Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

Privacy ain’t dead yet

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Last couple of months I have found myself giving several talks on privacy. This isn’t exactly news as I have been banging on that drum for ages, but there does seem to be more interest in privacy and requests to talk about the topic.

This may be because people are realising how elusive privacy becomes as the web platforms are turning the screws on user data they have accumulated. I am looking at you, Facebook, though Facebook is not the only perp in town…

The first talk on the topic, which I enjoyed very much was the one I gave in June to the Oxford Libertarian Society. I tried to cover various notions of privacy and argued that privacy is to identity what freedom is to morality – the latter can’t exist without the former. Here’s the text in full.

Oxford Libertarian Society talk on privacy

My second recent talk on privacy was at LIFT France 2010, as part of the session called Privacy Revisited, Protect and Project with Daniel Kaplan, the founder of FING and Alma Whitten, Google’s Engineering Lead for Privacy. It is a sign of a good session where one learns much from the other speakers. After watching Alma’s interesting presentation, it occurred to me that in the world of web platforms and clouds, even ones that are trying to be benign, privacy boils down to something I should have opened my talk with…

Privacy is never having to delete things you don’t want anyone to see.

LIFT France Privacy

LIFT Privacy Talk

Fuck the cloud – a reminder

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… worth making in these troubled times:

Insult, berate and make fun of any company that offers you something like a “sharing” site that makes you push stuff in that you can’t make copies out of or which you can’t export stuff out of. They will burble about technology issues. They are fucking lying. They might go off further about business models. They are fucking stupid. Make fun of these people, and their shitty little Cloud Cities running on low-grade cooking fat and dreams. They will die and they will take your stuff into the hole. Don’t let them.
Jason Scott of ASCII in Fuck the Cloud

The stories never told

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From a book I am reading*:

He did a new thing with a new set of people every day of his life. And that made him just as different from the people in the traffic jam as I was.
So I looked with fascination at those people in their [cars]**, and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organisations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Power That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn’t live without story had been driven [out]**. All others had to look somewhere outside of work for feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why people were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part?

In other words, creating and living your own story means you have autonomy. And that is one thing that nobody working in a corporation, institution or another system has. And why in the New Year, it will be disruption management full blast for me…

*Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

**sci-fi terms replaced by their Earth equivalents.

Digital Identity Roundtable

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Yesterday I attended a meeting called a mashup* event – private Digital Identity Roundtable, organised by the indefatiguable Tony Fish – whose book My Digital Footprint also came out yesterday.

The conversation was varied and under Chatham House rules so can’t talk about it in detail. What I can repeat here is my closing remark – a result of pervasive assumption that there should be identity provider(s) and my data doesn’t need to be mine:

I want to own and drive, manage, share my identity.
I want to do that on my own terms, using technology that enables me rather than provides for me.
I want to be my own ‘identity provider’ and I’d rather address challenges that this would pose than shoe-horn notions and practices of offline identity management onto the online networked world.

There you go, I said it. Here I try to work on it.

A tangled web of differentiations

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This morning, twitter network delivered a bit of a red herring argument due to lack of differentiation between the internet and the web. So it helps to say first what is internet and what is web (these are not proper official definitions but will have to do for the purposes of this post):

The internet is a set of open protocols that have given rise to a specific type of network – a heterarchy. By heterarchy, in this case, I mean a network of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role.

The wikipedia article also points out that heterarchies can contain hierarchical elements and DNS is an example. But an (infra-)structural heterarchy such as the internet ultimately undermines hierarchies. I often paraphrase what John Gilmore famously said: The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it – replacing censorship with control.

This feature of a heterarchical network:

…no one way of dividing a heterarchical system can ever be a totalizing or all-encompassing view of the system, each division is clearly partial, and in many cases, a partial division leads us, as perceivers, to a feeling of contradiction that invites a new way of dividing things.

- is the internet’s greatest advantage. Built into the fabric of the internet is the ability to bypass missing or ‘damaged’ nodes and so imposition of hierarchical structures is incompatible in the long run – such control is perceived as an obstacle and therefore damage*.

