Cataracts for Customers

Let’s say you have an iPhone, and your carrier is AT&T.* That puts you deep inside what Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) calls a confusopoly (and illustrates here). His text explanation:

A confusopoly is a situation in which companies pretend to compete on price, service, and features but in fact they are just trying to confuse customers so no one can do comparison shopping.

Cell [mobile] phone companies are the best example of confusopolies. The average consumer finds it impossible to decipher which carrier has the best deal, so carriers don’t have normal market pressure to lower prices. It’s a virtual cartel without the illegal part.

Now let’s just take data (and leave text and voice charges aside). Whether you choose the mobile share or the individual plan, you’re certain to pay for more than you use, unless you work carefully to use exactly 300Mb, 3Gb, 5Gb or whatever you guessed you’d use when you set the plan up in the first place.

But how can you know exactly what you’ve used? Well, by doing this:

You go into settings, hit General, then Cellular, then Cellular Usage (be sure to scroll down, because it’s off the screen), then Reset Statistics. But first you’ll want to freeze the prior total by taking a screen shot. You do this by pressing the round button in the front and the rectangular one on the top, at exactly the same time. Since resetting causes the phone to forget all prior data usage, you’ll need to save the screen shots so you can track that usage, by eyeball (since you don’t have the data, just a snapshot), and do all this repeatedly, over time. Not easy. (For example, I missed screen-shooting the middle bottom one in the example above, so I created a new one just to illustrate how disadvantaged your ability to track usage actually is.

Usually you don’t need to pay much attention, especially if you’ve got a data plan in the GB rather than the MB range.  But you need to do this often if you leave the country and need to get on the Internet. Because, according to AT&T’s Affordable World Packages page, every KB will cost you $0.0150 in Canada and $0.0195 in the rest of the world. Since there are 1000KB in a MB, and 1000MB in a GB, we’re talking $15/MB and $15,000/GB in Canada and $19.50/MB and $19,500.00/GB elsewhere. This kind of non-plan tends to cause “bill shock.” In many cases, shock is an understatement. (Here’s a report on my own run-in with Sprint several years back.)

So instead you go for one of the “affordable” plans, which look like this:

att international

The overage in each case is $30/120MB, which is 25¢/MB, or $250/GB, which is 25x the overage AT&T charges on its 3GB and 5GB domestic plans for individuals.

Confused? Of course. The whole system is partially opaque, like a cataract, or frosted glass. On purpose. This whole thing is designed so the phone company’s billing system knows constantly what’s going on while you don’t.  Knowledge, by intent, is highly asymmetrical. That way they win and you lose — while thinking you’re winning because you’ve picked the “best” plan, and have avoided getting a $10,000 bill after making the mistake of watching a movie over a cell connection in London when you thought you were on the hotel wi-fi. (Easy to do. The only thing that looks different while you’re watching is a tiny wi-fi symbol at the top of the screen, which you won’t see if you’re watching the movie in landscape mode.)

Yes, AT&T does send little text warnings when you land in another country, and notifies you as well when you hit an overage threshold, at least stateside. (I dunno about overseas.) But they still hold nearly all the cards, while all you’ve got is guesswork up front and a labyrinth of screens to spelunk through just to see where you stand, cringing every time you go there, in fear that maybe you didn’t set things right in the first place, or that you forgot to turn off cellular data (steps 1-3, above) when you left your hotel room’s wi-fi zone.

This actually sucks for the phone companies as well as for their customers. That’s because customers are a company’s nerve endings in the marketplace. If a company has a genuine and respectful relationship with customers, those customers send clear and strong signals reporting on what’s actually happening in the marketplace. Company and customer see clearly together, rather than with one clear and one half-blind eye.

Mobile phone companies don’t have to suck. A good case in point is Ting, an independent mobile phone company operating here in the U.S. With Ting, you pay only for what you use. They do publish plans, but they do that only because plans are what people are used to. Beyond that it couldn’t be more simple. Each month you are either credited for what you didn’t use, or charged for what you did, if you went over your planed amount. They also publish their phone number right on the home page, and have clear help pages and forums linked there too. They do sell phones, as cheaply as they can; but they don’t subsidize any. You either bring your own phone or buy one from them. They don’t care. There is also no charge for stopping your account. Or (and this is cool) for tethering, for example by using your phone as a wi-fi hotspot.

Ting was started by customers who were tired of having to deal with mobile phone companies that game customers with gimmicks and gotchas. They’re a great model for what innovative companies in other industries can do to break up confusopolies there as well.

And I do have some* hope for AT&T. At the Retailing Summit in Dallas this week, Kelly King of AT&T did a good job reporting how hard the company is working to change its ways, and to become more customer-friendly and helpful. It was an impressive talk, and made clear how much catching up to demand all mobile data carriers have to do.

Do you know of other companies breaking out of the confusopoly mold? Let us know in the comments below.

* I don’t mean to pick on AT&T. They just happen to be my mobile phone carrier, and the one I know best. One could say the same of Sprint, TMobile and Verizon, I’m sure. (And yes, there is this, about a different division of AT&T. It matters, but it is also beside the points being made here.)

Personal vs. Personalized

In Worth The Deal? Groceries Get A Personalized Price, Ashley Gross on NPR says,

Heather Kulper is one of those people who really wants to get a good deal. She’s a mom in a suburb north of Seattle who writes a blog about coupon clipping and saving money.

On a recent shopping trip to Safeway, Kulper pulls up a special Safeway app on her phone called Just For U. It shows her deeper discounts on products that she’s likely to buy based on her shopping history. The deals are lower than the club card discount listed in the aisle. When she checks out, she gets that personalized sale price.

“This is the artisan caramelized onion bread, which is normally $4.29. Priced with the Safeway club card, it’s $2.99,” Kulper says. “But with the Just For U personalized deal, it’s 99 cents.”

Kulper says it feels a little bit like she’s getting a secret deal.

It’s kind of like the old days, when you walked into a relative’s small grocery store, and they gave you the family discount. Except now, this is a big corporation using computers to calculate exactly your propensity to buy and at what price.

She concludes,

On this most recent trip, Kulper saved 41 percent with the Just for U app and coupons — $21 altogether — on her purchases. She says she’s happy with her discount, and she doesn’t mind that Safeway knows every tiny little detail of what groceries she buys. To Kulper, it’s worth it, as long as she can save money.

I can’t find Heather Kulper’s blog (the story doesn’t provide a link, and searches go mostly to the story), but it’s clear that she’s one kind of shopper: the aggressive bargain hunter. Is Safeway trying to turn all customers into full-time bargain hunters? Hard to say at this point, because it’s not clear whether a card-carrying Safeway customer is hunting for bargains, or simply forced to use the card to avoid paying the inflated “normal” price. It’s also not clear whether a personalized discount is any different than a coupon. The image above is one I shot of a Stop & Shop scanner, telling me about one in a series of discounts it offered me, based (presumably) on past purchases at the store.

