours, and what’s none of those. That’s because we have an equally well-developed understanding of bounded spaces. These differ by culture. In her wonderful book , Polly Platt writes about how French —comfortable distances from others—are smaller than those of Americans. The French feel more comfortable getting close, and bump into each other more in streets, while Americans tend to want more personal space, and spread out far more when they sit. Whether she’s right about that or not, we actually have personal spaces on Earth. We don’t on the Web, and in Web’d spaces provided by others. (The Net includes more than the Web, but let’s not get into that here. The Web is big enough.)

So one reason that privacy trading is so normative is that dependency requires it. We have to trade it, if that’s what the sites we use want, regardless of how they use whatever we trade away.

The only way we can get past this problem (and it is a very real one) is to create personal spaces on the Web. Ones that we own and control. Ones where we set the terms of engagement. Ones where we decide what’s private and what’s not.

In the VRM development community we have a number of different projects and companies working on exactly this challenge.  is pure open source and has a self-explanatory name. Others (, and others) are open in many ways as well, and are working together to create (or put to use) common code, standards, protocols, terminologies and other conventions on which all of us can build privacy-supporting solutions. You’ll find links to some of the people involved in those efforts (among others) in Personal Data Stores, Exchanges, and Applications, a new post by  (of Switchbook). There’s also the One example is the and at . (For more context on that, check out Iain Henderson’s unpacking of the .) There’s also our own work at ProjectVRM and , which has lately centered on developing -like legal tools for both individuals and companies.  What matters most here is that a bunch of good developers are working on creating spaces online that are as natural, human, personal—and under personal control—as the ones we enjoy offline.

Once we have those, the need for privacy trade-offs won’t end. But they will begin to make the same kind of down-to-Earth sense they do in the physical world. And that will be a huge leap forward.

VRM Mojo Working

Think of the industrialized world as Kansas and the Internet as Oz. The difference is actually more radical than that, because the Internet is real. From the perspective of industry, the Internet is actually surreal. It’s a place that calls for depiction by Dalí, or Escher or Magritte. For example, the term “content” suggests a quantity of stuff we can “upload”, “download” and “distribute.” Yet, most of the time we are actually copying and proliferating. That’s because data moves by a process of replication. “The Internet is a copy machine”, Kevin Kelly says.

So, how do we “protect” something that is not a thing, has value, and is easily copied? Well, there are lots of ways, but maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe the better question is, Who do we share it with, and what decisions about it do we, as a couple, make about it?

Questions about protection usually devolve into arguments about ownership, and that’s a red herring. As Joe Andrieu explains in Beyond Data Ownership to Information Sharing, “sometimes the arguments behind these efforts are based on who owns—or who should own–the data. This is not just an intellectual debate or political rallying call, it often undermines our common efforts to build a better system.” Joe offers five propositions for consideration:

  1. Privacy as secrecy is dead
  2. Data sharing is data copying
  3. Transaction data has dual ownership
  4. Yours, mine, & ours: Reality is complicated
  5. Taking back ownership is confrontational

Of #3, Joe says,

In the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in a confrontation with Mr. Hand, Spicoli argues “If I’m here and you’re here, doesn’t that make it our time?” Just like the time shared between Spicoli and Mr. Hand, the information created by visiting a website is co-created and co-owned by both the visitor and the website. Every single interaction between two endpoints on the web generates at least two owners of the underlying data.

This is not a minor issue. The courts have already ruled that if an email is stored for any period of time on a server, the owner of that server has a right to read the email. So, when “my” email is out there at GMail or AOL or on our company’s servers, know that it is also, legally, factually, and functionally, already their data.

Because of all five points, Joe suggests,

Rather than building a regime based on data ownership, I believe we would be better served by building one based on authority, rights, and responsibilities. That is, based on Information Sharing.

Joe isn’t just talking here. He and others are working on exactly that regime:

At the Information Sharing Work Group at the Kantara Initiative, Iain Henderson and I are leading a conversation to create a framework for sharing information with service providers, online and off. We are coordinating with folks involved in privacy and dataportability and distinguish our effort by focusing on new information, information created for the purposes of sharing with others to enable a better service experience. Our goal is to create the technical and legal framework for Information Sharing that both protects the individual and enables new services built on previously unshared and unsharable information. In short, we are setting aside the questions of data ownership and focusing on the means for individuals to control that magical, digital pixie dust we sprinkle across every website we visit.