The above is the ‘defence mechanism’ of the internet as a network. Now the ‘offense mechanism’ or better yet, the disruptive one:

What makes the Net inter is the fact that it’s just a protocol — the Internet Protocol, to be exact. A protocol is an agreement about how things work together.

This protocol doesn’t specify what people can do with the network, what they can build on its edges, what they can say, who gets to talk. The protocol simply says: If you want to swap bits with others, here’s how. If you want to put a computer — or a cell phone or a refrigerator — on the network, you have to agree to the agreement that is the Internet.

The web, on the other hand, is a network of platforms and silos, with many intermediaries. Some of them have considerable ability to control large chunks of it in ways that would not be possible on the open network that the internet still is. Facebook and any platform based around control and management of my data spring to mind, regardless of how much ‘use’ or functionality they provide.

Still, even on the web, hierarchy is not the defining organisational structure though closed platforms undermine openness of the web as a whole. There are overtones of feudal serf-lord relationship – you can farm my land in exchange for tithes and/or working for me (just substitute platform and data and you’ve got the current relationship between users and Facebook etc).

That said, there are emerging orders on the web which structurally can be described as power law and socially/politically sometimes as meritocracy. So not all order is automatically a hierarchy.

Another fallacy is due to the term democracy having two meanings. Those who argue that the web is a force for democratisation often use them interchangably which can lead to confusion about the nature of democracy online.

Democracy as open access i.e. right to and equality of voting – one man, one vote (though sometimes it’s not hard to see the one Man with the one Vote) and democracy as rule of the majority. The web is strongly driving the first meaning of democracy – anyone can connect (assuming sufficient resources such as a device and internet connection) and interact online. I can set up an email (communication tool), a blog (publishing platform) and twitter (distribution network). Pretty powerful and heady stuff considering that in the offline world all three capabilities are very expensive and highly controlled and controlable.

Democracy as a rule of the majority is not applicable to the internet or even the web. Nobody tells me what to write on my blog or who I connect and interact with. There is no General Will or Greater Good that would dictate or subjugate my actions online… though social pressures and technical limitations make this a far cry from a utopia. :)

With that out of the way, let’s look at the argument that the internet (or the web) is being used and abused by various government to oppress their citizens. How is that evidence of either the internet or the web being hierarchical? If it is evidence of anything, it is of the effectiveness of online in distribution and management or monitoring of data… and governments’ eventual catching up with those capabilities.

As Alec pointed out in an IM conversation about this – would those citizens be any more free or less oppresssed without the governments (ab)use of the internet? I don’t think so.

The real problem with countries using the internet to oppress its peoples is not in the ‘virtual’ world – they wouldn’t be able to control that any more than the rest of us can – it is in their access to its infrastructural underpinnings.

The use of hackers and cyberwar techniques against other countries by Russia and many other countries is not a sign of governments’ control of the internet either. Such techniques are not limited to governments and can be (and sometimes are) applied to the government.

Finally, I do take issue with the concluding paragraph of the blog post that sparked off this rant:

The exaggerated claims of those who say the internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies or that it is bound to lead to greater democracy and collaboration are an unhelpful distraction from the important study of the internet’s real impact on real lives.

The claims that internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies are not exaggerated, they are based on understanding of the nature of the internet as a heterarchy. As long as that is unassaulted, the internet will be able to re-route around censorship, control or hierarchies as damage.

That said, none of this can or should be taken for granted. The web does reflect our mental models of organisation, social conventions and power structures. However, it is build on an infrastructure – the internet – that has already profoundly shifted balances of power, brought about phenomenal technological innovation and is currently having a go at social and organisational conventions. Let’s give it a hand where we can by keeping protocols, data and technology as open as possible.

*An important proviso – the underlying infrastructure of the internet has to remain open and not in the hands of some mega-hierarchy such as government, directly or via telcos.

VRM journey

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For those who follow my VRM escapades, I have tried to capture what VRM is about and why I am working on it. So here is my paper (and manifesto) A VRM journey.

