Category Archives: Tools

Customer Commons and User Submitted Terms

User Submitted Terms Strawman

User Submitted Terms Strawman

Above is a strawman proposal for icons for user-submitted terms that I’ve been presenting in talks and in prototypes for creating privacy-protecting technology for individuals. I’ve been sharing this with people for the last couple of years to increasing recognition that we need a simple way to assert our terms. I made it up to demonstrate what and how user submitted terms might work, as part of a larger system for individuals to control and share their personal data.

Basically, the idea is that an individual would select some default settings for sharing their data, and this would be managed by a user-agent which would use a ‘machine readable’ version of the user-terms. The individual would see the icons, but also be able to read the ‘human-readable’ terms connected to each category of choice and the individual icons chosen. And there would be a ‘legal readable’ version that be available for creating a legally enforceable agreement, if the individual and those they submit terms to agreed. And if the requested term was not agreed to, the individual would know and be able to choose whether to share data anyway.

You can see the choices for terms, including Sharing. This might involve allowing shared data to be public, or shared with 3rd parties, or just sharing with the direct 1st party relationship. Duration might be for as long as there is an active account, for say, 3 months, or for just the extent of the business session. Purpose might be for 3rd party advertising, for just site use, or for the extent of the business transaction. And Tracking might allow either tracking or Do Not Track choices.

These choices are simple and easy for a person to understand, and should be the sort of thing that is selected once, and then the general choices become defaults. It might be that there are a few defaults, say for news sites or apps, verses say, for social networks, or for entities we purchase from. We might want to get really granular with some relationships we have that really matter to us, and specify a set of terms just for that vendor. But the net of this is that individuals would be able to say what matters to them before they share any data, and their agent could negotiate the relationship with a potential vendor, to make it easy and painless.

Customer Commons, as advocates for individuals, could develop and maintain for public use these terms and their icons. We could provide this part of the puzzle for a privacy protecting system to help individuals have more control over their own sharing. And we could help vendors navigate these negotiations with customers so that vendors might use better privacy as a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

All of this, the choices we individuals make and submit, and the responses from vendors, ought to be recorded in a Consent Receipt, something Open Notice has been working toward and which is very complementary to user-submitted terms.

I’d love to hear what you think in comments about this idea.

<a rel=”license” href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/”><img alt=”Creative Commons License” style=”border-width:0″ src=”https://i.creativecommons.org/l/by-sa/4.0/80×15.png” /></a><br /><span xmlns:dct=”http://purl.org/dc/terms/” property=”dct:title”>Customer Commons User Terms</span> by <a xmlns:cc=”http://creativecommons.org/ns#” href=”http://customercommons.com” property=”cc:attributionName” rel=”cc:attributionURL”>Mary Hodder</a> is licensed under a <a rel=”license” href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/”>Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License</a>.

Data Privacy Legal Hack-A-thon

Customer Commons is supporting, and board member, Mary Hodder, is hosting the Bay Area event. Additionally, there are NYC and London locations. Please join us if you are interested:

Data Privacy Legal Hackathon 2014

Data Privacy Legal Hackathon 2014

This is an unprecedented year documenting our loss of Privacy. Never before have we needed to stand up and team up to do something about it. In honour of Privacy Day, the Legal Hackers are leading the charge to do something about it, inspiring a two-day international Data Privacy Legal Hackathon. This is no ordinary event. Instead of talking about creating privacy tools in theory, the Data Privacy Legal Hackathon is about action! A call to action for tech & legal innovators who want to make a difference!

We are happy to announce a Data Privacy Legal Hackathon and invite the Kantara Community to get involved and participate. We are involved in not only hosting a Pre-Hackathon Project to create a Legal Map for consent laws across jurisdictions, but the CISWG will also be posting a project for the Consent Receipt Scenario that is posted in on the ISWG wiki.

The intention is to hack Open Notice with a Common Legal Map to create consent receipts that enable ‘customisers’ to control personal information If you would like to get involved in the hackathon, show your support, or help build the consent receipt infrastructure please get involved right away — you can get intouch with Mark (dot) Lizar (at)gmail (dot) com, Hodder (at) gmail (dot) com, or join the group pages that are in links below.

