Customers as a Third Force

Almost all arguments in economics devolve toward one one of two almost opposed positions, which I first saw when visiting two institutions flanking the Charles River in Cambridge: Harvard Business School on one side and Harvard Kennedy School on the other. Above both I saw word balloons in the sky. On the Business School side it said “The answer is the market. What is the question?” On the Kennedy School side it said, “The answer is policy. What is the question?” And between the two I saw a river of customers, all with relatively little power to deal with either or both sides.

So I decided to devote my life’s work toward giving those customers agency—the power to act with full effect—when dealing with both the businesses and governments of the world.

That agency was lost when industry won the industrial revolution, and it remains lost in these early decades of the digital revolution. If it weren’t lost, we wouldn’t have books such as Shoshana Zuboff‘s In the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Brett Frischmann and Evan Sellinger‘s Re-Engineering Humanity, You are Not a Gadget (and pretty much everything else) by Jaron Lanier, and everything by Nicholas Carr , David Weinberger, and too many others to list.

My own work toward giving customers (and citizens) agency started with Linux Journal in 1994. It became notorious with The Cluetrain Manifesto (co-written with David Weinberger, Christopher Locke and Rick Levine) in 1999. And then (after notoriety didn’t seem to be working) became a development and research community with ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center in 2006,.

In 2012, ProjectVRM spun out Customer Commons, which since then has quietly been developing personal data usage terms that each of us can proffer, and the businesses of the world can agree to, rather than the reverse (which the GDPR has, alas, exacerbated by normalizing insincere and misleading cookie notices on the Web—a perfect example of policy failing to fix the market problem everybody two paragraphs above has been waxing wise about).

So, after Linux Journal‘s parent company decided, earlier this month, to end that magazine’s 25+ year run (and I was relieved of my duties as its editor-in-chief), I am at liberty to focus my energies on making Customer Commons what we wanted it to be in the first place: a worldwide organization of customers, ready to assert their powers, both individually and collectively, as a third force in the marketplace.

The term third force has multiple uses already, the most common of which seem especially relevant:

  •  “A group of people or nations that mediates between two opposed groups…” —  Free Dictionary
  • (A humanistic psychology that) focuses on inner needs, happiness, fulfillment, the search for identity, and other distinctly human concerns. Psychology: An Introduction, by Russell A. Dewey, PhD

Since customers and citizens are opposed to neither business nor government, but constantly look for positive outcomes in their dealings and relationships with both, third force works.

Our work as a third force is work toward surfacing, equipping, and institutionalizing, customer and citizen powers that align the interests of all three groups: interests which have thus far been subordinated to “what business can do” and “what government can do” for people.

That work requires heavier lifting than Customer Commons can do as a small and lightweight organization. We need to get big and real enough to earn power and standing when dealing with business, with governments, and with allied organizations doing complementary work.

That means we need funding.

We weren’t ready for that in the past, for two reasons. One was that we wanted to see what the GDPR would do. Now we know: it’s not enough. The other was that all of our board members (which thus far comprise the whole organization) were busy with their day jobs. Now that I’ve been liberated from mine, I’m free to talk. If you want to help make customers and citizens a true third force in the connected world’s commons, write me. I’m doc at searls dot com.

By the way, I have a milestone that I’d like to treat as a deadline for the first commitments of funding for Customer Commons: The Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Memorial Lecture, which I’ll be giving at the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University, on October 9th. In that lecture (provisionally titled “The Internet as a Commons”) I plan to make the case for a thesis we raised at the start of ProjectVRM: that free customers (and citizens) are more valuable than captive ones—to themselves and to everyone else. Also that our freedom depends on establishing a commons in a connected world—the Internet—that was designed as one in the first place. Toward that goal it will help greatly to make Customer Commons the substantive organization it was always meant to be—and one to which the world’s customers and citizens can all belong.

— Doc Searls

 

Let’s make May 25th Privmas Day

25 May is when the GDPR—the General Data Protection Regulation—went into effect. Finally, our need for privacy online has legal backing strong enough to shake the foundations of surveillance capitalism, and maybe even drop it to the ground—with our help.