Let’s think about about turning this around, to a system you control as a customer. You share your shopping list with the stores where you like to shop, and they come back with information about what they’ve got. Maybe they tell you they’ll give you a discounted price, or maybe they’ll tell you something is out of stock, or maybe they try to switch you to buying something else. In any of those cases you should also be able to tell them what you like or don’t like about what they’re telling you, and why. What matters in this alternative system is that the system is yours, not theirs. You take the lead, you control the information you share, and you aren’t trapped into many separate relationships, each with its own system for relating with you. In other words, it’s personal — by you —rather than personalized for you.

This is VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management. It’s how you run your relationships with many different companies, rather than how they run their relationships with many different customers. (Those are called CRM, for Customer Relationship Management, a many-$billion business.)

It’s still early, so there’s lots of room for customers to take the lead in helping develop VRM tools and services. You’ll find a list here, in the ProjectVRM wiki.

Let’s help NBC prep for the 2014 Winter Olympics

ice crystals and olympics symbol

The 2012 Summer Olympics are almost over, but not the challenge of a world where more and more customers are looking to watch coverage — especially of the live kind — on devices other than TVs, and through connections other than cable and satellite.

This has proved hard for many cable and satellite TV customers (myself, for example.) who would also like to watch NBC’s coverage on computers, smartphones, tablets, or large screens connected directly over the Internet.

For example, in spite of NBC’s good efforts (in the form, for example, of smartphone and tablet apps), it has often proven hard for cable and satellite TV customers to authenticate with their providers, or to find what programming packages are required to obtain NBC’s coverage services for the olympics.

No doubt NBC will soon be sitting down with itself, and with its distribution partners, to discuss what they have learned over the last few weeks, and to begin preparing for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Customer Commons wishes to help with that, by convening an independent forum where all of us can discuss what we’ve learned, and where customers can offer constructive help.

This will not be the place to complain, or to assume that the only parties in a position to come up with good ideas and solutions are NBC and its distribution partners. Out here in the long tail, we have plenty of good ideas too, and are willing to help any way we can. (In fact, I did that for NBC’s Winter 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, by contributing ice crystal images that appeared on screen throughout the event.) We are mindful that the goods are not free for the taking, and that improvements must be worthwhile for everybody, starting with NBC and its bottom line.

We’ll start with comments here, while we set up the forum. If the forum proves successful, we will also have a body of experience that can be leveraged in other markets where meeting demands of a fast-arriving future are daunting for everybody involved. We also invite ProjectVRM and PDE.Cc developers to come help out too. (These are developers working to solve market problems from the customer side, in cooperation with sellers.)

We have a unique opportunity here, while the olympics are still going on, to direct everybody’s interests in a positive and mutually helpful direction, a year and a half before the next olympics begin. So let’s go for it.

Free vs. Followed

grasped hand The fight between the free market and the followed market is about to begin. And the way to bet is on the free market, because it’s what we know works best. Also because the followed market is nuts.  It only persists because it’s normative at the moment, and an enormous sum of investment is going into improving what’s most nuts about it: following people around and constantly guessing at what they might want (or trying to make them want something some algorithm thinks it might be able to make them want).

Let’s look at those norms a bit more closely. In the followed market, we —

  • Maintain separate logins and passwords for every site and service with which we do business, which might number in the hundreds
  • “Agree” to terms of service and privacy policies that we don’t bother to read because we have no choice but to accept them if we want to use the offered services
  • Acquiesce to stalking by sites and their third parties, even as we travel out of those sites and around the Web

In the physical world where the free market remains defaulted, you are free to be who you say you are (or to remain anonymous — that is, nameless in the literal sense), and to arrive at whatever terms are agreeable to you and the sellers you engage, with minimal coercion. This is what we enjoy when we walk through a bazaar, down Main Steet, or through a shopping mall. We don’t have to become a member of Nordstrom, or Trader Joe’s, The Container Store, or the corner grocer, to shop there, or to buy anything from them. And, when we do, we usually assume that we are not being tracked by the store after we leave.

In the followed market, we are free to choose between captors who make all the rules. Our personal identity is the separate one we have with each of them, and which they administrate. Our relationship with each of them is fully contained within their separate silo’d systems. Worst of all, we are stalked after we leave, as a matter of course. “Social” sites such as Facebook aid in surveillance by making it easy for us to spill all kinds of personal data — about ourselves and our contacts — when we “login with Facebook” elsewhere.

And its getting worse.

On July 30, 2010, The Wall Street Jounal inaugurated its What They Know series (http://wsj.com/wtk) with The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets, by Julia Angwin. Here were the key findings she reported:

• The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

• Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

• These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

The new technologies are transforming the Internet economy. Advertisers once primarily bought ads on specific Web pages—a car ad on a car site. Now, advertisers are paying a premium to follow people around the Internet, wherever they go, with highly specific marketing messages.

On the 17th of this month, in Online Tracking Ramps Up, Julia begins,

Online tracking on 50 of the most-visited websites has risen sharply since 2010, driven in part by the rise of online-advertising auctions, according to a new study by data-management company Krux Digital Inc.

The average visit to a Web page triggered 56 instances of data collection, up from just 10 instances when Krux conducted its initial study, in November 2010. The latest study was conducted last December.”The main reason for the difference is live online auctions of data about you:

Krux estimated that such auctions, known as real-time bidding exchanges, contribute to 40% of online data collection.In real-time bidding, as soon as a user visits a Web page, the visit is auctioned to the highest bidder, based on attributes such as the type of page visited or previous Web browsing by the user. The bidding is done automatically using computer algorithms.

On June 26, the Journal published On Orbitz, Mac Users Steered to Pricier Hotels, by Dana Mattioli, who writes,

The Orbitz effort, which is in its early stages, demonstrates how tracking people’s online activities can use even seemingly innocuous information—in this case, the fact that customers are visiting Orbitz.com from a Mac—to start predicting their tastes and spending habits.

Imagine walking with a friend down 5th Avenue in New York and attempting to have a conversation about the totally different scenes both of you see when you look into the stores you pass or enter together. One of you sees hats in a store window while the other sees shoes. One sees a door where the other sees a wall. One sees a counter of candies while the other sees an aisle of garden tools. When one of you pauses to look at the cosmetics counter, the colors of lipstick suddenly change, because the store — or its third parties — know it’s you and start making guesses about what you might want, or that the companies paying for shelf space in the store hope to make you want. When the other looks at the store directory, she finds that the departments have been re-arranged. Now the shoe department is to her right when it used to be to the left. The dress shoes are now in the back, and all of them are red and black. Athletic shoes are now in front, because she paused to look in the window of a sporting goods store back up the street.

Whether or not this kind of personalization works is beside a more essential point: that in today’s online marketplace we are being followed constantly, with at most only our tacit approval. Without the conscious involvement of fully human customers, operating as free and independent actors possessing full agency, the online environment has gone insane. That is, without coherence, or grounding in reality. It makes sense only to the vendor’s side of the marketplace, and even there it’s not fully together. Writes Julia Angwin in her most recent story,

More than half the time, Krux found that data collectors were piggybacking on each other. For example, when a user visited a website that had code for one tracking technology, the data collection would call out to and trigger other tracking technologies that weren’t embedded on the site. As a result of such piggybacking, websites often don’t know how much data are being collected about their users.