Because the fact is, we want to share information. We want Google to know what we are searching for. We want Orbitz to know where we want to fly. We want Cars.com to know the kind of car we are looking for.

We just don’t want that information to be abused. We don’t want to be spammed, telemarketed, and adverblasted to death. We don’t want companies stockpiling vast data warehouses of personal information outside of our control. We don’t want to be exploited by corporations leveraging asymmetric power to force us to divulge and relinquish control over our addresses, dates of birth, and the names of our friends and family.

What we want is to share our information, on our terms. We want to protect our interests and enable service providers to do truly amazing things for us and on our behalf. This is the promise of the digital age: fabulous new services, under the guidance and control of each of us, individually.

And that is precisely what Information Sharing work group at Kantara is enabling.

The work is a continuation of several years of collaboration with Doc Searls and others at ProjectVRM. We’re building on the principles and conversations of Vendor Relationship Management and User Driven Services to create an industry standard for a legal and technical solution to individually-driven Information Sharing.

Our work group, like all Kantara work groups, is open to all contributors–and non-contributing participants–at no cost. I invite everyone interested in helping create a user-driven world to join us.

It should be an exciting future.

It isn’t easy to “set aside questions of data ownership”, of course, because possession is 9/10ths of human perception. We are grabby animals. Our thumbs do not oppose for nothing. We even “grasp” ideas. This is why one of the first words a toddler utters is “mine!”

As it happens, this is also a key insight of The Mine! Project, whose About page says,

The Mine! project is about equipping people with tools and functionality that will help them:

  1. take charge of their data (content, relationships, transactions, knowledge),
  2. arrange (analyse, manipulate, combine, mash-up) it according to their needs and preferences and
  3. share it on their own terms
  4. whilst connected and networked on the web.

The Mine! aims to be an (infra)structure for other solutions – VRM (relationships with individuals and vendors, transactions), self-defined identity, authentication, data portability and hopefully many more.

These and other projects are visited by Neil Davey in a post in MyCustomer.com on VRM and the new tools of engagement. This follows up on an earlier post, based on the same interview with me. I wrote about it as well in How VRM helps CRM.

When we started here at the Berkman Center, the idea was never that we’d do this development ourselves, but would instead provide a place where we could share our thoughts, show our work, do research, publish what we’ve learned, and encourage more development.

Nice to see the mojo working.

A Declaration of Customer Independence

Peter Hirshberg tells me that we have a Declaration of Customer Independence already, and it’s called The Cluetrain Manifesto. Could be. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the 10th anniversary edition comes out in June.

Peter thinks what we need now is a Constitution. Could be that’s what we’re working toward with ProjectVRM.

Meanwhile I just found an old file in which I noodled an adaptation of Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence. So I thought I’d go ahead and post it here anyway, and see what ya’ll think. Here it is:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all customers are born free, that they are endowed by the market 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 “capturing,” “acquiring,” “retaining,” “locking in” and otherwise “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 customers’ wallets without fatting them, it is the right of customers to obsolete the coercive systems to which both sellers and customers have become accustomed. We will do this by providing ourselves with new tools for leveraging our native powers, for the good of ourselves and sellers alike.

We therefore resolve to avoid all relationships in which the privileges of loyalty are determined entirely by the seller, and to construct new terms and means of engagement that will work in mutually constructive ways for both customers and sellers, 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 act in the free and open environment we call The Marketplace.

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

I dunno. It would be fun, perhaps, to run down a long list of grievances, as did the original Declaration. Also to clean up the sylistic clash between Jefferson’s (which I copied, pasted, and edited) and my own. But I’m too busy (as are many others around here) actually building the tools we need for putting customer independence and freedom to work.

So consider this grist for our mills. And an excuse to post something after too long an absence (during which we had two excellent workshops).