Loosely speaking, apart from my consolidate position on VRM, this is what it’s about (as summed up by my friend Carrie):

  1. ‘Social media’ is limited and people are outgrowing it
  2. There is demand from growing number of people for more control over their online ’stuff’
  3. There are benefits to users and ‘vendors’ for re-working the current imbalanced relationship
  4. Some tools are being developed to make that a reality
  5. It will be a hard slog but there is a call to arms for users to even out the balance; the most open vendors will also benefit – bringing more certainty to their future in this uncertain economic climate

Here is the PDF version for those who prefer a non-web format.

It’s the context, stupid

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Doc Searls was asked about the last three paragraphs of this post by Daniel Goleman in connection with VRM.

The singular force that can drive this transformation of every manmade thing for the better is neither government fiat nor the standard tactics of environmentalists, but rather radical transparency in the marketplace. If we as buyers can know the actual ecological impacts of the stuff we buy at the point of purchase, and can compare those impacts to competing products, we can make better choices. The means for such radical transparency has already launched. Software innovations now allow any of us to access a vast database about the hidden harms in whatever we are about to buy, and to do this where it matters most, at the point of purchase. As we stand in the aisle of a store, we can know which brand has the fewest chemicals of concern, or the better carbon footprint. In the Beta version of such software, you click your cell phone’s camera on a product’s bar code, and get an instant readout of how this brand compares to competitors on any of hundreds of environmental, health, or social impacts. In a planned software upgrade, that same comparison would go on automatically with whatever you buy on your credit card, and suggestions for better purchases next time you shop would routinely come your way by email.

Such transparency software converts shopping into a vote, letting us target manufacturing processes and product ingredients we want to avoid, and rewarding smarter alternatives. As enough of us apply these decision rules, market share will shift, giving companies powerful, direct data on what shoppers want — and want to avoid — in their products.

Creating a market force that continually leverages ongoing upgrades throughout the supply chain could open the door to immense business opportunities over the next several decades. We need to reinvent industry, starting with the most basic platforms in industrial chemistry and manufacturing design. And that would change every thing

The article seems to imply that the data is out there in a form or format provided via some centralised source. My immediate reaction was that is not how the social web or the Live Web works: a) data is generated by anyone and everyone and b) it’s messy and the context emergent.

Technology and tools should serve us better and help us, as individuals, to filter and structure that information. Somehow, even in the best case scenario, I don’t see everything on tap from a unified source. Or digested, which is an uncomfortable implication that leaps out of the piece at me.

For example, assessing environmental or health impact of anything is subject to years, decades even, of debate, controversy, lobbying, vested interest, political play… and so it seems to me that the only way I can get information clear enough for making decisions is to ’subscribe’ to a particular view via sources promoting it. Of course, I can get a more balanced take on everything these days by finding alternative views somewhere on the web but I am not sure I want to stand in the supermarket, trying to follow a potentially heated and complicated online debate about the impact of the washing liquid I am about to put in my basket. Can technology speed up and simplify this process to the point where it becomes practical, without losing context for delibration in the process? That is one of the questions I ask myself whenever I come across yet another tool to help us search, compare, aggregate or match information online.

That said, information about nutrients and other non-controversial data of interest to me is easy enough to provide and sadly, this is where most vendors do fall short of what’s possible with existing technology. The operative word here is non-controversial, which is the trojan horse of any implementation of such resource(s). I mean that even what is meant to be gathering of ‘encyclopedic’ knowledge can be controversial at times. Trying to do that with live streams of information means that the checks and balances must reside in the context, not the source itself.

At the more fundamental level, the web and information technology made data cheap. It is the context to data that got expensive, in time and social interactions. On the web the best context costs you time spent browsing and researching and/or time spent cultivating a quality network to supply you with context as you need it. Here I elaborate:

The web has removed physical limitations on space. Data was expensive to create, store and move around and now it is not. This made room for context, which is becoming at least as important as the data. In fact, it is what make data and information the skeleton, giving shape to the flesh and skin but it is no longer the whole body and finish. The important thing is that context can be provided only by a human mind. It cannot be automated – when creating or absorbing it.