Across three locations on February 8th & 9th, 2014, get your Eventbrite Tickets Here:

* New York City * London, UK * San Francisco *

http://legalhackers.org/privacyhack2014/

This two-day event aims to mix the tech and legal scenes with people and companies that want to champion personal data privacy. Connecting entrepreneurs, developers, product makers, legal scholars, lawyers, and investors.

Each location will host a two-day “judged” hacking competition with a prize awarding finale, followed by an after-party to celebrate the event.

The Main Themes to The Hackathon Are:

  • Crossing the Pond Hack
  • Do Not Track Hack
  • Surveillance & Anti-Surveillance
  • Transparency Hacks
  • Privacy Policy Hack
  • Revenge Porn Hack

Prizes will be awarded:

  • 1st Prize:  $1,000
  • 2nd Prize:  $500
  • 3rd Prize: $250

There are pre-hackathon projects and activities. Join the Hackerleague to participate in these efforts and list your hack:

Sponsorship Is Available & Needed

Any organization or company seeking to show active support for data privacy and privacy technologies is invited to get involved.

  • Sponsor: prizes, food and event costs by becoming a Platinum, Gold or Silver Sponsor
  • Participate: at the event by leading or joining a hack project
  • Mentor: projects or topics that arise for teams, and share your expertise.

 

Contact NYC sponsorship: Phil Weiss email or @philwdjjd

Contact Bay Area sponsorship: Mary Hodder – Hodder (at) gmail (dot) com – Phone: 510 701 1975

Contact London sponsorship: Mark Lizar – Mark (dot) Lizar (at)gmail (dot) com – Phone: +44 02081237426 – @smarthart

Omie Update (version 0.2)

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.

Surf safely with Web Pal

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”.

For personal data, use value beats sale value

There’s an argument that goes like this:

  1. Companies are making money with personal data, and
  2. They are getting this data for free. Therefore,
  3. People should be able to make money with that data too.

This is not helpful framing, if we want to get full value out of our personal data. Or even to understand what the hell personal data is.

Stop and think about this for a second:

That data has far more use value than sale value. This use value is almost entirely untapped. Thinking about its sale value requires that you think the same way big companies do. This is as big a mistake in 2013 as it was —

  • in 1980 to think about personal computing in terms of what big enterprises did with mainframes; and
  • in 1993 to think about personal networking in terms of services provided by phone and cable companies.

In 1982 the IBM PC came along, and MS-DOS. And then the Macintosh in 1984. By 1985  there were tens of thousands of personal apps running on personal computers, doing far more than any company could do with its own computers, no matter how big those computers were. This turned out to be good for everybody, including the big companies with the big computers.

Likewise, in 1995 the Internet came along in a big way (ISPs, email, browsing, dial-up, e-commerce), and within months it was clear than anybody could network together with anybody else in the world at a cost that rounded to zero, and with a degree of freedom that was unimaginable within the systems controlled by phone and cable companies.  (Eighteen years later, the phone and cable companies, with help from the copyright maximalists in Hollywood, are still trying to corral the Net’s horse back into the old barn.)

What companies are doing with your personal data today is all happening inside a B2B — Business-to-Business — context. That context is as limited as mainframe thinking in 1980 and telco/cableco thinking in 1993.

The other day in London we were talking with Nic Brisbourne about the massive quantity of opportunity and ready-to-spend money on the demand side of the marketplace — and the ironic absence (outside the still-small VRM world) of interest by developers in equipping demand to engage and drive supply. The market seem stuck inside the same old supply-driving-demand mentality. That’s what you hear coming from the mainframe-think world of Big Data mongering and analytics today.

Mind these words: Big Data talk today is as clueless about what people can do for themselves as mainframe talk was in 1980 and networking talk was in 1993. It’s big business-as-usual, in its big B2B bubble, talking itself into ever-ripening stages of vulnerability to massive disruption by the C’s of the world.

Speaking of which, we also met in Europe with Qiy, MesInfos, MidataIntently, Mydex, Privowny and other VRM efforts (who will be insulted that I haven’t yet listed them here, but we can correct that). All of them are laying the groundwork required for unlocking the full use value of personal data — and not just its sale value, which is tiny at best anyway. Bravo for them, and for us as the beneficiaries of their good work.

The Internet of me and my things

Let’s say this key ring is yours and you’ve lost it.

If somebody scans the QR code with their smartphone, they will see a message from you. The message can say whatever you want (such as, “Help! I’ve misplaced these, please call or text me at this number”), and you can update it any time, because the information is in your personal cloud.