What’s completely screwed about this picture

So I got an email today from Forbes, with the subject “You are Important to Us”. It says this:

Dear Subscriber:

Forbes values you as a customer and your opinions are very important to us.  We are conducting a study and would like to include your opinions.

The survey will take about 10 minutes to complete and we think you’ll find it interesting and enjoyable. Your responses will be used for research purposes only and will be held in the strictest confidence.

Simply click on the link below to visit our survey.

Click here to take the survey [The link goes to a long address that begins http://forbes.puresendmail.com/print.]

Again, we thank you so much for participation.

Sincerely,

Bruce Rogers, Chief Brand Officer – Forbes

You are receiving this email because you registered at Forbes.com LLC. and signed up to receive third party emails To manage your preferences or change your delivery address, please click here.

You may also email your opt-out request to  privacy at forbes.net or send your request in the mail directly to:

 click here.

Copyright 2008 Forbes.com LLC TM

I thought, “Hey, I’m busy, but I like Forbes, and I’m inclined to cooperate, even if I hate most surveys and would rather relate to Forbes in a less one-sided and impersonal way. So I punched on “Click here to take the survey”.

The first step was one that asked me what my title was. I have several, but none of them are from the lexicon of corporate hierarchies. So, next to “other” I wrote “fellow”. Because that’s what I am, here at the Berkman Center. (I’m also Senior Editor of Linux Journal and President of my own small company, but I went with “fellow” because I get Forbes where I live near Berkman and not at my home office in California.)

The first survey page told me the thing would take about ten minutes. That’s a lot, but I thought, “Okay, I’m still game. Let’s see how fast we can make this.”

It was over in one second. Or however long it took for the survey server to send me to a page with the title “Thank You - InsightExpress.com“. Its entire contents were this:

Return to Your Originating Web Page

I hit the back button and it went nowhere. Then I clicked on the address in the email. That timed out. So did I.

This is the point at which one might be tempted to write to Bruce Rogers or the nameless  Privacy Administrator, but Forbes has gone out of its way here to avoid human contact (no email address for Bruce, a surface mail address for ATT:Privacy Administrator — both of which scream “WE ARE AVOIDING YOU. PLEASE COOPERATE.) But that would be weak and supplicating, and I have no interest in being either. I’d rather be the good Forbes subscriber that I’ve been for years and attempt to make constructive human contact instead.

I’ll do that three ways. First is with the headline above, plus links and other bait that might get the attention of Bruce Rogers or one of his factota. [Note: I posted this at 1:12pm, and Bruce responded personally at 1:56. Well done!] Second is with an email to some folks I know at Forbes. Third, and most importantly, I’ll try to explain the VRM angle on this.

VRM is Vendor Relationship Management. It’s how customers manage relationships with vendors. (Or with other individuals, or with organizations of any kind — such as churches or governments.)

Most vendors are familiar with CRM, for Customer Relationship Management. I can’t tell if a CRM system was involved in this little exchange, but a failure of this kind is certainly within the scope of CRM’s concerns. (To visit those, check out the CRM sites for SAP, Oracle, SalesForce, Amdocs and Microsoft, which are the top four companies in an $8+ billion business.)

Right now VRM is a $0 billion business. But in the long run it’ll be big, and it’ll improve the CRM business along with it, because it’ll give CRM something more substantial than mailing addresses to relate to.

A number of development communities are working on VRM solutions right now, but rather than talk about those I’ll just say what I’d like here. Not from Forbes, but from VRM developers. If Forbes or any CRM companies want to help with that, cool.

I would like a simple dashboard that tells me what I’m subscribed to and what I’m not — both for print publications such as Forbes and for email subscriptions of every kind. I would like to have global preferences that would govern how I relate to each of those publishers, and how they relate to me. For example, I would like to throw a switch that says “No” to all third party mailings, both to my font door and to my email addresses. When I establish a relationship with a new publisher, or publication, or supplier of any kind, I would like them all to know, as a matter of policy, that I don’t want them to waste their time, money and server cycles by sending me junk mail of any kind. And that I don’t appreciate having my own bandwidth, cycles, disk space, rods, cones and time wasted dealing with any of it. I might give a global or selective thumbs up to surveys, provided I also have a standard way to send error messages and other feedback to survey sources.