Update: The Guardian advert making similar point with regard to media and interpretations of ‘facts’ one sees.

It comes down to whether you prefer context to be provided by:

  1. automated algorithms a la Google and the thousands aggreation sites,
  2. trusted sources including vendors, manufacturers, even third parties and intermediaries, or
  3. your network of friends aka social network

The answer is obvious.

It depends! We use all three at different points in our information gathering, sharing and exchange and transactions. The challenge for VRM is to understand advantages and disadvantages of all three and encourage development of tools that give me, the individual user or customers, the best of all three.

My bet is on no.3. I want to help individuals to capture both data and context on their own terms. This will give rise to another layer of knowledge that serves both the individual and his network. For example, I want to collect data about my shopping, with my own comments and with sources of information useful to me. I want to have pictures of products I have bought, links to reviews by others and my own, comments by friends in my network, record of interactions with the vendors and third parties etc etc. I want it in a place I can further analyse it and share it based on my privacy requirements.

With time, all this can become a source of better understanding of my own behaviour and preferences, and, with practice, a better negotiating position in future transactions. In other words, I will be the most authoritative source of my own history, with data, information and knowledge about me.

And that might change everything.

Young Girl-Old Woman illusion
Young Girl-Old Woman Illusion

Bonus link: TED talk Chris Jones Picturing excess

The creepiness factor

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Yesterday at one of my client workshops I was explaining the benefits of Twitter – I use the term ’synchronicity maximised’ to describe the ad hoc organisation of encounters, connectivity and sharing that makes Twitter so useful and addictive. I mentioned an example of twittering my location – let’s say I am in New York having brunch with a friend and I let the ‘world’ know about it. One of the attendees remarked how creepy this seemed to her. And here we have the ‘creepiness factor’ – which usually refers to someone not necessarily violating our privacy legally but to the ability of others to gather our public details (as private data would be a privacy violation), piece together data and information about us that allow them to act in ways we don’t expect. It is the realisation that someone knows so much about us by deliberately gathering information and using to behave in a way that implies familiarity. It feel like a violation of autonomy and privacy, even though existence of either is a delusion in our mind.

There is a difference between me ‘broadcasting’ on Twitter that I am having brunch with a friend plus the exact location, and learning the hard way that someone is ’scraping’ or gleaning such information from places that I, probably very foolishly, consider private or even semi-private, such as Facebook. It comes down to me knowing what happens to my data. The creepiness comes from realising that someone is gathering and piecing together information about me for purposes that don’t directly involve me and/or are not in my interest. Twittering my location is not a problem if I am doing it with awareness of my network and audience.

Sometimes it seem that the vision of web of document turning into web of people has gone the other way around. It is turning the web of people into the web of information about those people without their ability to do much about it.

And of course, all this contributes to all the talk about privacy. And the view that the web is eroding it and that the younger generation don’t appreciate or value it or give it away and, and, and… I have a different view. I am a privacy freak myself and value my privacy highly although I have considerable online presence. That is because privacy is behaviour according to your own preferences – it’s a policy, not a system.

Below is my response to an overly legal approach to privacy on the project VRM mail list thread, where privacy was seen as a legal agreement and to be guaranteed by a contract. Here is what I said:

Yes, the whole legal thing is not addressing or even originating from the way people interact. Bemoaning the fact and trying to build systems, processes or tools that force people to ‘behave in their best interest’ or to ‘protect their privacy’ is not going to work and/or deal with the problem.

Privacy is a policy, not a system. ToS is a creature of systems, platforms and silos not of the individual/user/customer.

I, as an autonomous individual, am the best judge of my privacy requirements. When I talk to my friends, I know what to tell them and what not to share – and if I mess up, I suffer the consequences and learn not to gossip with those who betray confidences.