You can host your personal cloud yourself, or you can have it hosted elsewhere, such as at SquareTag, the brand name on the tag you see here. SquareTag is a service of Kynetx, the company behind the personal cloud concept. (Disclosure: I’m an advisor to Kynetx.) But you can use anybody’s. SquareTag is not a silo, and Kynetx is not out to trap anybody. Quite the opposite, in fact. Kynetx is out to give you tools to connect to your world of people and things.

Phil Windley is the co-founder of Kynetx and father of the personal cloud concept. In Personal clouds as general purpose computers, Phil says personal clouds are “the successor to the personal computer,” adding, “In the personal-cloud-as-personal-computer model, owners of a cloud control it in the same way they control their computer. They decide what apps to install, what services to engage, and how and where the data is stored.”

Most of the clouds we hear about today are the big centralized kind managed by companies such as Apple, Google and Amazon. Some of these industrial clouds are pure utilities, doing storage and compute work. That’s the case with, say,  Amazon and Rackspace. Nothing wrong with these, just as there is nothing wrong with electrical systems or storage facilities. Other clouds, however, are out to control you and your life — for both your good and theirs. Apple’s iCloud is one example. You can get it only from Apple, and it is not substitutable (as would be, say, a storage facility). In spite of the fact that Apple makes PCs and other personal devices, the company and its iCloud come from an old-school mainframe assumption: that one central server (or service) should contain and control what is done by many different clients. The technical term for this architecture is client-server. The vernacular term is calf-cow. You’re the calf. Apple is the cow. In the calf-cow system, you are always dependent, never fully independent.

With personal clouds you are independent. Your personal cloud is yours alone, to keep track of any thing, person or event in your life — and to manage your interactions with them. Such as, IF my keys are scanned, THEN display this message.

In an interview five years ago with Phil WindleyCraig Burton called every person an “enterprise of one.” In the past several years Phil and other developers (especially his colleagues at Kynetx) have been working on ways not only to make every person into that “enterprise of one” with connections to keep track of and control every thing of theirs as well. They are doing this through a general purpose platform called a personal cloud. You should have one, and so should the things you care about.

The design of the Internet in the first place is one of a boundless variety of end-points, with no central control of what those ends can do. Each is simply an address. Any end can connect with any other end. We have a similar system in the world called conversation. Anybody can talk with anybody else, or shake hands. They can also engage in business, and form relationships that last for moments or years. With personal clouds, things as well as people are brought into the Internet’s conversational and relational end-to-end system.

Take for example your car. Let’s say you put a SquareTag on the dashboard, next to the vehicle ID number. You can set up your car’s personal cloud so that all somebody scanning it sees is that it’s your car (or whatever you choose for it to say). But you can also scan the tag every time you have the car serviced, be taken to the car’s personal cloud, and enter whatever you like about the service event, or click on a private link that takes you (alone) back through your notes on the car’s service history. You can also set it up so the service station or dealer can connect their service records to yours, so when you look in your car’s personal cloud, you can also see those other service records. All you need for doing that are logical connections between the car’s tag cloud and the clouds of the other places where data is kept. With a squaretag, it isn’t necessary for any of your things to be “smart.” Instead the smarts are located in those things’ personal clouds.

There is no limit to what we can do with personal clouds because all of them are by nature independent, just as atoms are independent. And, just as certain kinds of atoms bond well with other kinds of atoms to form molecules, certain kinds of personal clouds (such as those of things we possess) will bond well with other kinds of personal clouds (such as human beings with possessions).

Likewise each of our personal clouds can, by mutual agreement, be social in the true and literal sense of the word — just as we are in the physical world. We won’t need to be social only inside corporate systems like Twitter’s and Facebook’s. There will still be administrative identities in the world (such as the ones on our drivers licenses and in employers’ HR systems), but among our sovereign selves we can choose to identify ourselves any way we wish. (Which others can, of course, accept or not.)

While personal clouds today are programmed with an open source language (KRL, for Kinetic Rules Language), and executed on an open source rules engine, what makes them interoperable are a new open standard: the evented API. Open standards are what allow closed (or open) things to connect and do things with each other. For example, it doesn’t matter whether you are reading this on a Linux, Mac, Windows, iOS or Android device. Open standards make it possible for all those things to communicate with each other.

