Byway FAQ


Note: this is an early work-in-progress. And yes, we are looking for help with it. Not just criticism (though the constructive kind is good). Thanks.

What is the Intention Byway?

The Intention Byway—or Byway for short—is a way to move messages of intent between customers and companies, buyers and sellers, demand and supply, anywhere in any value chain or among any collection of participants. Its goal is to maximize the quality and volume of economic signaling by everyone and to expand the range of economic activity that can take place in a networked marketplace.

The Byway’s virtues are also not just economic. They apply to all information offered or requested. For example, the byway is can support journalism by providing new paths for information to flow between sources, journalists, and consumers of news.

The Byway is also built on the Internet, and not on the Web, although it can work with the Web and with Web tools and services, much as email does the same. It is an independent framework of participants.

Where are you rolling it out?

Bloomington, Indiana, where Doc and Joyce Searls, two co-founders of Customer Commons with other board members, are visiting scholars with the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University). This was first covered in a 4 November 2021 story in the Indiana Daily Student.)

Doesn’t e-commerce today do what the Byway does?

No, it does not. E-commerce today is a seller’s game, rigged to maximize signaling from supply to demand, especially by and within the walled gardens of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and every advertiser using the Internet. While this works very well, it also leaves both information and money on the table, because there are no independent ways for demand to signal supply, other than telephony, email, and showing up personally. (By independent we mean not controlled by a company and its platform. Nearly all popular social media and texting systems are owned and controlled by companies that can change those systems on a whim.)

Worse, constantly looking for ways to improve supply-to-demand signaling has had the effect of limiting customer agency to what sellers alone allow. (Example: every seller talking about “your ad choices” means their choices. In fact, nearly every seller that puts the word my in your digital mouth means something that is only theirs.) This has made e-commerce—and the Web itself—something of a feudal system in which customers, as mere serfs (which computing, along with the drug trade, calls “users”), are forced to interact with sellers in ways that are arcane to each seller, requiring as many unique logins, passwords, opt-ins, opt-outs and relationship systems as there are websites and services.

An indicator of this model’s limitations is that it does not even occur to most developers that a customer might want a shopping cart of her own to take from site to site—or might want a dashboard of her own to manage her relationships across many sellers, in the same way as CRM (customer relationship management) systems on the sellers’ side provide ways to manage relationships across many buyers. (Such a dashboard would be an ideal VRM—vendor relationship management—tool for customers. But we don’t have VRM yet because it’s too hard for developers and their investors to think outside the client-server box.)

Worse than that, all the agreements customers make with sellers are on terms provided by the seller alone, with records kept exclusively by those sellers or their third parties. The best anyone can do in this broken system is to opt-in or opt-out of those terms, again separately for every website, app, or service—and always with records kept only by those parties (or their third parties), so there is no way for the person to audit compliance. Mere “users” (of others’ systems) also cannot even think about having terms of their own. This utterly fails to take advantage of the peer-to-peer and end-to-end design of the Internet itself, which can support ways for buyers to scale messaging and relationships across many sellers.

Fortunately, it’s still early. E-commerce as we know it is also barely a quarter-century old. It is not a finished or final system, but rather a young one with many new ways to grow. (And there is work in the right direction. For example, a new standard in development is the IEEE’s P7012 Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms. When finished it will open a way for terms such as our own P2B1(beta), aka #NoStalking.

Is this a new idea?

Only if you take a long view. The Byway was first described, in a way, at the “my red dot” breakout session at the third Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) in May, 2007. An album of photos from that session, including lots of whiteboarding, is here. One sample:

That red dot is the customer’s own device, and the data and apps the customer puts to use. (Note: VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management, and has long been the focus of ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center. Customer Commons is a nonprofit spin-off of that project, which is still run by Doc Searls, who also serves on the Customer Commons board.

Can the Intention Byway work inside the familiar Web model that everyone knows and understands?