This calls for a celebration. In fact, many of them. Every year.

So let’s call 25 May Privmas Day. Hashtag: #Privmas.

And, to celebrate our inaugural Privmas let’s make a movement out of blocking third party cookies, since most of the spying on us starts there. Let’s call it #NoMore3rds.

Turning off third party cookies is easy. Here’s our guide, for six different browsers.

There is much more we can do. But let’s start with #NoMore3rds, and give us all something to celebrate.

 

Privacy is personal. Let’s start there.

The GDPR won’t give us privacy. Nor will ePrivacy or any other regulation. We also won’t get it from the businesses those regulations are aimed at.

Because privacy is personal. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t have invented clothing and shelter, or social norms for signaling to each what’s okay and what’s not okay.

On the Internet we have none of those. We’re still as naked as we were in Eden.

But let’s get some perspective here:  we invented clothing and shelter long before we invented history, and most of us didn’t get online until long after Internet service providers and graphical browsers showed up in 1994.

In these early years, it has been easier and more lucrative for business to exploit our exposed selves than it has been for technology makers to sew (and sell) us the virtual equivalents of animal skins and woven fabrics.

True, we do have the primitive shields called ad blockers and tracking protectors. And, when shields are all you’ve got, they can get mighty popular. That’s why 1.7 billion people on Earth were already blocking ads online by early 2017.† This made ad blocking the largest boycott in human history. (Note: some ad blockers also block tracking, but the most popular ad blocker is in the business of selling passage for tracking to companies whose advertising is found “acceptable” on grounds other than tracking.)

In case you think this happened just because most ads are “intrusive” or poorly targeted, consider the simple fact that ad blocking has been around since 2004, yet didn’t hockey-stick until the advertising business turned into direct response marketing, hellbent on collecting personal data and targeting ads at eyeballs.††

This happened in the late ’00s, with the rise of social media platforms and programmatic “adtech.” Euphemized by its perpetrators as  “interactive,” “interest-based,” “behavioral” and “personalized,” adtech was, simply-put, tracking-based advertising. Or, as I explain at the last link direct response marketing in the guise of advertising.

The first sign that people didn’t like tracking was Do Not Track, an idea hatched by  Chris Soghoian, Sid Stamm, and Dan Kaminsky, and named after the FTC’s popular Do Not Call Registry. Since browsers get copies of Web pages by requesting them (no, we don’t really “visit” those pages—and this distinction is critical), the idea behind Do Not Track was to make to put the request not to be tracked in the header of a browser. (The header is how a browser asks to see a Web page, and then guides the data exchanges that follow.)

Do Not Track was first implemented in 2009 by Sid Stamm, then a privacy engineer at Mozilla, as an option in the company’s Firefox browser. After that, the other major browser makers implemented Do Not Track in different ways at different times, culminating in Mozilla’s decision to block third party cookies in Firefox, starting in February 2013.

Before we get to what happened next, bear in mind that Do Not Track was never anything more than a polite request to have one’s privacy respected. It imposed no requirements on site owners. In other words, it was a social signal asking site owners and their third party partners to respect the simple fact that browsers are personal spaces, and that publishers and advertisers’ rights end at a browser’s front door.

The “interactive” ad industry and its dependents in publishing responded to that brave move by stomping on Mozilla like Gozilla on Bambi:

In this 2014 post  I reported on the specifics how that went down:

Google and Facebook both said in early 2013 that they would simply ignore Do Not Track requests, which killed it right there. But death for Do Not Track was not severe enough for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which waged asymmetric PR warfare on Mozilla (the only browser maker not run by an industrial giant with a stake in the advertising business), even running red-herring shit like this on its client publishers websites:

As if Mozilla was out to harm “your small business,” or that any small business actually gave a shit.

And it worked.

In early 2013, Mozilla caved to pressure from the IAB.

Two things followed.

