Tools

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 12.12.45 PM
We can do for everybody what Creative Commons does for artists: give them terms they can offer—and be can read and agreed to by lawyers, ordinary folks, and their machines. And then we can watch “free market” come to mean what it says, and not just “your choice of captor.”

Try to guess how many times, in the course of your life in the digital world, have “agreed” to terms like these:

URsoScrewed

Hundreds? Thousands? (Feels like) millions?

Look at the number of login/password combinations remembered by your browser. That’ll be a fraction of the true total.

Now think about what might happen if we could turn these things around. How about if sites and services could agree to our terms and conditions, and our privacy policies?

We’d have real agreements, and real relationships, freely established, between parties of equal power who both have an interest in each other’s success.

We’d have genuine (or at least better) trust, and better signaling of intentions between both parties. We’d have better exchanges of information and better control over what gets done with that information. And the information would be better too, because we wouldn’t have to lie or hide to protect our identities or our data.

We’d finally have the only basis on which the Seven Laws of Identity, issued by Kim Cameron in 2005, would actually work. Check ’em out:

laws

Think about it. None of those work unless individuals are in charge of themselves and their relationships in the digital world. And they can’t as long as only one side is in charge. What we have instead are opposites: limited control and coerced consent, maximum disclosure for unconstrained use, unjustified parties, misdirected identity, silo’d operators and technologies, inhuman integration, and inconsistent experiences across contexts of all kinds. (I’ll add links for all of those later when I have time.)

Can we fix this problem, eleven years after Kim came down from the mountain (well, Canada) with those laws?

No, we can’t. Not without leverage.

The sad fact is that we’ve been at a disadvantage since geeks based the Web on an architecture called “client-server.” I’ve been told that term was chosen because “slave-master” didn’t sound so good. Personally, I prefer calf-cow:

calf-cow

As long as we’re the calves coming to the cows for the milk of “content” (plus unwanted cookies), we’re not equals.

But once we become independent, and can assert enough power to piss off the cows that most want to take advantage of us, the story changes.

Good news: we are independent now, and controlling our own lives online is pissing off the right cows.

We’re gaining that independence through ad and tracking blockers. There are also a lot of us now. And a lot more jumping on the bandwagon.

According to PageFair and Adobe, the number of people running ad blockers alone passed 200 million last May, with annual growth rates of 41% in the world, 48% the U.S. and 82% in the U.K. alone.

Of course the “interactive” ad industry (the one that likes to track you) considers this a problem only they can solve. And, naturally, the disconnect between their urge to track and spam us, and our decision to stop all of it, is being called a “war.”

But it doesn’t have to be.

Out in the offline world, we were never at war with advertising. Sure, there’s too much of it, and a lot of it we don’t like. But we also know we wouldn’t have sports broadcasts (or sports talk radio) without it. We know how much advertising contributes to the value of the magazines and newspapers we read. (Which is worth more: a thick or a thin Vogue, Sports Illustrated, Bride’s or New York Times?) And to some degree we actually value what old fashioned Mad Men type advertising brings to the market’s table.

On the other hand, we have always been at war with the interactive form of advertising we call junk mail. Look up unwanted+mail, click on “images,” and and you’ll get something like this:

unwantedmail

What’s happened online is that the advertising business has turned into the “interactive”  junk message business. Only now you can’t tell the difference between an ad that’s there for everybody and one that’s aimed by crosshairs at your eyeballs.

The difference between real advertising and tracking-based junk messages is the same as that between wheat and chaff.

Today’s ad and tracking blockers are are primitive prophylactics: ways to protect our eyeballs from advertising and tracking. But how about if we turn these into instruments of agreement? We could agree to allow the kind of ads that pay the publisher and aren’t aimed at us by tracking.

Here at Customer Commons we’ve been working on those kinds of terms for the last several years. Helping us have been law school students and teachers, geeks and ordinary folks. Last we publishe a straw man version of those terms, they looked like this:

UserSubmittedTerms1stDraft

What those say (in the green circles) is “You (the second party) alone can use data you get from me, for as long as you want, just for your site or app, and will obey the Do Not Track request from my browser.”

This can be read easily by lawyers, ordinary folks and machines on both sides, just the way the graphic at the top of this post, borrowed from Creative Commons (or model for this), describes.

We’re also not alone.