On the positive side, I would also like to open conduits through which productive interaction could take place with the publishers, authors and circulation officials whose “content” I pay to get. (And even those that I don’t pay.) I would like a simple, straightforward, universally understandable way to do this, across all “content providers”, so I don’t have to relate only inside each provider’s silo. (By the way, we’re already working on change-of-address, to pick just one subcategory of subscriber-publisher interaction that can be a pain in the butt for everybody. That last link is a working draft, by the way. More work is happening off-wiki.)

That’s just one part of what we’re doing at ProjectVRM. But it’s one I’d like the “content providers” and CRM folks out there to know about. Because it’s going to happen anyway, and I’d suggest getting interested, and perhaps also involved, sooner rather than later.

VRM + CRM

Last night my wife asked me what we mean by “Free customers are more valuable than captive ones” and “equipping customers with tools of independence and engagement”. I thought about it and said, “Knights are more valuable than serfs.”

When a company speaks of “capturing”, “acquiring”, “owning” and “locking in” customers, they’re treating customers like serfs. What we want to do with VRM is make customers into knights: to arm them with status, respect, armor and weapons. But not to do battle against sellers and their fortifications. Instead, customers and sellers both need to fight against ignorance surronding the idea that the ways they can engage should be limited to the relatively few imagined by today’s CRM systems.

I’ve noticed a change in the last few months at the CRM wikipedia entry, and at CRM company websites. It seems to me that the CRM business is getting back to its original ambitions, which were all about understanding and helping individual customers — and improving the seller’s offerings in the process. There’s a limit to what can be done only from the sell side, or from researching groups rather than engaging individual customers. Some of the relationship burden needs to be borne by the buy side, by individual customers. They need tools of engagement for that. So it’s VRM + CRM, not VRM vs. CRM.

Which brings me to Paul Greenberg’s CRM 2009 – Part 2.1 – Can’t Believe I Forgot These (in which he adds two items to his 2009 CRM forecast). They are: “(8) “Feedback 3.0″ will become an intimate feature of most companies’ customer strategy” and “(7)Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) releases its first tools for the customer in 2009″. Here’s what he says:

For those of you who don’t know, VRM is something that has been on the table for a long time and has been championed by Cluetrain Manifesto writer and Web pioneer, Doc Searls.  I call it the “labor movement” for customers. It is the customer’s side of that conversation control we’ve been talking about. A VRM tool, thus is one that is unlike a CRM 2.0 tool. A CRM 2.0 tool would be something a vendor produces for the benefit of a company to engage its customers. A VRM tool would be something the customers would use to control how they relate or any or multiple vendors. If you’re interested in this thinking, go to the Project VRM wiki at Harvard Law that Doc Searls, an amazing dude, runs and read up. Worth your involvement with.  But the one thing that has had me a little concerned (as an ardent VRM believer) is that there haven’t been much in the way of tools that have at least been produced and labeled as VRM related.  One of the first that can be applied as a VRM tool, though not called as such, and a great one to start, is Cerado’s Ventana – a mobile social aggregation tool that’s used by companies and customers – it has a hybrid kind of approach. Take a look at its uses here.  But there isn’t much else. I think that 2009 will begin to see the evolution of the tools of what is already an established body of thought becoming increasingly accepted. But the tools need to come and this year is the year they will.

This is a good call. It’s also why we’ve been cautious about publicizing what the community is up to. There is in fact much work going on — around peer-to-peer relating, search, personal data stores, paychoice (where the buyer pays what they want, on their terms, for goods that are otherwise free — such as podcasts, broadcast programs and music), and symbols representing actions and relationship states. This next year we should see ProjectVRM get beefed up at the Berkman Center, the start of serious research around some of VRM’s core theses, and the formation of an independent nonprofit centered on VRM. (One model for this is Creative Commons — a concept that was the brainchild of Larry Lessig, back when he was at the Berkman Center).

We’ll also see more VRM workshops, on the East and West coast of the U.S. and in Europe. Some will be focused on vertical categories such as VRM+CRM.

So stay tuned. It’s going to be a fun year.

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