First, soon as it was clear that Do Not Track was a fail, ad blocking took off. You can see that in this Google Trends graph†††, published in Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November 2015 in Harvard Business Review):

Next, ad searches for “how to block ads” rose right in step with searches for retargeting, which is the most obvious evidence that advertising is following you around:

You can see that correlation in this Google Trends graph in Don Marti’s Ad Blocking: Why Now, published by DCN (the online publishers’ trade association) on 9 July 2015:

Measures of how nearly all of us continue to hate tracking were posted by Dr. Johnny Ryan (@johnnyryan) in PageFair last September. In that post, he reports on a PageFair “survey of 300+ publishers, adtech, brands, and various others, on whether users will consent to tracking under the GDPR and the ePrivacy Regulation.” Bear in mind that the people surveyed were industry insiders: people you would expect to exaggerate on behalf of continued tracking.

Here’s one result:

Johnny adds, “Only a very small proportion (3%) believe that the average user will consent to ‘web-wide’ tracking for the purposes of advertising (tracking by any party, anywhere on the web).” And yet the same survey reports “almost a third believe that users will consent if forced to do so by tracking walls,” that deny access to a website unless a visitor agrees to be tracked.”

He goes on to add, “However, almost a third believe that users will consent if forced to do so by ‘tracking walls”, that deny access to a website unless a visitor agrees to be tracked. Tracking walls, however, are prohibited under Article 7 of the GDPR, the rules of which are already formalised and will apply in law from late May 2018.[3] “

Which means that the general plan by the “interactive” advertising business is to put up those walls anyway, on the assumption that people will think they won’t get to a site’s content without consenting to tracking. We can read that in the subtext of IAB Europe‘s Transparency and Consent Framework, a work-in-progress you can follow here on Github., and read unpacked in more detail at AdvertisingConsent.eu.

So, to sum all this up, so far online what we have for privacy are: 1) popular but woefully inadequate ad blocking and tracking protection add-ons in our browsers; 2) a massively interesting regulation called the GDPR…

… and 3) plans by privacy violators to obey the letter of that regulation while continuing to violate its spirit.

So how do we fix this on the personal side? Meaning, what might we have for clothing and shelter, now that regulators and failed regulatory captors are duking it out in media that continue to think all the solutions to our problems will come from technologies and social signals other than our own?

Glad you asked. The answers will come in our next three posts here. We expect those answers to arrive in the world and have real effects—for everyone except those hellbent on tracking us—before the 25 May GDPR deadline for compliance.


† From Beyond ad blocking—the biggest boycott in human history: “According to PageFair’s 2017 Adblock Report, at least 615 million devices now block ads. That’s larger than the human population of North America. According to GlobalWebIndex, 37% of all mobile users, worldwide, were blocking adsby January of last year, and another 42% would like to. With more than 4.6 billion mobile phone usersin the world, that means 1.7 billion people are blocking ads already—a sum exceeding the population of the Western Hemisphere.”

†† It was plain old non-tracking-based advertising that not only only sponsored publishing and other ad-suported media, but burned into people’s heads nearly every brand you can name. After a $trillion or more has been spent chasing eyeballs, not one brand known to the world has been made by it. For lots more on all this, read everything you can by Bob Hoffman (@AdContrarian) and Don Marti (@dmarti).

††† Among the differences between the graph above and the current one—both generated by the same Google Trends search—are readings above zero in the latter for Do Not Track prior to 2007. While there are results in a search for “Do Not Track” in the 2004-2006 time frame, they don’t refer to the browser header approach later branded and popularized as Do Not Track.

Also, in case you’re reading this footnote, the family at the top is my father‘s. He’s the one on the left. The location was Niagara Falls and the year was 1916. Here’s the original. I flipped it horizontally so the caption would look best in the photo.

 

How customers help companies comply with the GDPR

That’s what we’re starting this Thursday (26 April) at GDPR Hack Day at MIT.

The GDPR‘s “sunrise day” — when the EU can start laying fines on companies for violations of it — is May 25th. We want to be ready for that: with a cookie of our own baking that will get us past the “gauntlet walls” of consent requirements that are already appearing on the world’s commercial websites—especially the ad-supported ones.

The reason is this:

Which you can also see in a search for GDPR.