Joining us in this effort are the Identity Ecosystem Working Group, the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium, the Consent and Information Sharing Working Group (which is working on a Consent Receipt to give agreements a way to be recorded by both parties), Mozilla and others on the ProjectVRM Development Work list.

Many people from those groups (including Kim Cameron himself) will be at IIW, the Internet Identity Workshop, at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, on the last week of next month, April 26-28. It’s an unconference. No panels, no keynotes, no plenaries. It’s all breakouts, on topics chosen by participants.

The day before, at the same location, will be VRM Day. The main topic there will be terms, and how we plan to get working versions of them in the next three days at IIW.

This is a huge opportunity. I am sure we have enough code, and enough done work on standards and the rest of it, to put up exactly the terms we can offer and publishers online can accept, and will start to end the war (that really isn’t) between publishers and their readers.

Once we have those terms in place, others can follow, opening up to much better signaling between supply and demand, because both sides are equals.

So this is an open invitation to everybody already working in this space, especially browser makers (and not just Mozilla) and the ad and tracking blockers. IIW is a perfect place to show to show what we’ve got, to work together, and to move things forward.

Let’s do it.

 

scale-leverage

Customers need scale.

Scale is leverage. A way to get lift.

Big business gets scale by aggregating resources, production methods, delivery services — and, especially, customers: you, me and billions of others without whom business would not exist.

Big business is heavy by nature. That’s why we use mass as an adjective for much of what big business does: mass manufacturing, mass distribution, mass retailing, mass marketing, and mass approaches to everything, including legal agreements.

For personal perspective on this, consider how you can’t operate your mobile phone until you click “accept” to a 55-screen list of terms and conditions you’ll never read because there’s no point to it. Privacy policies are just as bad. Few offer binding commitments and nearly all are lengthy and complicated. According to a Carnegie-Mellon study, it would take 76 work days per year just to read all the privacy policies encountered by the average person. The Atlantic says this yields an “opportunity cost” of $781 billion per year, exceeding the GNP of Florida.

We accept this kind of thing because we don’t know any other way to get along with big business, and big business doesn’t know any other way to get along with us. And we’ve had this status quo ever since industry won the Industrial Revolution.

In 1943 — perhaps the apex of the Industrial Age — law professor Friedrich Kessler called these non-agreements “contracts of adhesion,” meaning the submissive party was required to adhere to the terms of the contract while the dominant party could change whatever they liked. On one side, glue. On the other, Velcro. Kessler said contracts of adhesion were pro forma because there was no way a big business could have different contracts with thousands or millions of customers. What we lost, Kessler said, was freedom of contract, because it didn’t scale.

So, for a century and a half, in economic sectors from retail to health care, we have had dominant companies controlling captive markets, often enabled by captured regulators as well. This way of economic life is so deeply embedded that most of us believe, in effect, that “free market” means “your choice of captor.” Stockholm syndrome has become the norm, not the exception.

Thus it is also no surprise that marketing, the part of business that’s supposed to “relate” to customers, calls us “targets” and “assets” they “acquire,” “control,” “manage,” “lock in” and “own” as if we are slaves or cattle. This is also why, even though big business can’t live without us, our personal influence on it is mostly limited to cash, coerced loyalty and pavlovian responses to coupons, discounts and other marketing stimuli.

Small businesses are in the same boat. As customers, we can can relate personally, face to face, with the local cleaner or baker or nail salon. Yet, like their customers, most small businesses are also at the mercy of giant banks, credit agencies, business management software suppliers and other big business services. Many more are also crushed by big companies that use big compute power and the Internet to eliminate intermediaries in the supply chain.

It gets worse. In Foreign Policy today, Parag Khanna reports on twenty-five companies that “are more powerful than many countries.” In addition to the usual suspects (Walmart, ExxonMobil, Apple, Nestlé, Maersk) he also lists newcomers such as Uber, which is not only obsoleting the taxi business, but also the government agencies that regulate it.

It also gets more creepy, since the big craze in big business for the last few years has been harvesting “behavioral” data. While they say they’re doing it to “deliver” us a “better experience” or whatever, their main purpose is to manipulate each of us for their own gain. Here’s how Shoshana Zuboffunpacks that in Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism:

Among the many interviews I’ve conducted over the past three years, the Chief Data Scientist of a much-admired Silicon Valley company that develops applications to improve students’ learning told me, “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale. When people use our app, we can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us”…

We’ve entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.  This is a different kind of challenge now, one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been centuries, even millennia, in the making. I am thinking of matters that include, but are not limited to, the sanctity of the individual and the ideals of social equality; the development of identity, autonomy, and moral reasoning; the integrity of contract, the freedom that accrues to the making and fulfilling of promises; norms and rules of collective agreement; the functions of market democracy; the political integrity of societies; and the future of democratic sovereignty.