It is essential to recognize that the Internet supports freedom and independence for everyone and everything on it. But the Web, although it was designed by Tim Berners-Lee to provide that freedom, got deployed on a centralized mainframe model called client-server. This model, which might as well be called serf-lord or slave-master, is designed to give the client no more agency than what the server allows or provides. (See what Doc Searls wrote about this in Beyond the Web.)

At this stage in history, we are beginning to see that the limits of the client-server model are those put on the freedom, independence, and agency of the individual.

The Byway is designed to work for free and independent actors from every end to any other end: free customers, free sellers, free suppliers, free intermediaries, and free agency all around.

The client-server Web is not designed for that. Nor is the platform-based mobile device ecosystem we have with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android devices. Both companies operate walled gardens for captive apps that run on their platforms, and can only be obtained from their company stores.

This does not mean, however, that the workings of the Byway are invisible to browsers. It does mean, however, that we need new and better user interfaces than browsers alone can provide, given browsers’ obedience to the design constraints of the client-server model.

How exactly is the Byway distinctive and new?

The Byway is currently conceived as a pub-sub system. Rather than a client-server system such as the Web’s, the Byway will use either asynchronous communication, similar to the way email works, or synchronous communication, similar to the way texting works.

The Byway is also peer-to-peer between its ends, which in e-commerce will typically happen between buyers and sellers. Intermediaries facilitating addressing and messaging withing the Byway itself will also be independent and substitutable. This means there are not only opportunities for businesses at ends and in the middle of messaging paths but also competition. This will incentivize and drive the growth of markets, as well as energy and activity within those markets.

This is why the whole Intention Byway is more of an economic model than a technical one.

Can you name the components within the Byway, and what each of them do?

A device or app at either end, which we are calling an intentron, can store data, run persona algorithms (called “algorithms”), message personal intentions to whole market categories, and respond to replies from the other side. It can either be stand-alone on a device or work virtually in a cloud. The important thing is that it is the customer’s own, and isolated from intrusion over the Net by a firewall.

Apps do all the heavy lifting. Pretty much everything else here is a side topic. Everything one can imagine happening on the byway is embodied in apps.

Messages might be sent over open protocols, such as ActivityPubActiveMQ, and Matrix. (Plus others we insult by not mentioning them here. Yet.)

Messaging servicesaddressing authorities, and matching systems are possible intermediary services.

Given the number of different products and services in the world, and variations within each of those, will this cause a vast ontology with an infinitude of channels? And how will the whole thing be made sensible to both buyers and sellers?

They don’t care, they use apps. Apps do all that.

How exactly will the apps know what channels to create?

We expect to see app sellers’ subject matter experts creating vocabularies (ontologies) of intentions that will live on both buyers’ and sellers’ intentrons.

We also expect usage—by both buyers and sellers—to populate these vocabularies as well.

There will be many specialties. These may be for locations (e.g. Auckland or Kansas City) or topics (e.g. real estate or antique cars)—or anything. When a true intention economy emerges from the widespread use of the Byway, expect everything for sale to appear on it. But not only on the Googles and Bings of the world. Instead, it will appear in any app written for that purpose without requiring a central database.

We also expect apps to make mutual sense of differing usages. For example, a “mother-in-law unit” in California is officially called an “accessory dwelling unit,” or an “ADU.” So an intentcast for one can be heard as an intentcast for the other.

How does search happen, on either end?

Search, as we have come to understand it on the Web, requires that a giant company index the entire Web—a haystack of content of every kind—in real time. That model does not apply here. Instead we call what happens simply find.

What systems are there, or do you see forming, for how customers can make sense of all their relevant data, before they issue any intentcasts? For example: contacts, calendars/scheduling, health, finances, possessions/insurance, and records of receipts, contact history, and agreements.