‘It may be the first medium where the buyers have more information about the price, the value and the amount of inventory than the seller,’ said Krux President Gordon McLeod.

In the free market, as it has been understood since our ancestors first traded shells for seeds, certain things are stable and well understood. These include not only the physical nature of locations, but social norms and protocols for interacting with each other, which begin with the assumption that the other party is a free, independent and sovereign being who controls what is public and what is private about themselves. (Which is why, for example, we tend to wear clothes in public and live in enclosed spaces.)

In the free market it would be absurd for a guy from a store to put a hand in your pocket and hold onto your leg while you walked around, saying “Don’t mind me. I’m just here to see what you’re up to. Actually I don’t want to know your name, but just to track what your body is doing so you can get the best advertising and product offerings, based on what some machines think at the moment would be best for you and for us. It’s for your own good.” Or, more literally, to do the same with an invisible robot tick that attaches to your body and sucks out your data. But in the followed market, that stuff is normative in the extreme. And it works well enough, so far, at least for the advertisers and their intermediaries, that it persists in spite of its absurdities.

The followed market will fail not only because it is absurd and offensive to human sensibilities, but because it is not as effective as the kind of simple human interactions we were all built for in the first place. We don’t have those online yet — not in the commercial space comprised of billions of competing silos. But we will. Count on it. The Web we know is just seventeen years old (dating back to the first graphical browsers in 1995).

In a general way, what the free market still lacks online is a build-out of capabilities on the customers’ side to match the build-out of capabilities on the vendors’ side. That’s what ProjectVRM has been working toward for the past six years. The result so far is a growing list of developers, projects and prospects for major breakthroughs in customer capacity to assert independence, establish privacy boundaries, and deal with vendors as self-empowered equals and not as vendor-defined and -controlled dependents.

Customer Commons’ mission is to preserve and improve the free market, both online and off, by helping customers become free and independent participants in that market. So, while ProjectVRM remains focused on development and developers, Customer Commons is focused on putting those developments to work for customers — and for giving customers a way to participate in that development, and to lead it forward.

And we welcome your help with that.

Which companies love customers?

Not love to have them, but love interacting with them, knowing them, talking with them, learning from them, involving them in the business, and letting them take the lead sometimes. (And not just by using a “loyalty card” or some other gimmick.)

In The Intention Economy, I give two examples, one offline and one on.

The first is Trader Joe’s, whose retired President, Doug Rauch, told me that his main job at the store was talking with customers. That is, literally, shopping along with them. Seeing what they liked, didn’t like, and why. Asking questions. Getting input. Trader Joe’s, he said, doesn’t just look for transactions, but for relationships. When I asked him if there was anything in the store that customers did not influence, he said no. When I told him we lived in Santa Barbara, he asked if we shopped at the store on Milpas Street or the newer one near Upper State. I was impressed. The dude was based in Massachusetts and still knew every store, and had shopped along with customers at every one he went to as well.

The online example is Zappo’s, which encourages its service people to maximize interaction with customers on phones. The company also welcomes exceptions. For example, I have wide feet: 9 1/2 EE. Shopping just for what fits me is easy. A few minutes ago I bought replacements for my several-year-old ASICS Gel-Cumulus 13 athletic shoes. The old ones look more worn than they really are, so I got some fresh ones. There was no reason to work with a human in this case, but I sensed a human sensibility to the ease with which I could find and get what I wanted. (The Kid and I like to sing, “Shop like a man, fast as you can,” to the tune of the Four Seasons‘ old “Walk Like a Man.”)

So who else is there? You tell us, in the comments below. No restrictions. The only qualifications are the ones I laid out in the first sentence. And tell us why, too.

Privacy is personal

In the physical world, we govern privacy with clothes and walls, buttons, zippers, windows and doors. (See Clothing as a privacy system.)

We also see privacy as a thing that can be possessed. That’s the framing for statements like, “Give me some privacy, and “Don’t take away my privacy.”

On another hand (there can be many), we also see privacy as a state of being: “This is private.” “Keep this private.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines privacy as “1. a) The quality or condition of being secluded from the presence or view of others; b) The state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion: a person’s right to privacy”; and  “2. The state of being concealed; secrecy.” The Collins English Dictionary (at that same link) adds one more: “3. (Philosophy) Philosophy the condition of being necessarily restricted to a single person.” The boldface is mine. I like that one. (And not just because I majored in philosophy, back in the decade.)

That’s the noun. To mine the derivational vein, we must also dig the adjective. Here’s American Heritage on private:

  1. a. Secluded from the sight, presence, or intrusion of others: a private hideaway; b. Designed or intended for one’s exclusive use: a private room.
  2. a. Of or confined to the individual; personal: a private joke; private opinions.private road b. Undertaken on an individual basis: private studies; private research. c. Of, relating to, or receiving special hospital services and privileges: a private patient.
  3. Not available for public use, control, or participation: a private club; a private party.
  4. a. Belonging to a particular person or persons, as opposed to the public or the government: private property. b. Of, relating to, or derived from nongovernment sources: private funding. c. Conducted and supported primarily by individuals or groups not affiliated with governmental agencies or corporations: a private college; a private sanatorium. d. Enrolled in or attending a private school: a private student.
  5. Not holding an official or public position: a private citizen.
  6. a. Not for public knowledge or disclosure; secret: private papers; a private communication. b. Not appropriate for use or display in public; intimate: private behavior; a private tragedy. c. Placing a high value on personal privacy: a private person.

Here’s what it says about deep sources for private (and also for privacy): “Middle English privat from Latin privatusnot in public life, past participle of privare, to release, deprive, from privussingle, alone… Indo-European roots.”

Thus, here in the everyday vernacular of the physical world, privacy is well understood, and has been since before we had History. But “here” now also constitutes the virtual world, where you are equally present, and reading this text right now. In the physical “here,” your privacy is provided by what you’re wearing and where you locate yourself. Your choices in the virtual “here” are not so plain and clear. Not yet, anyway. At best we can only hope that the stuff we try to keep private will stay that way. And it is best lately to hope less than you used to, because there is a large and growing business in abusing your privacy in the virtual world. That business is advertising. For that business, your privacy is a problem that can only be solved with a promise: Trust us. We not only respect your privacy, but are in business to help you. Buy stuff, that is.

Credit where due: the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) is deeply concerned about privacy, and requires that its members adhere to a raft of privacy principles. Here’s one: “Businesses collecting or using information about individual consumers for interactive advertising purposes should provide choice, where appropriate, to that individual. Consumers also should receive relevant education regarding cross-industry opportunities to opt out of the collection or use of individual information or other methods to exercise choice.”

However well-intended this might be, it’s a window fan blowing against the storm of wealth-creation that the “interactive” advertising business has become. On Friday, Facebook went public with a valuation exceeding $100 billion. Its business is advertising. So is Google’s, with a market cap hovering around $200 billion. The goal for both companies is to “personalize” advertising as much as possible. This requires making their machines learn all they can about you, whether you know it or not. And, for all their talk about providing choices, they’d rather you not shut out their tentacles or cover their prying eyes.