And that might be the short list. And an early one too.

Think about what happens when the “Internet of Things” (aka IoT) comes to populate our private selves and spaces? The marketing fantasy for IoT is people’s things reporting everything they do, so they can be studied and manipulated like laboratory mice.

Our tacit agreement to be mice in the corporate mazes amounts to a new social contract in which nobody has much of a clue about what the consequences will be. One that’s easy to imagine is personalized pricing based on intimate knowledge gained from behavioral tracking through the connected things in our lives. In the new world where our things narc on us to black boxes we can’t see or understand, our bargaining power falls to zero. So does our rank in the economic caste system.

But hope is not lost.

With the Internet, scale for individuals is thinkable, because the Internet was also designed from the start to give every node on the network the ability to connect with every other node, and to reduce the functional distance between all of them as close to zero as possible. Same with cost. As I put it in The Giant Zero,

On the Net you can have a live voice conversation with anybody anywhere, at no cost or close enough. There is no “long distance.”

On the Net you can exchange email with anybody anywhere, instantly. No postage required.

On the Net anybody can broadcast to the whole world. You don’t need to be a “station” to do it. There is no “range” or “coverage.” You don’t need antennas, beyond the unseen circuits in wireless devices.

In a 2002 interview Peter Drucker said, “In the Industrial Age, only industry was in a position to raise capital, manufacture, ship and communicate at scale, across the world. Individuals did not have that power. Now, with the Internet, they do.”*

The potential for this is summarized by the “one clue” atop The Cluetrain Manifesto, published online in April 1999 and in book form in January 2000:

Cluetrain's "one clue"

What happens when our reach is outward from our own data, kept in our own spaces, which we alone control? For other examples of what could happen, consider the personal computer, the Internet and mobile computing and communications. In each case, individuals could do far more with those things than centralized corporate or government systems ever could. It also helps to remember that big business and big government at first fought—or just didn’t understand—how much individuals could do with computing, networking and mobile communications.

Free, independent and fully human beings should be also good for business, because they are boundless sources of intelligence, invention, genuine (rather than coerced or “managed”) loyalty and useful feedback—to an infinitely greater degree than they were before the Net came along.

In The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), I describe the end state that will emerge when customers get scale with business:

Rather than guessing what might get the attention of consumers—or what might “drive” them like cattle—vendors will respond to actual intentions of customers. Once customers’ expressions of intent become abundant and clear, the range of economic interplay between supply and demand will widen, and its sum will increase… This new economy will outperform the Attention Economy that has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising. Customer intentions, well-expressed and understood, will improve marketing and sales, because both will work with better information, and both will be spared the cost and effort wasted on guesses about what customers might want, and flooding media with messages that miss their marks.

The Intention Economy reported on development work fostered by ProjectVRM, which I launched at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in 2006. Since then the list of VRM developments has grown to many dozens, around the world.

VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management. It was conceived originally as the customer-side counterpart of Customer Relationship Mangement, a $23 billion business (Gartner, 2014) that has from the start been carrying the full burden of relationship management on its own. (Here’s a nice piece about VRM, published today in CMO.)

There are concentrations of VRM development in Europe and Australia, where privacy laws are strong. This is not coincidental. Supportive policy helps. But it is essential for individuals to have means of their own for creating the online equivalent of clothing and shelter, which are the original privacy technologies in the physical world—and are still utterly lacking in the virtual one, mostly because it’s still early.

VRM development has been growing gradually and organically over the past nine years, but today are three things happening  that should accelerate development and adoption in the near term:

  1. The rise of ad, tracking and content blocking, which is now well past 200 million people. This gives individuals two new advantages: a) The ability to control what is allowed into their personal spaces within browsers and apps; and b) Potential leverage in the marketplace — the opportunity to deal as equals for the first time.
  2. Apple’s fight with the FBI, on behalf of its own customers. This too is unprecedented, and brings forward the first major corporate player to take the side of individuals in their fight for privacy and agency in the marketplace. Mozilla and the EFF are also standout players in the fight for personal freedom from surveillance, and for individual equality in dealings with business.
  3. A growing realization within CRM that VRM is a necessity for customers, and for many kinds of positive new growth opportunities. (See the Capgemini videos here.)