We are at the earliest stage of where personal clouds will eventually go. What we can say with confidence, however, is that they will some day be the way each of us controls our lives, our personal data, our possessions, and our relationships with each other and our things.

We are born as sovereign beings, yet live in a networked world. The Internet as it was designed in the first place respected that. For most of the last two decades, however, we forgot that and built industrial-age systems that subordinated individual sovereignty and autonomy to the conveniences of large companies and governments. We built systems for capturing and controlling people and their things. There was lots of good stuff that could be done with these systems, but they were done at the expense of liberty and freedom for individuals and their possessions. Personal clouds not only promise that liberty and freedom, but provide the means for accomplishing it.

What we do with personal clouds is up to each of us — and to the countless new businesses that will show up to help out. When they do, you can bet a whole new boom of possibilities will show up too. The difference with this boom, however, is that each of us will be in charge of ourselves and what’s ours. That’s new. And it will never get old.

 

Wallets are personal

wallet-smallA lot of big companies are eager to get their hands in your pockets — literally. They want your mobile phone to work as a digital wallet, and they want the digital wallet app you use to be theirs.

Naturally, this looks like it should be a big business — and to some degree it is already. But it also hasn’t met promotional expectations. This became clear a few days ago, when comScore released Digital Wallet Road Map 2013, a $4995 report on the digital wallet business. In a press release highlighting the report’s findings, Andrea Jacobs, comScore Payments Practice Leader, said “Digital wallets represent an innovative technology that has not yet reached critical mass among consumers due to a variety of factors, including low awareness and a muddied understanding of their benefits.” Here’s how the release unpacks that:

The current digital wallet landscape remains fragmented among providers because of low consumer adoption outside of PayPal, with only 12 percent of consumers claiming to have used a digital wallet other than PayPal. However, study results indicated that the digital wallet market opportunity could eventually reach 1 in 2 consumers as consumers become more aware of the offerings and educated on their benefits.

Consumer Awareness and Usage of Digital Wallet Offerings
November 2012
Source: comScore Digital Wallet Road Map 2013
Digital Wallet Percentage of Total Respondents Aware of Digital Wallet Percentage of Total Respondents Who Used the Digital Wallet
PayPal 72% 48%
Google Wallet 41% 8%
MasterCard PayPass Wallet 13% 3%
Square Wallet 8% 2%
V.me by Visa 8% 2%
ISIS 6% 1%
Lemon Wallet 5% 1%
LevelUp 5% 2%

One clear barrier to use of digital wallets is that the concept is often difficult to convey and prone to misinterpretation. Even after being asked to review the websites of particular digital wallets, respondents across all wallet brands still scored an average of just 45 percent in terms of demonstrated level of understanding.

Here’s the problem: wallets are personal. Even if you have a wallet with a brand name on it (say, Gucci or Fossil), it isn’t their wallet. It’s yours. What you keep in it, and how you use it, are none of their business. In fact, those companies would never think of making it their business, because all they’re providing you is a place to put your credit cards, your cash, or whatever other flat things you feel like carrying around in your pocket or purse.

So far, all the digital wallets out there are not yours. They belong to some company. You merely use the app. The wallet is their business, not yours. In this respect they aren’t much different than credit cards or various loyalty cards, which are things you put in your wallet; not the wallet itself. The wallet itself should be agnostic, if not oblivious, to what you put in there. It should be like a toolbox, where you can store lots of different tools, made by lots of different companies, made for serving different purposes.

All the digital wallet companies in comScore’s chart have isolated, proprietary and silo’d ways of providing payment benefits to users. Imagine buying a tool box from Sears that could only hold its own brand of tools, which would only work with devices from companies that were partners of Sears. That’s what we have with digital wallets so far. It’s the same problem we had with online systems (AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy, etc.) before the Internet came along. They were closed silos.

The Net works because it is a general purpose system. It isn’t run by any one company. Likewise, PCs are also general purpose systems. The company making them doesn’t insist that it only works with certain other partner companies. In that respect it’s open, just like the wallet in your pocket or purse. Smartphones, on the other hand, are general purpose to a more limited degree. Apple tells you what apps can and can’t run on your phone. Google makes sure some of  its own apps (such as its wallet) run only on Android phones — or run better on Android than on Apple’s or other companies’ phones (as it did for years with Google maps for Apple).

I suggest that the digital wallet might be best thought of as something that’s part a general-purpose thing called the personal cloud.