Most of the results in that search are about what companies can do (or actually what companies can do for companies, since most results are for companies doing SEO to sell their GDPR prep services).

We propose a simpler approach: do what the user wants. That’s why the EU created the GDPR in the first place. Only in our case, we can start solving in code what regulation alone can’t do:

  1. Un-complicate things (for example, relieving sites of the need to put up a wall of permissions, some of which are sure to obtain grudging “consent” to the same awful data harvesting practices that caused the GDPR in the firs place).
  2. Give people a good way to start signaling their intentions to websites—especially business-friendly ones
  3. Give advertisers a safe way to keep doing what they are doing, without unwelcome tracking
  4. Open countless new markets by giving individuals better ways of signaling what they want from business, starting with good manners (which went out the window when all the tracking and profiling started)

What we propose is a friendly way to turn off third party tracking at all the websites a browser encounters requests for permission to track, starting with a cookie that will tell the site, in effect, first party tracking for site purposes is okay, but third party tracking is not.

If all works according to plan, that cookie will persist from site to site, getting the browser past many gauntlet walls. It will also give all those sites and their techies a clear signal of intention from the user’s side. (All this is subject to revision and improvement as we hack this thing out.)

This photo of the whiteboard at our GDPR session at IIW on April 5th shows how wide ranging and open our thinking was at the time:

Photos from the session start here. Click on your keyboard’s right (>) arrow to move through them. Session notes are on the IIW wiki here.

Here is the whiteboard in outline form:

Possible Delivery Paths

Carrots

  • Verifiable credential to signal intent
  • Ads.txt replaced by a more secure system + faster page serving
  • For publishers:
    • Ad blocking decreases
    • Subscriptions increase
    • Sponsorship becomes more attractive
  • For advertisers
    • Branding—the real kind, where pubs are sponsored directly—can come back
    • Clearly stated permissions from “data subjects” for “data processors” and “data controllers” (those are GDPR labels)
    • Will permit direct ads (programmatic placement is okay; just not based on surveillance)
    • Puts direct intentcasting from data subject (users) on the table, replacing adtech’s spying and guesswork with actual customer-driven leads and perhaps eventually a shopping cart customers take from site to site
    • Liability reduction or elimination
    • Risk management
    • SSI (self-sovereign identity) / VC (verified credential) approach —> makes demonstration of compliance automateable (for publishers and ad creative)
    • Can produce a consent receipt that works for both sides
    • Complying with a visitor’s cookie is a lot easier than hiring expensive lawyers and consultants to write gauntlet walls that violate the spirit of the GDPR while obtaining grudging compliance from users with the letter of it

Sticks

  • The GDPR, with ePrivacy right behind it, and big fines that are sure to come down
  • A privacy manager or privacy dashboard on the user’s side, with real scale across multiple sites, is inevitable. This will help bring one into the world, and sites should be ready for it.
  • Since ample research (University of Pennsylvania, AnnenbergPageFair) has made clear that most users do not want to be tracked, browser makers will be siding eventually, inevitably, with those users by amplifying tracking protections. The work we’re doing here will help guide that work—for all browser makers and add-on developers

Participating organizations (some onboard, some partially through individuals)

Sources

Additions and corrections to all the above are welcome.

So is space somewhere in Cambridge or Boston to continue discussions and hackings on Friday, April 27th.

Digging Indieweb

For perspective, we are at #2 above, spreading some love at IIW (the Internet Identity Workshop) toward Indieweb, at a breakout session hosted by Tom Brown. I’ve always liked Indieweb, and have wanted to be involved with it, but have found myself inconvenienced by geography. Not this time.

I also think everybody who wants to be involved in any way with Customer Commons should dig Indieweb as well, since it’s all about giving everybody independent yet engaging ways to work on the Web.

We’ll start with testing a webmention. This is like a pingback, but it uses an Indieweb WordPress extension.

Other stuff…

There’s a chat (read only so far for me, but you know now where it is), and an IRC channel.

Indieweb.org is itself a wiki, which can tell you everything you need to know to get started.