If you want to operate on the Web today, it is almost impossible to avoid either company, or the thousands of other that are in the business of knowing as much as possible about you, so that information can be sold to advertisers and their agencies. Wanting to maximize the sum and quality of information about individuals is at absolute odds with those companies’ stated commitments to privacy — as well as individuals’ own sense, based on experience in the physical world, of what privacy is and how it should work.

Did you know that, when you go to a site that has a Facebook “like” button, Facebook will know you were there, even if you don’t click on the button? Also, says Consumer Reports, “Even if you have restricted your information to be seen by friends only, a friend who is using a Facebook app could allow your data to be transferred to a third party without your knowledge.” And, adds Abine, “You know those Facebook Like and Connect buttons you see on almost every website?  They’re not just for sharing: they’re tracking devices.  Facebook buttons can track both members and non-members of Facebook, even if you never click them.  They transmit your clicks, browsing history, IP address, and more to Facebook.”

Is Facebook going to stop doing that kind of thing on their own, when they believe it’s also the very thing that makes them the most money?

Not surprisingly, Consumer Reports’ parent, Consumers Union, wants a policy solution. That is, new laws that restrict the ability of Facebook and others to, for example, track us without our permission. Meanwhile CU has also put up the HearUsNow site, as a way for individuals to demand better treatment by Facebook. The White House has also issued a Privacy Bill of Rights, which offers guidelines for lawmaking.

In his landmark book, Understanding Privacy, Raymond Solove details the many ways that privacy is nearly impossible to pin down in legal argument, much less in policy. So, while he notes in the first sentence of his first chapter, “Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis pronounced it ‘the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men,'” he later adds that “legal scholar Arthur Miller has declared that privacy is ‘difficult to define because it is exasperatingly vague and evanescent.'” Solove’s own case is that “the value of privacy must be determined on the basis of its importance to society, not in terms of individual rights.” He adds, “the value of privacy in a particular context depends on the social importance of the activities it facilitates.” The prescriptive chapters of the book are devoted to laying out a taxonomic framework for understanding privacy problems. Because, sensibly, “A lucid, comprehensive, and concrete understanding of privacy will aid the creation of law and policy to address privacy issues.”

Which is fine, if you think corporations and governments are the only actors in the marketplace with full agency. That is, with the ability to act, and to cause effects. As individuals on the Web, we don’t have that ability today. (Imagine having a website agree to your terms and conditions, rather than the reverse.) One symptom of that is the call for legislative protection, which we wouldn’t have if we had full agency. So, the thinking goes, “We can’t protect ourselves, so the government should step in.”

I’m against that, at least for now, because I don’t believe we’ve done enough to empower individuals on their own. I’d rather we work on equipping individuals to enjoy full agency, as independent and sovereign beings, in the online marketplace as well as in the offline one. Or, in other words, to break out of the calf-cow system (called “client-server”) that we’ve been stuck in since 1995. I believe the personal nature of privacy, as it has been understood plainly since the late Pleistocene, requires that.

Some of the tools are already there. Public key cryptography, for example. Link contracts in XDI. The stuff Alec Muffett starts talking about in Slide 47 of his presentation here. Same goes for much of the work being done by the ProjectVRM development community. As ordinary folk we don’t need to understand the technologies behind all that work, but it helps to know that we’re not starting from zero.

At the very least we need some perspective here, based on the fact that we have hardly begun to explore what it will take to create physical-grade privacy on the Net. And that as we do, we need to keep it personal. That’s where privacy is best understood and measured. There is also cause and effect. If you and I don’t have privacy online, society won’t either.

 

 

How C2B becomes more like B2B

Buyer's Insights imageRay Collins in Buyer Insights asks, How Long Before Consumers Start Buying Like Corporations? He sees “B2C markets going the way of B2B markets with a dramatic shift in power from seller to buyer.”

In business-speak, B2B is business-to-business, and C2B is consumer- (or customer-) to-business. Or vice versa, as used above. The context here is an increase in power on the buy side in general.

Ray adds,

For many decades there has been talk of an end to the era of mass marketing. However, until now it was just talk. That is because although targeting the ‘customer of one’ sounded good, the technology did not exist to make it possible.

A new book by Doc Searls called ‘The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge‘ envisions how new technology will kill the age of mass marketing. It means an end to the ‘Calf – Cow model’ where the consumer is powerless and the supplier is all-powerful.

No longer will consumers be simply”targeted” “captured”,” “locked-in,” “owned” and “managed” by sellers!

… This is the information or  ’Big Data’ age. As consumers we leave a rich digital trail through our use of; loyalty cards, online retailers, web browsers and online search engines, as well as our social networking pages.

For sellers this information is power. But that may not always be the case.

Instead of sellers using this data to sell more effectively to consumers, how can consumers use it to buy more effectively from sellers? Well, the answer is an emerging technology called VRM.

‘VRM, or vendor relationship management is a category of business activity made possible by software tools that provide customers with both independence from vendors and better means for engaging with vendors.’ That is the definition fromProject VRM at Harvard.

To quote Doc Searls: ‘For most of the industrial age, companies have been obsessed with getting the attention of prospects and customers…’ But now ‘we can make our intentions known personally and in ways that can cause and sustain genuine relationships. And, where no relationship is required, we can connect, do business, and move on, with less cost and hassle than ever.’

…In the Attention Economy of mass marketing vendors focused on getting the buyer’s attention and marketing, or advertising was all powerful.   But in The Intention Economy the consumer buyer notifies the market of the intent to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer’s purchase. It is a shift in the balance of power and that is something that B2B sellers know all about.

Iain Henderson of The Customer’s Voice has done much research comparing B2B relations with C2B, and found many thousands of variables in the former and just a handful in the latter. This owed to a relatively even balance of power between customers and vendors in the B2B world (even given the changes Ray notes in his post), and a lopsided one in the C2B world, in favor of the vendor’s (B) side. As customers get more power, however, the variables will only go up, and with them will also rise choices for both sides.

For example, today no company is ready to hear a customer name his or her own terms (or preference for terms) in a C2B interaction (sometimes called a “ceremony”). Few companies are ready to hear a personal RFP or “intentcast” by customers in the wild. Ray (who writes in the U.K.) gives two examples of those:

  • I am looking for a mountain bike, in Hull, with 500 pounds to spend – p.s. as my facebook wall shows I am into extreme biking and am rather tall!
  • I am looking for a child’s stroller in the Lewisham area and have 150 to spend – p.s. I am a member of the fair trade alliance, so ethical products appeal to me.

As VRM development matures, we’ll start seeing these scenarios becoming common.

