Our data has value – the future of privacy Part II, with Doc Searls

Written by on July 29, 2016 in Features with 0 Comments

Man spying on something through venetian blindsWith privacy on all our minds, DisruptiveViews (DV) tracked down Doc Searls (DS), lynchpin of, amongst other things, privacy work at Harvard, NYU and elsewhere, to get his views on where we go next. Even though he was on a tour of Canada, he stopped to chat.

DV: Doc, thank you for slowing down enough to chat about privacy and some trends in advertising. I gather that you are working on some initiatives in this area. Can you give us a little background.

DS: Yes indeed, since 2006 we have had a project at the Berkman Centre, now the Berkman Klein Center, at Harvard University. We have a project there we call VRM, Vendor Relationship Management. This tries to fix the way that customers engage with companies, from a customer point of view. It is a tall order. We foster the concept and we now have about 200 companies, mostly start-ups, working on it. A lot of it is happening in the UK, Europe and Australia actually. This is because privacy law is more developed in these areas.

In Australia, for example, a customer can now ask a company that has used their data for that data back. A journalist proved the point recently. He asked for his data back from his cellphone company, and after a long argument, with the regulator involved, the company gave it back, as a huge pile of paper. Passive aggressive, but at least the case was made. Of course, the new GDPR in Europe is something similar.

In the US, of course, it is less well regulated. The magazine, the Onion, called the US ‘the land of opportunism’ and it is horrible. You get followed around all over the place when you are online. This, of course, is why ad blocking is as popular as it is.

The worst is re-targeting. This is when you get followed around the most. If you search for strollers, say, you will see adverts for strollers everywhere you go. It freaks people out.

Anyway, the project has no big companies involved, directly, although there are some that are in sympathy with it.

I put Apple at the top of that list, particularly in the area of health. In fact, their privacy policy, which you can see at http://apple.com/privacy is very influenced by what they want to do with Apple Health, which they launched late last year. Of course, they needed to be in compliance with regulations about personal data and privacy around the world. It is essential that they are on their best behaviour and they are intentionally encrypting data. They are blind to the data they collect, they only do it with permission and the data is available to the individual when each study is completed.

There is one project, for instance, where the accelerometer in your phone can detect if you have early onset Parkinson’s. Apple wanted to be in on that. I also, by the way, think that Tim Cook has a very good attitude towards privacy, better than Steve Jobs actually. He is much more mindful of privacy.

I also think that the market for personal data, for people selling their data is zero. There is no traction to it, and frankly, it is voluntarily cooperating with an essentially broken system. It is a system that is highly disrespectful of individuals to begin with, and it needs to be fixed.

DV: So, what is the answer? What are these programmers aiming to do, simply stop companies using our data? Are we going to have a battle or are we going to end up having a conversation?

DS: We have a battle going now. There are a range of companies like Redmorph out there, including Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Disconnect.me.

When we think about this, it is important that we frame things historically, and part of that is to remember that the history of the internet is 21 years old, which is nothing in the history of business, let alone the world. To assume that the world will be run by Facebook and Google, or even Apple and Amazon (which actually sell things to people) in another 10, 15 or 20 years’ time is a really big assumption. It’s all scaffolding, it’s all experimental, the norms are all provisional. It’s a mistake to assume that what we have on the internet is a permanent state. It’s a moment in time. And people will have more and more agency. We will have much better signalling from demand to supply than we do right now where supply is guessing at demand. That is today’s norm. We have Google and Facebook, and a host of other companies in the remaining 15 percent of the advertising market, making really, really bad guesses about what we want. The only possible exception is Google search and that is because the user asks the question. But on Facebook I am still getting adverts that are, frankly, fraudulent. It is really bad and the notion that we would want to participate with something that drunk on its own success is ludicrous.

So, one of the things that VRM developers are working on is something called Intentcasting. This is a way of controlling advertising from our perspective. So, you could say, ‘I need a pair of Wellington Boots, my left foot is size 9 and my right foot is size 10 and I need them within four hours’. Then you see who is coming through, while you remain anonymous, your privacy intact. So, what you are doing is informing the market on a ‘need to know’ basis. In fact, there are some people in the UK that are developing things that work exactly like that, although it is really early. But it allows us to control what we disclose. And you can, for want of a better word, ‘watermark’ the data so that you have a record of the transactions. That way, if I disclose my data to Tesco, I will know if they use it without my permission, and so will my ‘third party’. The third party will be something like the non-profit I am on the board of, which is called Customer Commons, based on Creative Commons, which deals with copyright. What Customer Commons does is similar, when Tesco see I am looking for Wellie Boots, a set of terms is picked up by their CRM system. For example, the terms might be that they can use my data for a period of 30 days, and that can be audited. Tools exist to do this today, and that is fundamental to VRM.