Your personal cloud is your personal space, which you run for yourself in the networked world. In it you define the ways that your personal data interacts with the world of things, and of services from companies and other entities. That may sound complicated, but it’s actually no different than the personal space you call your house, your car, and your body. In fact, you can think of a personal cloud as something akin to all three, but in the networked world rather than in the physical one. For more on this read Phil Windley, starting here; and follow what Kuppinger-Cole says about Life Management Platforms (which I recently visited here).

So, to sum up, the main thing wrong with digital wallets today isn’t what they do. It’s that they are called “wallets.” Instead they should be called what they really are, which is payment services. (Yes, they do more, but the main thing they do is facilitate transactions.)

The notion that something so personal as a wallet should be provided for you, as a service, by a company, is typical of the calf-cow thinking that has dominated computing for the duration. There is nothing wrong with this, if it’s still 1995. But it’s now 2013, and it’s time we moved on. And, to do that, I’d like to see real digital wallets — personal ones — come up as a feature of personal clouds. So, let the conversation begin. Then the development.

Bonus link: Google’s Wallet and VRM.

 

 

 

 

 

The Personal Revolution

individualWhile the history of computing and communications often appears to be one led by big entities in business and government, the biggest revolution has actually been a personal one.  Each of us, as individuals, have acquired abilities that were once those of organizations alone — and have done far more with those abilities than the big players ever could — for those big players as well as for ourselves.

It started in the early ’80s, when the IBM PC became host to thousands of new applications for individuals. Personal computers suddenly proved to be a far more fertile ground for application development and new ueses than were the old corporate mainframes and minicomputers. Computing was no longer only about calculating and data processing. It was about everything one could imagine. The result was a profusion of new capabilities for individuals that also brought great benefits to organizations of all kinds and sizes.

A little more than a decade later, in the mid-’90s, the Internet did for communications what the PC did for computing. It gave individuals abilities that went far beyond those enjoyed by big organizations anywhere. Thanks to the Net, anybody could connect with anybody (or anything), anywhere in the world, using protocols that nobody owned, everybody could use, and anybody could improve. Even though there were many owned networks within the Internet, none governed the whole, and the result was a system that put every connected thing at zero functional distance from every other thing, at costs that could often be treated as zero. The positive economic and social externalities of the Internet today are beyond calculation. Again, as with PCs, this owes to new power in the hands of individuals that proved good for organizations as well.

Then in the late ’00s, smartphones and tablets put personal computing and communications advances — won by the PC and the Internet — into devices that fit in pockets and purses, running on platforms that invited millions of new applications. Once again, the increase in personal power and freedom proved essential to organizations as well. Initial resistance to BYOD (bring your own device) has ended, and companies now develop their own apps for employees and customers to use on their smartphones and tablets.

The upward trend in personal empowerment will move next to the “Internet of things,” as more of those objects and devices become equipped with computing and communication abilities — and as individuals gain the power to combine and program interactions between those things and the many services available through APIs ( application programming interfaces) and apps. Each of us will be able, either by ourselves or with the help of “fourth parties” (ones that work for us, as do brokers and banks) to control our identities, secure our privacy, and manage our many interactions in the world, without having to rely on any one platform, vendor or other enabling party. Far better economic signaling will move in both directions between demand and supply. Genuine, trusting and productive relationships will develop, and earned loyalty will prove far more useful than the coerced kind. In sum, the market will discover that free customers and citizens will prove more capable and productive than captive ones, and that this will be good for both business and society.

Progress in this direction will not be easy or even. All through the history just outlined, there have also been constant efforts to contain and limit what individuals can do with their computing and communications abilities. Large incumbent players have worked to create dependencies from which we cannot escape, and to resist competition in open markets. In spite of the many advances they have brought to the market’s table, phone and cable companies today still operate actual or virtual monopolies, and have been working from the start — aided by captive legislators and regulators — to subordinate the Internet’s boundless positive economic externalities to their own legacy business interests. Copyright and patent absolutists have also pushed successfully for laws and regulations that thwart or stop innovation and growth outside their own virtual castles.

And now, in many countries that value neither free markets nor free citizens, efforts are afoot to move Internet “governance” (an oxymoron from the angle of the Internet’s founding protocols) from organizations such as ICANN to the ITU (International Telecommunications Union, now part of the U.N.), where they can partition the Net along national lines, censor it (as in China today), and impose tariffs on data traffic across borders — enriching governments at great expense to economic growth and prosperity, and the welfare of citizens.