A sense of bewronging

“Social networks” are getting out of control. And I don’t mean their control. I mean your control and mine. Here’s an image to keep in mind while you read the rest of this post:

The calf is you or me. The cow is just one of our many social networks. Here’s how the situation looks from my browser…

  • I have 840 contacts . I won’t call them friends, though some of them are. A few are relatives, but most are neither. They’re people I’ve met or had contact with, somehow, somewhere. I also have 675 “friend requests.” If you’re on that list and want to contact me, find another way, since I avoid Facebook for all but the unavoidable (such as, say, a reunion that’s being organized by relatives).
  • I have 480 contacts , most of which I know about as well as my contacts on Facebook. I also belong to one Linkedin discussion group that I haven’t figured out how to deal with yet, mostly because I prefer my discussion groups in email, where I can sort them out into boxes of my own making. I see that Linkedin now also has updates on the Twitter model (and via Twitter). I see why they do it, but I don’t need it.
  • I have 212 contacts on Flickr (plus more through three other accounts). I don’t know and don’t follow most of those contacts, because to me Flickr is is for sharing photos with the world in organized ways. While I appreciate the groups there, I’ve organized none, and when my photos show up in some, it’s always because other people — most of which I don’t know — have put them there. I also know few if any of the people who have put more than 200 of my photos on Wikimedia Commons, a gallery of photos eligible for inclusion in Wikipedia articles. (And, in fact, most of my shots in the Commons are also in Wikipedia.) Again, this is not a social effect. Also note that in the Wikipedia case that there isn’t a business model anywhere in sight (aside from the $50/year I gladly pay for my two “pro” Flickr accounts).
  • I follow 1352 entities (most are people, some are companies or organizations) , and am followed by 13,096 others. I am sure most of us, whoever (and whatever) we are, don’t know each other. I use Twitter to find and share interesting stuff in short postings. This may be “social,” but only in a very loose sense.
  • I don’t know how many “friends” or contacts I have on Google, because I can’t find a number, or a list. My iGoogle page (which I view in just one of the four browsers I use) lists eight alphabetically before it runs out out of space at the letter N. I don’t know how to scroll down to see the rest, and I’m not much interested in trying. In any case the number is a tiny subset of lists elsewhere. For what it’s worth, I use Google’s services for many different things (docs, self-organized groups, mail de-spamming), but “social” stuff is not among them.
  • The address book on my computer lists 1162 cards, including a growing number of dead people, dead companies, and dead numbers from live companies. Yesterday I weeded the number of Verizon contact numbers down from six to one.
  • My main chat client, which spans four different contact lists and accounts (AIM-iChat, Google, Linux Journal and the Berkman Center), currently shows 35 available. I don’t know what the total number of contacts there is. Several hundred, I guess.
  • My other chat account, Skype, doesn’t integrate with those in the last paragraph and doesn’t give me a count of people online and off. I’m guessing I have about fifty contacts there.

The job of integrating all of these is mine, and I don’t bother, because the tools for doing that don’t yet exist — at least not in sufficient maturity for me to contemplate using them. Thus I am not yet what  calls the point of integration for my own data. In fact I can’t be, because most of the data in these “social networks” is not mine. Functionally (if not also legally), it’s theirs. And I’m just a calf for each of them.

Of course, all these companies want to help me do everything, by leveraging the “social” data they have about me. Mostly they give me advertising that doesn’t help, but sometimes they just try to improve their meat and potatoes with “social” gravy. The latest example is Google, with “” recommendations. These augment Google’s third improvement to , through a button“to publicly give something your stamp of approval.” The idea: “Your +1′s can help friends, contacts, and others on the web find the best stuff when they search,” because “sometimes it’s easier to find exactly what you’re looking for when someone you know already found it.”

Why does Google think we want to “find the best stuff” all the time — as if all we do is shop, or something like it? Sure, they make their money with advertising, but I think the real reason is that they can’t resist the temptation to route “social” signals into everything else. Hey, it’s what the other kids are doing.

Since so much of what those kids do is invisible to us, they try to get away with all kinds of stuff. For more on what they’re doing, read The Wall Street Journal‘sWhat They Know series  http://wsj.com/wtk), and Joe Andrieu’s ISharedWhatFacebook login simulation site, which shows you how much personal data — yours and your friends’ — might get spilled every time you click on one of these:

They get away with it because the calf-cow system allows it. Also because the World Wide Ranch is getting really freaking huge. By some counts there are more than a billion commercial sites on the Web. Just by the sheer numbers involved, the default assumption is that most searches have commercial purposes. That’s what you’re likely to find in any case.

It’s interesting that non-advertising search results are now called “organic,” as if they were some kind of marginalized exception, of interest only to to a few obsessive purists.

Says Wikipedia, “Organic search results are listings on search engine results pages that appear because of their relevance to the search terms, as opposed to their being advertisements. In contrast, non-organic search results may include pay per click advertising.” How quaint and retro, to think that some search results should simply be relevant to search terms, without commercial prejudice by the search engine.

In respect to Google’s recent search improvements, I submit that organic searches are still what people want most, and that “social” help is marginal at best and distracting at worst.

Take yesterday morning, when I was wondering what accounts for ground conductivity. This was, admittedly, an idle distraction of the sort I wrote about later in the day, in World Wide Puddle. I mean, I didn’t really need to know what accounts for ground conductivity, especially since it’s a question I’ve had for about fifty years, and I haven’t suffered for lack of an answer. But search engines are here for a reason, so I looked again.

Google says it finds more than six million results in a search for “ground conductivity”. The top result is the FCC’s M3 maps page, which I’d expect. These maps explain why, for example, , a 5000-watt radio station on 570am in Yankton, South Dakota, has a signal that reaches from Canada to Oklahoma, while WWNC, a station on the same channel in Asheville, North Carolina, operating with the same power, covers an area only a fraction the size of WNAX’s. For a broadcast engineering junkie like me, this is catnip, but it doesn’t explain why ground conductivity varies from one region to another. I mean, why does flat ground in Long Island have almost no ground conductivity (0.5 mhos/meter) while equally flat ground around Dallas has very high ground conductivity (30 mhos/meter). Why do mountains in New England have low conductivity (2-4 mhos/meter) while mountains in coastal California have high conductivity (8-30 mhos/meter)? The M3 maps don’t say.

In the second result, Wikipedia says “Ground conductivity refers to theelectrical conductivity of the subsurface of the earth.” But that’s about it.

The third result, from Tom K1JJ, tells how to measure ground conductivity, but doesn’t explain the cause.

Next is a Facebook page on the subject, with a write-up lifted straight out of Wikipedia. It is recommended to me, with thumbs up, by two people I know: a nephew of mine and a fellow broadcast engineering obsessive. There is no discussion, and the page says “0 people like this”.

Two decades ago, when Compuserve hosted a large variety of excellent forums, I belonged to a broadcast engineering social network of sorts (though few of us met in real life). But today I don’t have one, even on Facebook — and the rest of my many “social networks” are no help with searches like this one.

Hmm… I just thought, “maybe Quora could provide some help. I just went there in the browser where Quora’s cookies for me are parked. It still wants me to log in, and a minute has passed while the progress thing on the bottom of the page says “Waiting for Facebook.” Okay, I’m there now, and I just put up the question, “What causes ground conductivity?”. According to Quora, I have “981 Followers485 Following” and “6 @Mentions” there. Will one or more of them get me an answer? Interesting experiment. We’ll see.

Whatever happens on Quora, I have no faith that my searches on Google will be improved by anybody’s “+1,” any more than my searches have been improved by “social” whatever. Here’s why: usually I’m looking for something very specific. And often what I’m looking for is not for sale.