In the current platform-dominated Web-based e-commerce world, there is little incentive for the development of tools for those needs because nearly all developers are working for sellers, and getting sellers to scale across many buyers. They don’t work for buyers, or for giving buyers scale across many sellers. With the Byway, there are lots of incentives to develop tools that aggregate, combine and make sense of the personal data that matters most to people: their health, financial, and property data; their calendars, contacts, subscriptions, and schedules—and for making connections between these data piles. For example, matching receipts with schedules and location data. Or TV viewing practices with subscription expenses. The incentives are for buyers to get full control of their lives (which currently they do not), so fresh intelligence can be applied toward expressing intentions on an as-needed basis. [Examples go here.]

Benefits for sellers are better informed—and more informative—buyers. Also dropping all the expensive ways they game customers with gimmicks that come with high cognitive and operational overhead—and spying on people. (We believe a world without surveillance capitalism will be far more performative for everyone without it than with it.)

Can communities have intentrons?


Is surveillance possible on a Byway?

First, apps running on the Intentron have no incentive to spy on you, because they are yours and work only on your own compute node.

A concern, however, would be for the app not to leak data outside the intentron, but the intentron firewall can catch that. Another concern would be for the app not to leak data outside the browser either, but that can also be caught and reflected in the app’s “reputation.” But, if you want to take paranoia to another level (not necessarily a bad thing), you could imagine a browser that can only interact with the intentron, so it would be able to leak from the browser to any other destination.

Can you see or use the Byway on a browser?

It is possible for an Intentron to have a browser view, and to interact with Web servers. But it will help to understand that, while a browser is used mostly to display what we call “content,” the payload of unseen stuff coming from servers is often immense, and filled with cookies, ads, and other stuff serving commercial interests on the server’s side that you might not share, and in most cases know nothing about. Rather than fight that, the Byway provides a better way for parties to get along and do business: one that roughly replicates the way parties behave in an open market or another social environment in the physical world. Browsers on the Byway are not burdened by any of that, because they are nothing more than a UI for an intentron’s apps.

What is an Intentron likely to cost?

If it’s a physical device, probably less than the average ATM withdrawal. If it’s just software, it’s free.

What are the differences between a buyer’s intentron and a seller’s?

The intentron at its base should be the same for all who have one. Roles are determined by the combination of apps and algorithms used.

What will keep parties in the message forwarding path from snooping on a customer’s intent signals?

Some messages can be public, intended for a public audience, with an anonymous source. If messages are intended for a limited audience, they will be encrypted with a key only known to that audience. Encryption and decryption happen in the intentron before sending and after receiving. While this is the simplest protection method, there are others.

What is the role of personal identity?

There isn’t any, beyond what the buyer and seller choose to reveal to each other in private.

This is because the Byway is a way to pass messages between addresses rather than identities. (We need elaboration here, but this will do for now.)

Who pays who for what?

Intentron owners are customers of service providers, which can be many, varied, and competititve. Those businesses are the concerns of service providers, and not of the Byway itself.

How will you attract participants (customers, sellers, intentron and app makers and retailers, messaging and addressing authorities) to this whole system?

We are starting small, working with localities and topical interest groups, first to sandbox each part of the model, and then to scale up as adoption grows.

Which, if any, participants in the Intention Byway can you live without while you scale up the model?

None, really. They are all required. App stores are the only parties not needed immediately. Of course, the ISPs and DNS are also required participants.

Explain how publishing and subscribing will work, in forms of the Byway using those.

The simplest analogy is mailing lists, but it’s not buyers and sellers who send/subscribe. It’s their apps. Buyers and sellers only see the service provided by the app, not the mechanics behind it.

Another analogy is RSS (Really Simple Syndication). As with RSS, on the Byway anyone can publish and subscribe to any feed.

What exactly are the buyers and sellers publishing and subscribing?

They are publishing and subscribing to expressions of intent.

How is it different than Solid?

Actually, we would love for this to work with Solid, so the data your Intentron uses is in your Solid pod.

Does this involve client-server?

Yes, but not in the way it does on the Web. Because the Web uses HTTP, which (doesn’t have to be but in this icase) is synchronous. If a server is offline, a client can do nothing. But because the Byway uses an asynchronous messaging protocol (MessaeMQ). The client;s message stays queued, awaiting the server.

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