Try to guess how many times, in the course of your life in the digital world, have “agreed” to terms like these:
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.
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:
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% in 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 you’ll get something like this:
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 published a straw man version of those terms, they looked like this:
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 what we’ve got, to work together, and to move things forward.
Let’s do it.