In most cases I use Google and Bing the way I use a dictionary: to look something up. I don’t need a “recommendation” when I just want to know how to spell “mocassin”. Stand back, everybody. I think the dictionary should have it. Thank you.

I learned about Google’s “+1″ feature only this morning, on Sheila Lennon’s blog. There she quotes the same Google post about “+1″:

So how do we know which +1’s to show you? Like social search, we use many signals to identify the most useful recommendations, including things like the people you are already connected to through Google (your chat buddies and contacts, for example). Soon we may also incorporate other signals, such as your connections on sites like Twitter, to ensure your recommendations are as relevant as possible. If you want to know who you’re connected to, and how, visit the “Social Circle and Content” section of the Google Dashboard.

To get started +1’ing the stuff you like, you’ll need to create a Google profile—or if you already have one, upgrade it. You can use your profile to see all of your +1’s in one place, and delete those you no longer want to recommend. To see +1’s in your Google search results you’ll need to be logged into your Google Account.

 

I just clicked on the Google Dashboard link, and found I had to log in, even though I was already logged in on a different tab in the same browser. This got me into my Google Accounts page, which has a LOT of information in a lot of contexts — all provided by Google. At the top is Gmail. Slightly edited (for the privacy of others), and with links removed, it says,

Gmail
Inbox 5000 conversations
Most recent: [18] new discussions, [15] new comments… at 9:22 AM
All mail 5000 conversations
Most recent: [18] new discussions, [15] new comments… at 9:22 AM
Sent mail 70 conversations
Most recent: ____ on Mar 31, 2011
Saved drafts 46 conversations
Most recent: progress & title on Mar 9, 2011
Chat history 60 conversations
Most recent: Chat with __________ on Mar 11, 2011
Spam 17000 conversations
Most recent: Copy of a Gucci watch is what you need … at 9:40 AMTrash 60 conversationsMost recent: Re: Sharing my TEDx Talk: The Unclear Path at 11:01 PM

 

First, I almost never go to Gmail in a browser. In fact, few people know my actual Gmail address (which is silly and has nothing to do with my real name). All mail to me at Searls.com gets routed to my Gmail account, which I use to filter out spam. I then pick up mail there from my IMAP account, which keeps copies at the server, or “in the cloud” as we now like to say.

Second, what makes Spam or Trash “conversations”? I’ll go to my grave being known as the main guy responsible for the “markets are conversations” meme, but usage like this makes me regret it.

Following Gmail on my Accounts page are:

  • Google Video (nothing uploaded)
  • Groups (33 total, mostly inactive, and not including two I just killed off)
  • Health (1 profile, which I gave up filling out long ago)
  • iGoogle (14 gadgets, 1 tab)
  • Latitude (disabled, because I like not being tracked)
  • Product search (shopping list has two items: the most recent of which reads “Most recent: Canon EOS 30D on May 27, 2006″ — a camera I bought long ago)
  • Profile (16 “about me” items, most of which I have kept vague)
  • Reader (36 subscriptions, following 11)
  • Sidewiki (no entries)
  • Sites (1 “shared with me” that I don’t know)
  • Social Circle and Content (which says,
    Direct connections from Google chat and contacts 4 connections with content; Direct connections from links listed on your Google profile 200 connections with content; Secondary connections 1788 connections with content; and Social content 3 links — and I have no idea wtf that all means)
  • Talk (23 contacts, which settles a guess I made above)
  • Web history (most recent for Web, Images, News, Products, Video, Maps, Blogs and Books — but only with this one browser, on this one laptop)
  • YouTube (a profile, plus a paucity of stuff under uploads, history, favorites, subscription, contacts and personal messages)
  • Other products (“11 additional products are not yet available in this dashboard – Show all”)

So I just spent twenty minutes weeding through and cleaning up all that stuff. I could spend similar sums of time doing the same on Linkedin, Flickr and other services. But I would rather have my own way of keeping personal information straight with myself, and sharing it selectively and when I felt like it. That’s what VRM development going on in the Personal Data Ecosystem is about. I won’t go into all the projects, but the idea they share is that each of us, as sovereign individuals, are (as Joe says) the best points of integration for our own data. None of these social sites, no matter how well-intended they may be, can do the job, simply because nothing, and nobody, can be personal for me on my behalf. If puppets are involved, they need to be mine. Not the reverse.

At the Kynetx Impact conference two weeks ago (where much fun was had), gave an interesting talk that summarized what he said last November, in a post perfectly titled
The Third Wave of the Web Will Be Uniquely Personal. He writes about three waves. The first is “information and access” — roughly what I’ve called the “static Web.” The seond is “social.” That’s the stage we’re getting fed up with now. The third is personal:

Now that the world’s information is posted, linked, indexed and searchable, and friends are connecting, sharing, liking, and following, the quest is on to streamline the noise and give the Web another dimension – one not measured by the data, or who led you to the data, but you as an individual. The third wave of the Web, I believe, is going to be about personalization by individual based on that individual’s preferences – explicitly stated or otherwise.

The declaration of the next wave of the Web being personal is not shared universally, of course. Some say the next wave is all about mobile. Others may say the next wave is all about location. But the right approach to ‘personal’ absolutely encompasses each of these things. With our smartphones and tablets being increasingly powerful, they are practically an extension of us, and we are relying on them to discover relevant things, content, places and products for us as individuals. Similarly, our location is an ingredient of who we are – for where we are impacts our decisions, and what tips are relevant, be it for news, for restaurants, lodging, dating or anything else. So “personal” as an individual is both local and mobile.

Excellent. I especially like how smartphones and tablets are extensions of ourselves in the world. (A little more about that here.) Then he adds,

Personal As In Me.

A lot of services say they are “personal”, when in fact, most of what they do is actually social.

These services may leverage your social graph to provide personalized recommendations based on what friends or other people similar to you may like – much like television shows group people of similar demographics to guess what commercials are best suited for which episodes in which time slots. The hope may be that the more your friends like something, the more likely you are to click it or buy it. Peer pressure, you know. Meanwhile, other services say they are personal because you have specifically provided them with information about you and what you like, which goes partway to discovering your interests, but is incomplete, and possibly inaccurate, as you may want to indicate that you are something that you are not, or you may have overlooked some of your own interests in the name of rapid completion.

Beyond these initial attempts is a new wave of companies trying to crack the code of the real you. Of course, my6sense is one of those companies. Our goal is to deliver a personalized experience in all possible aspects of your life, finding the right information for you at the right time in the right context, based on you as an individual. But we are not alone. Take, for example, Hunch.com, which is talking about personalizing the Internet, and says they can build a taste profile for you, based on your own unique interests and tastes. Also, in October, Mike Arrington of TechCrunch previewed Gravity, founded by former MySpace executives. In that piece, which he headlined as “The Personalization War”, he said “I saw my own Interest Graph based only on my Facebook and Twitter streams over the last several months and it’s scary-accurate.”