Yet the computing, communications and programming genies continue to do their magic for individuals and the organizations they comprise and support. Those genies will not go back in their old bottles. Thus the way to bet in the long run is on personal and economic freedom, and the general prosperity that arises from both. The only way to make that bet pay off, however, is to work on the side of individuals and the developers that empower them. That’s our job here at Customer Commons, and we invite you to join us in that work.

Discounts are free if your time has no value

“Love it or hate it, Black Friday is all about the deals,” AdAge says, in Target, Amazon, Poised to Win Black Friday. That love/hate conflict speaks to the mixed blessings (and curses) of tying a store’s — or a whole market’s — success to “deals” alone. The bargains, for both retailers and customers, can be Faustian.

Exhibit A: Kmart.

Back around the turn of the millennium, I attended a retail conference where two of the speakers were myself and Lee Scott, then the CEO of Walmart. We represented the bookends of demand and supply: as a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, I represented the customer. As CEO of the world’s largest retailer, Lee represented his whole industry.

The location was Lucerne, and the lunch was boxed. It was a nice day, so my wife and I took our boxes outside and sat at a small table near the lake. Lee came over and asked if he could join us. I said sure, and then used this rare opportunity to pump the dude with questions. My first was “What happened to Kmart?” — which was then closing stores and heading toward bankruptcy.

His answer: “Coupons.” Some large percentage of Kmart’s overhead, he said, was devoted to publishing what amounted to its own currency, and then dealing with numerous effects, which only began with the time wasted by handling that currency at check-out. In addition to inconveniencing everybody involved, couponing also had the effect of “downscaling” the demographics of the customer base to a caste then known to the trade as “coupon-clippers.” (This population has now become so large — and expert — that the reality TV show Extreme Couponing persists into its third season.)

Walmart, Lee explained, minimized its dealings with coupons — and even advertising, which was limited (by decree of the late Sam Walton) to some small percentage of the company’s overhead. Instead they let the company’s tagline, “Everyday low prices,” do most of the work. (That tagline was also Sam’s.)

When I asked Lee if there were any large retailers he thought did an especially good job, he singled out Costco, which also succeeded through simplification. (Yes, they do publish and take coupons, but it’s a side thing, rather than the main thing. As a Costco customer you don’t need coupons to obtain the sense that you’re paying a low price for the goods they sell.)

Retailing has long had its time-sucking frictions. When I was growing up, in the 1950s and ’60s, the big one was stamps. The main driver of the trend was S&H Green Stamps, which had many competing imitators. The original idea was for retailers to differentiate from other retailers by offering sheets of stamps with every purchase, which customers could paste into a booklet, which they would later trade in for an outdoor grill, a door mat, or some other item from a catalog. It’s been said that S&H at its peak issued more stamps than the U.S. Post Office, and that the largest press run in human history was the 1966 Green Stamps catalog. Eventually, however, nearly every store offered the stamps, differentiation ended, and whole fad collapsed.

Today we have a similar fad with loyalty cards. Never mind that most retailers (or so it seems) now have them, but that they have costs to both retailers and customers. Here are just a few:

  • Maintaining two or more prices for items throughout the store
  • Forcing both personnel and customers to attend constantly to the differences in prices on “discounted” items
  • Partially or completely obscuring what the “real” price might be. Is the non-discounted price a surcharge for non-card-carrying customers? Probably, if the “regular” price for a dozen eggs is $3.99, and the “discount” price is $1.99 — when, say, Trader Joe’s (which has a single non-discount price for everything) wants $1.99 for the same eggs.
  • Maintaining “big data” systems for tracking customers and “personalizing” offers for them.
  • Obscuring the real value of goods gets even more than it already might be.
  • Coercing loyalty rather than earning it, causing emotional dissonance that can damage a company’s brand value.

All those practices, and many more, are both normative and highly rationalized within retailing today. Yet the notable exceptions, such as Trader Joe’s, reveal how much time, money and effort by both sellers and buyers in systems that are essentially coercive.

What would happen if we began to respect time as our most essential value? Would we have discounting at all? Not sure, which is why we need to talk about it. There are real costs to discounting. If our time has any value at all, then discounting is not free. And the hidden costs may be far higher than the obvious ones.

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.