And this is not the stuff of war, this is taking the lead. It is the difference between lots of dancers on the dance floor with their partners, and someone with a megaphone at the front making a lot of noise and telling people exactly how to dance. What we have had up until now is scale on the sellers’ side. What VRM does is add scale to the buyers’ side. We started from zero on this, of course, so it is taking some time. 10 years so far, but I am confident that we will get to a point where we have better signalling from demand to supply. In fact, the Scot who coined the term ‘supply and demand’ in the time of Adam Smith, actually used the term the other way round, ‘demand and supply’. In those days it made sense for demand to drive supply, and that, of course, has changed dramatically. In fact, it has now gone far too far, it has metastasised, and soon it is going to crash. The internet should be more like a Farmers’ Market and at the moment it is anything but.

DV: So, there is going to be a rebalancing among the tech giants, maybe a McDonalds type u-turn when they said they had always been about healthy living and sugar is bad?

DS: I believe so, there are a lot of VRM type of initiatives out there, many of them incubated by Universities. And there are beginning to be conferences out there as well. In fact, the UK is probably the hottest place for this at the moment. I think one of the things that the tech giants miss is the encryption piece, and even peer-to-peer encryption. Apple is way ahead in this space.

Also, it is important to see clearly when it comes to Apple. They are a B2C company. Google and Facebook are not, they are B2B, with the C element part of the equation, but not benefitting them that much. In fact, they are screwing over the C.

DV: In fact, the C is the product.

DS: Exactly. The other factor in all this is the advertiser. If you think about companies, they do not think of themselves as advertisers. Tesco thinks of itself as a supermarket. They happen to advertise. But the advertising industry sees them as advertisers. And advertising is the easiest thing to stop doing when times are tough. We know of companies who pulled their advertising online because the spying software that they thought was working for them wasn’t working well enough. Not even close. Basically, the robots that were meant to be getting them leads were getting them bad leads.

What they found is that advertising that is aimed at a population, rather than individuals, works better. This has been borne out by other research as well, and it is actually pretty obvious that people who are self selecting are going to be better targets. The problem with advertising, and I speak as one who was in the industry, is that it got taken over by a completely different discipline called direct marketing and direct response. Direct marketing says that most targeted advert is the most successful, while advertising says that the most creative advert is the most successful. BMW might want to show an advert at a ball game, because they want that audience to think positively about BMW. They do not believe that everyone in the audience is going to buy a BMW. This is different from targeting everyone who owns a Mercedes, and probably has a high income, and peppering them with adverts. Because of the craze for collecting and analysing data, this seems to have brain washed the entire advertising industry. There are very few advertising guys left on Madison Avenue, which is no coincidence. It is the danger of ‘interest based advertising’ or Ad Tech.

DV: So, one of the things that we like doing is asking ourselves and our readers why Facebook is still here. Their business model is completely one sided and based on a flawed advertising model.

DS: We were saying that six years ago, and they still seem to be here. But you are right, it is flawed. They are tone deaf and blind. But they could adapt, perhaps go to a paid model. They could say ‘for one pound a month’ you can have advert free timeline. It only would take a small percentage of the billion customers to adopt that for them to make more money than they do now. Mind you, they are playing it pretty slick in the small business market. Unless you pay for a ‘boost’ then an advert will not go to your followers. Same thing, different way round.

DV: Thank you, there are some great insights here and we look forward to keeping in touch.

DS: A pleasure, thank you.

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Alex Leslie

About the Author

About the Author: Alex was Founder and CEO of the Global Billing Association (GBA), a trade body focused on the communications sector. He is a sought after speaker and chairman at leading industry conferences, and is widely published in communications magazines around the world. Until it closed, he was Contributing Editor, OSS/BSS for Connected Planet. He is publisher of DisruptiveViews and previously BillingViews. .

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