Louis doesn’t go off the personal rails here. He just doesn’t quite get on, staying instead on the corporate ones:

Gravity says they will help “The right information find you. Hunch says it “Personalizes the Internet”. You’ve heard me talk about my6sense for some time – discovering your “Digital intuition”. Besides the crazy folks like us who are thinking about this constantly, there are other smart companies on the case. Start with personal recommendations from TiVoAmazon and Netflix. Look at Google Reader Magic andGoogle’s Priority Inbox for Gmail. Look also at LinkedIn’s purchase of Mspoke for personal recommendations and Facebook’s splitting of theMost Recent feed and that of the News Feed.
Which makes sense: My6sense is his company. Then finally,
The continuing rapid growth of information creation and sharing, combined with pervasive connectivity, increased capability of smartphones and other mobile devices and the growth of location is all pointing us into a direction where the services on the other end have more potential to know you than those of years past, and you have the ability to be inspired by the right information in the right place more than ever before. This is a wave, one that benefits from all these mega-changes in the Web, that small companies and big ones alike are seeing. Maybe there’s another big winner in there, just like there was in the last two. Regardless, the direction is clear. Show me my Web for me.

Sorry, but no. My Web is not their Web. I’m tired of being shown. I’m tired of “experiences” that are “delivered” to me. I’m tired of bad guesswork — or anyguesswork. I don’t want “scarily accurate” guesses about me and what I might want.

What I crave is independence, and better ways of engaging — ones that are mine and not just theirs. Ones that work across multiple services in consistent ways. Ones that let me change my data with all these services at once, if I want to.

I want liberation from the commercial Web’s two-decade old design flaws. I don’t care how much a company uses first person possessive pronouns on my behalf. They are not me, they do now know me, and I do not want them pretending to be me, or shoving their tentacles into my pockets, or what their robots think is my brain. Enough, already.

I spoke at Kynetx Impact the night before Louis’ talk. The visuals are on Slideshare. Here is slide 25, which illustrates the problem with the commercial Web’s long-defaulted client-server design:

Wikipedia says, “The client–server model of computing is a distributed application structure that partitions tasks or workloads between the providers of a resource or service, called servers, and service requesters, called clients.”

So, while the Net itself has an end-to-end design, in which all the ends are essentially peers, the Web (technically an application on the Net) has a submisive-dominant design in which clients submit to servers. It’s a calf-cow model. As calves, we request pages and other files from servers, usually getting cookie ingredients mixed in, so the cow can remember where we were the last time we suckled, and also give us better services. Especially advertising.

We have no choice but to agree with this system, if we want to be part of it. And, since the cows provide all the context for everything we do with them, we have onerous “agreements” in name only, such as what you see on your iPhone every time Apple makes a change to their store:

Legal folks call these “contracts of adhesion.” Sez the Free Dictionary,

A type of contract, a legally binding agreement between two parties to do a certain thing, in which one side has all the bargaining power and uses it to write the contract primarily to his or her advantage.

An example of an adhesion contract is a standardized contract form that offers goods or services to consumers on essentially a “take it or leave it” basis without giving consumers realistic opportunities to negotiate terms that would benefit their interests. When this occurs, the consumer cannot obtain the desired product or service unless he or she acquiesces to the form contract.

Here’s the thing: client-server’s calf-cow model requires this kind of thing, because the system is designed so the server-cows are in complete control. You are not free. You are captive, and dependent.

This system has substantiated a business belief that has been around ever since Industry won the industrial revolution: that a captive customer is more valuable than a free one. We’ve built systems that tendentiously affirm that belief, and the commercial Web is chief among those systems today. Correspondingly, on the customer side, we actually believe that a free market is your choice of captor. Even champions of the free market, such as The Wall Street Journal, seem to think this is okay. (Or they wouldn’t keep talking about how telecom giants — occupants of a regulatory zoo they all but own and control — comprise the “free market” at work.)

If the next wave is personal, then we have to bring our own contexts.

Think for a moment about the context of renting a wheelbarrow. If you sign an agreement for that, it’s only to put up a deposit, pay a certain amount, assume liability for whatever harms you might cause with it, and return the thing in good condition. That’s about it.

Or think about what happens when you walk into a shoe store. You don’t have to sign a damn thing. (If you’re lucky, the store won’t require that you belong to their “loyalty” program just to get a “discount” that’s nothing more than a normal price, rather than a higher price they charge to punish non-”members”.) Your context is shopping for shoes. Laws apply, of course. You aren’t allowed to steal things or act in a disturbing way. But nobody stands at the door telling you to stop and sign an agreement — least of all one with clauses (which nearly all adhesive contracts have) saying they have the right to change the terms, and they can do that whenever they please.

We won’t get rid of calf-cow systems, nor should we. They work, but they have their limits, and those become more apparent with every new calf-cow service we join. But we can work around these things, and supplement them with other systems that give us equal power on equal footings, including the ability to proffer our own terms, express our own preferences and policies, and make independent choices.

Louis Gray’s personal wave is for real, and it’s just starting. It’s also what we’ve been building through the last four years with . And it’s starting to catch on. The number and variety of VRM development projects has grown a lot lately, as has the activity level as well.

Naturally, VRM has attracted the interest of major players on the sell side of the marketplace. A month ago I spoke on stage with  on stage at the Internet Advertising Bureau conference. (John’s insightful post about “digital plumage” ran in the same timeframe.) Next week I’ll speak at  in San Francisco and to a meeting with  and  in Minneapolis. It’ll be fun.

The message I’m bringing is not about how these companies can improve the cow systems everybody has done so much to build and improve already. It’s about how buyers and sellers are no longer just cattle, and how we now need to prove something we’ve known all along: that free customers are more valuable than captive ones.

How about using the “No Track” button we already have?

left r-buttonright r-buttonFor as long as we’ve had economies, demand and supply have been attracted to each other like a pair of magnets. Ideally, they should match up evenly and produce good outcomes. But sometimes one side comes to dominate the other, with bad effects along with good ones. Such has been the case on the Web ever since it went commercial with the invention of the cookie in 1995, resulting in a calf-cow model in which the demand side — that’s you and me — plays the submissive role of mere “users,” who pretty much have to put up with whatever rules websites set on the supply side.

Consistent with Lord Acton’s axiom (“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”) the near absolute power of website cows over user calves has resulted in near-absolute corruption of website ethics in respect to personal privacy.

This has been a subject of productive obsession by Julia Anguin and her team of reporters at The Wall Street Journal, which have been producing the What They Know series (shortcut: http://wsj.com/wtk) since July 30, 2010, when Julia by-lined The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets. The next day I called that piece a turning point. And I still believe that.

Today came another one, again in the Journal, in Julia’s latest, titled Web Firms to Adopt ‘No Track’ Button. She begins,

A coalition of Internet giants including Google Inc. has agreed to support a do-not-track button to be embedded in most Web browsers—a move that the industry had been resisting for more than a year.

The reversal is being announced as part of the White House’s call for Congress to pass a “privacy bill of rights,” that will give people greater control over the personal data collected about them.