To take full advantage of these opportunities, VRM development is necessary but insufficient. To give customers scale, we also need an organization that does what VRM developers alone cannot: develop terms of engagement that customers can assert in their dealings with companies; certify compliance with VRM standards, hold events that customers lead and do not merely attend, prototype products (e.g. Omie) that have low commercial value but high market leverage, bring millions of members to the table when we need to bargain with giants in business — among other things that our members will decide.

That’s why we started Customer Commons, and why we need to ramp it up now. In the next post, we’ll explain how. In the meantime we welcome your thoughts.


* Drucker said roughly this in a 2001 interview published in Business 2.0 that is no longer on the Web. So I’m going from memory here.

User Terms Draft 2 Icons
User Terms Draft 2 Icons

Terms are choices you make to ask that your data and activities be treated a certain way. Customer Commons is developing terms with Kantara and the Consent and Information Sharing Working Group so that we have a standardized set of terms, which can commonly be used through browsers, apps and other forms.

It is our intention that Terms will come in Human, Legal and Engineering forms so that people can read them, they can be legally binding, and apis and code will convey and negotiate your chosen terms. The idea isn’t that you would constantly be choosing these things, but rather have your agent take your choices and negotiate for you. We also envision being able to copy someone else’s terms you trust, if you don’t understand what these choices will mean for you.

Terms may also be created that fit with various contexts, like how to handle your health data, or what to do about data you share for a purchase, verses data you share for social activity. Those will come later after the initial set is developed. What you see in the picture above are draft icons. We intend to develop prettier versions with a designer, and work with engineers to develop sample or open source code for both choosing terms, as well as responding to those term requests from individuals.

If you are interested in helping with this project, you can join CISWG UX Kantara, by getting on the mail list, signing the IP agreement (so that all contributions can be used in the project) and getting on our calls.  We hope to see you there. Or comment here with questions!

We’re overdue an update on the Omie Project…., so here goes.

To re-cap:

We at Customer Commons believe there is room/ need for a device that sits firmly on the side of the individual when it comes to their role as a customer or potential customer.
That can and will mean many things and iterations over time, but for now we’re focusing on getting a simple prototype up and running using existing freely available components that don’t lock us in to any specific avenues downstream.
Our role is demonstrate the art of the possible, catalyse the development project, and act to define what it means to ‘sit firmly on the side of the customer’.
For now, we’ve been working away behind the scenes, and now have a working prototype (Omie 0.2). But before getting into that, we should cover off the main questions that have come up around Omie since we first kicked off the project.

What defines an Omie?

At this stage we don’t propose to have a tight definition as the project could evolve in many directions; so our high level definition is that an Omie is ‘any physical device that Customer Commons licenses to use the name, and which therefore conforms to the ‘customer side’ requirements of Customer Commons.

Version 1.0 will be a ‘Customer Commons Omie’ branded white label Android tablet with specific modifications to the OS, an onboard Personal Cloud with related sync options, and a series of VRM/ Customer-related apps that leverage that Personal Cloud.

All components, wherever possible, will be open source and either built on open specs/ standards, or have created new ones. Our intention is not that Customer Commons becomes a hardware manufacturer and retailer; we see our role as being to catalyse a market in devices that enable people in their role of ‘customer’, and generate the win-wins that we believe this will produce. Anyone can then build an Omie, to the open specs and trust mechanisms.

What kind of apps can this first version run?

We see version 1 having 8 to 10 in-built apps that tackle different aspects of being a customer. The defining feature of all of these apps is that they all use the same Personal Cloud to underpin their data requirements rather than create their own internal database.

Beyond those initial apps, we have a long list of apps whose primary characteristic is that they could only run on a device over which the owner had full and transparent control.

We also envisage an Omie owner being able to load up any other technically compatible app to the device, subject to health warnings being presented around any areas that could breach the customer-side nature of the device.

How will this interact with my personal cloud?

As noted above, we will have one non-branded Personal Cloud in place to enable the prototyping work (on device and ‘in the cloud’), but we wish to work with existing or new Personal Cloud providers wishing to engage with the project to enable an Omie owner to sync their data to their branded Personal Clouds.

Where are we now with development?