The long White House press release headline reads,

We Can’t Wait: Obama Administration Unveils Blueprint for a “Privacy Bill of Rights” to Protect Consumers Online

Internet Advertising Networks Announces Commitment to “Do-Not-Track” Technology to Allow Consumers to Control Online Tracking

Obviously, government and industry have been working together on this one. Which is good, as far as it goes. Toward that point, Julia adds,

The new do-not-track button isn’t going to stop all Web tracking. The companies have agreed to stop using the data about people’s Web browsing habits to customize ads, and have agreed not to use the data for employment, credit, health-care or insurance purposes. But the data can still be used for some purposes such as “market research” and “product development” and can still be obtained by law enforcement officers.

The do-not-track button also wouldn’t block companies such as Facebook Inc. from tracking their members through “Like” buttons and other functions.

“It’s a good start,” said Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “But we want you to be able to not be tracked at all if you so choose.”

In the New York Times’ White House, Consumers in Mind, Offers Online Privacy Guidelines Edward Wyatt writes,

The framework for a new privacy code moves electronic commerce closer to a one-click, one-touch process by which users can tell Internet companies whether they want their online activity tracked.

Much remains to be done before consumers can click on a button in their Web browser to set their privacy standards. Congress will probably have to write legislation governing the collection and use of personal data, officials said, something that is unlikely to occur this year. And the companies that make browsers — Google, Microsoft, Apple and others — will have to agree to the new standards.

No they won’t. Buttons can be plug-ins to existing browsers. And work has already been done.VRM developers are on the case, and their ranks are growing. We have dozens of developers (at that last link) working on equipping both the demand and the supply side with tools for engaging as independent and respectful parties. In fact we already have a button that can say “Don’t track me,” plus much more — for both sides. Its calle the R-button, and it looks like this: ⊂ ⊃. (And yes, those symbols are real characters. Took a long time to find them, but they do exist.)

Yours — the user’s — is on the left. The website’s is on the right. On a browser it might look like this:

r-button in a browser

Underneath both those buttons can go many things, including preferences, policies, terms, offers, or anything else — on both sides. One of those terms can be “do not track me.” It might point to a fourth party (see explanations here and here) which, on behalf of the user or customer, maintains settings that control sharing of personal data, including the conditions that must be met. A number of development projects and companies are already on this case. Some have personal data stores (PDSes), also called “lockers” or “vaults.” These include:

Three of those are in the U.S., one in Austria, one in France, one in South Africa, and three in the U.K. (All helping drive the Midata project by the U.K. government, by the way.) And those are just companies with PDSes. There are many others working on allied technologies, standards, protocols and much more. They’re all just flying below media radar because media like to look at what big suppliers and governments are doing. Speaking of which… :-)

Here’s Julia again:

Google is expected to enable do-not-track in its Chrome Web browser by the end of this year.

Susan Wojcicki, senior vice president of advertising at Google, said the company is pleased to join “a broad industry agreement to respect the ‘Do Not Track’ header in a consistent and meaningful way that offers users choice and clearly explained browser controls.”

White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Daniel Weitzner said the do-not-track option should clear up confusion among consumers who “think they are expressing a preference and it ends up, for a set of technical reasons, that they are not.”

Some critics said the industry’s move could throw a wrench in a separate year-long effort by the World Wide Web consortium to set an international standard for do-not-track. But Mr. Ingis said he hopes the consortium could “build off of” the industry’s approach.

So here’s an invitation to the White House, Google, the 3wC, interested BigCos (including CRM companies), developers of all sizes and journalists who are interested in building out genuine and cooperative relationships between demand and supply::::

Join us at IIW — the Internet Identity Workshop — in Mountain View, May 1-3. This is the unconference where developers and other helpful parties gather to talk things over and move development forward. No speakers, no panels, no BS. Just good conversation and productive work. It’s our fourteenth one, and they’ve all been highly productive.

As for the r-button, take it and run with it. It’s there for the development. It’s meaningful. We’re past square one. We’d love to have all the participation we can get, from the big guys as well as the little ones listed above and here.

To help get your thinking started, visit this presentation of one r-button scenario, by Adam Marcus of MIT. Here’s another view of the same work, which came of of a Google Summer of Code project through ProjectVRM and the Berkman Center:

(Props to Oshani Seneviratne and David Karger, also both of MIT, and Ahmad Bakhiet, of Kings College London, for work on that project.)

If we leave fixing the calf-cow problem entirely up to the BigCos and BigGov, it won’t get fixed. We have to work from the demand side as well. In economies, customers are the 100%.

Here are some other stories, mostly gathered by Zemanta:

All look at the symptoms, and supply-side cures. Time for the demand side to demand answers from itself. Fortunately, we’ve been listening, and the answers are coming.

Oh, and by the way, Mozilla has been offering “do not track” for a long time. Other tools are also available:

Toward a new symbiosis between demand and supply

I’m listening and watching with fascination to Keith Scovell‘s Shopper Power videos. In these Keith describes progress being made in a VRM direction by retailers and their upstream suppliers, detailing efforts made by Starbucks, Hallmark, CVS, Tesco/Homeplus, Frito-Lay, Reese’s and other companies — all recognizing that customers’ range of control over interactions in retail environments is increasing dramatically, and will increase a great deal more.

I haven’t watched all of Keith’s videos yet, but I’m taking notes as I do, and I recommend that others do the same, if they’re interested in how increasingly empowered and independent customers relate to vendors — especially at the retail level in the brick & mortar world. And how clueful vendors are working on better ways of interacting with those customers.

It’s interesting that Keith is coming from the CPG — Consumer Packaged Goods — industry, and not CRM, which is most commonly posed as the counterpart to VRM. Yet I think that CPG, and retailing in general, is the more direct counterpart of VRM. Talking about where the rubber meets the road here. Keith talks about market signals, which go in both directions. One purpose of VRM is to provide better means for signaling, as well as for engaging over the longer term.

Four things are important to point out as developers on both sides get acquainted:

  1. Customers will become more independent. That is, they will have their own ways of expressing demand, loyalty, brand preferences and terms of engagement. Many of today’s solutions on the vendors’ side — loyalty cards, for example — are both coercive and inconvenient, as customers are required to carry around many of these things, all with their own proprietary and silo’d systems. New tools and systems will emerge on the customer’s side to provide both independence and better means of engagement. And those tools and systems will be personal, not just social.
  2. VRM tools will not only provide or support that independence, but common means for engaging many vendors the same way. For example, they will provide ways for a customer to change his or her address one time for many vendors rather than many times for many vendors.
  3. The new market ecosystem will be symbiotic one between demand and supply. Not a coercive or competitive one. That means the best customers and the best vendors will be caring about each other and watching out for each others’ best interests. This will actually reduce need on the vendors’ side for discounts, coupons and other gimmicks, which often clutter and confuse an otherwise smooth relationship with customers, and which have other hard costs as well.
  4. New user interface elements will be required.

For that last two reasons I’ve flanked the text above between two r-buttons. Keith visits QR codes and other handy signaling devices already being used in the retail environment. But it’s still early, so we still lack are user interface (UI) elements that represent actions and states within relationships between buyers and sellers. As work in the VRM development community goes on the demand side moves toward work Keith and others are doing on the supply side, the two magnets will place a new force field over the marketplace: one that brings mutual interests into alignment, even as competition and other familiar market interactions continue as they always have.