We now have a version 0.2 prototype, some pics and details are below. We intend, at some point to run a Kickstarter or similar campaign to raise the funds required to bring a version 1.0 to market. As the project largely uses off the shelf components we see the amount required being around $300k. Meantime, the core team will keep nudging things forward.

How can I get involved?

We are aiming for a more public development path from version 0.3. We’re hoping to get the Omie web site up and running in the next few weeks, and will post details there.

Alternatively, if you want to speed things along, please donate to Customer Commons.

VERSION 0.2

Below are a few pics from our 0.2 prototype.

Home Screen – Showing a secure OS, a working, local Personal Cloud syncing to ‘the cloud’ for many and varied wider uses. This one shows the VRM related apps, there is another set of apps underway around Quantified Self.

Omie 0.2 Home Screen

My Suppliers – Just as a CRM system begins with a list of customers, a VRM device will encompass a list of ‘my suppliers’ (and ‘my stuff’).

Omie 0.2 My Suppliers

My Transactions – Another critical component, building my transaction history on my side.

Omie 0.2 Transactions

Intent Casting/ Stroller for Twins – Building out Doc’s classic use case, real time, locally expressed intention to buy made available as a standard stream of permissioned data. Right now there are about 50 online sellers ‘listening’ for these intent casts, able to respond, and doing business; and 3 CRM systems.

Omie 0.2 Intent Casting

So what have we learned in the build of version 0.2?

Firstly, that it feels really good to have a highly functional, local place for storing and using rich, deep personal information that is not dependent on anyone else or any service provider, and has no parts of it that are not substitutable.

Secondly, that without minimising the technical steps to take, the project is more about data management than anything else, and that we need to encourage a ‘race to the top’ in which organisations they deal with can make it easy for customers to move data backwards and forwards between the parties. Right now many organisations are stuck in a negative and defensive mind-set around receiving volunteered information from individuals, and very few are returning data to customers in modern, re-usable formats through automated means.

Lastly that the types of apps that emerge in this very different personal data eco-system are genuinely new functions not enabled by the current eco-system, and not just substitutes for those there already. For example, the ‘smart shopping cart’ in which a customer takes their requirements and preferences with them around the web is perfectly feasible when the device genuinely lives on the side of the customer.

It’s time to draw the line on surveillance.

Today nearly every commercial website infects our browsers with tracking files that report our activities back to parties we may not know or trust.

So we’re providing a way to draw that line:  Web Pal — a browser extension that blocks tracking and advertising*, eliminating the browser slowdowns caused by both.

Download the Web Pal here, from the Chrome Web Store
And click on the donate button to support our work.

Web Pal was developed for Customer Commons by Emmett Global, which provides privacy solutions to nonprofits. It combines Adblock Plus and Tampermonkey — two open source code bases — in one simple install that requires no additional work or maintenance. It also gives you a Customer Commons start page, which carries updates of news about surveillance and other topics of interest to Customer Commons members.

Here’s a video explaining the Web Pal:

We offer the Web Pal on Chrome. This gives you one safe browser with maximized protection, and the opportunity both to try out other protection systems on other browsers and to compare performance.  Here is a list of those systems, from ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society:

Abine † Do Not Track MeDeleteMeMaskMe PrivacyWatch: privacy-protecting browser extensions and services
AdBlock Plus Ad and tracking blocking.
Emmett † “An easy to install browser plugin that protects your privacy online”
Collusion Firefox add-on for viewing third parties tracking your movements
Disconnect.me † browser extentions to stop unwanted tracking, control data sharing
Ghostery † browser extension for tracking and controlling the trackers
Privacyfix † “One dashboard for your Facebook®, LinkedIn®, and Google® privacy. Blocks over 1200 trackers.”
PrivacyScore † browser extensions and services to users and site builders for keeping track of trackers
Privowny † – “Your personal data coach. Protect your identity/privacy. Track what the Internet knows about you.”

Note that these are maintained on a wiki and subject to change. In fact, we invite Customer Commons members to participate in ProjectVRM, and help drive development of these and other tools.

And, of course, we welcome feedback and suggestions for improving the Web Pal. And we encourage everybody to support development of all tools and services that make customers liberated, powerful and respected in the open marketplace.


* What Adblock Plus calls acceptable ads are passed through by default, but you can change it to block all ads. Just go to Chrome’s Windows menu and click down through Extensions / Emmett Web Pal / Options / Adblock Plus / Filter List. Then uncheck “Allow some non-intrusive advertising”.