In a larger context, beyond my immediate social circles and when money or reputation or other value is at stake, in order to manage my privacy I need to understand the context and consequences of information I share or other have about me. But if my privacy is not up to me to manage, there can be no reasons or demand for such knowledge to be available or for me to find out easily. Hence, many people have no idea about how their data is used and abused. So that will is part of the challenge in which the web has helped enormously – it is now possible for a dedicated or persistent person to find out what’s going on most of time.

But there is little they can do to act on that knowledge – and I have said this elsewhere many times before – our privacy options are rather binary. Either you participate in transactions, exchanges, communities, etc and you give up some of your privacy or you don’t. However unacceptable I find the former, the latter is not the way to live either.

The best ‘privacy settings’ are in my head, but I need ways/tools that help me to ‘execute’ my privacy policy. And as it’s been pointed out these are not necessarily of the legal world. It helps not to assume it and start building tools that help individuals manage their data and help them to determine their privacy behaviour themselves.

Driving your car

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See here:

Now consider the new world of social networks. Facebook, unwittingly or on purpose, has been teaching people to manage their own data about themselves. Facebook’s launch of the Beacon service — which informs Facebook of members’ activities (i.e., purchases) on other sites — was a PR fiasco. But it still familiarized millions of users with the notion that they can control information about themselves online — and determine to whom it is visible.

And here:

Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems kind of pointless unless you know that it is just learning and practising. Facebook and MySpace seems a lot like that to me. But once people work out how to drive, how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to point B, they will be able to decide what the B is and get around on their own. And that’s when the real fun starts.

And then here:

So the Mine! is an attempt to give people their own car, getting them to decide where they go with it, how fast and who they take along as passangers. They will have to look after it a bit and perhaps learn to maintain it but that will be easier with time too. It is an alternative for networked and social existence on the web for those ready and willing to break out of silos.

Nuff said.

Whose data is it anyway?

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Follow up on previous thoughts on data and ownership… as cross-posted from VRM Hub.

Talking about ownership of data online in terms of control is fairly pointless. Once your data is out, it’s out. So instead of delving into the meaning of ownership and what it means in a decentralised, distributed and open network where sharing and transparency are default, let’s look at how the data is generated by the individual and shared through interactions with others.

Data as generated online is akin to a positive externality for the vendors and platforms that capture our data. Positive externality* is something that is not part of the value traded in market exchanges. It is something one of the parties in the trade benefits from, without having to pay for it. For illustration, pollution is considered a negative externality as it is

a) a by-product of manufacturing processes and,
b) is not included in the cost or price of the products.

So, when I am buying something from Amazon or Virgin Atlantic site, the explicit value exchange is the goods they provide and the money I pay for those goods. My data is external to that value exchange – the vendor is not paying for it and I am not being paid for it. In the current set-up (no pun intended), the vendors benefit by using the data in ways that help their business, from mining to selling it on. I, on the other hand, have scant legal protection against that and even with all the laws in place such as Data Protection Act and other restrictions on those who capture my data, a large portion of data collected from me is for marketing purposes.. and usually way above the threshold of legally required data to complete transactions.

The advent of the ‘free’ web has mightily confused the distinction between data as part of a value exchange and data as a positive externality – simply because most platforms with web services have turned what is essentially an external benefit from other exchanges to foundations of their business models. The ‘free services’ I receive are ‘paid for’ by my attention and/or my data – both eagerly gathered by various platforms. Advertising is a way to monetise my attention aka eyeball and the race to monetising my data (short of crude selling on) is still on.

In this context I own my data (in a way I own my attention) and neither should be considered a payment for the (free) web services unless it is specified in the terms of the exchange or service. It is merely a shift from one business model – online retail such as Amazon – to another where data becomes the value exchanged tacitly and without clear understanding. This is another reason why privacy remains an issue with such web services and platforms. As long as I have to depend on a third party to protect my privacy, it will be exposed by accident (incompetence), force (authorities) or abuse (marketing & advertising).

The tensions between the data created and managed by us and the tools we use belonging to someone else, are becoming obvious on the social web. Mike Arrington’s outrage a few months back when Facebook was turning its back on FriendConnect is justified.

The fact is, this isn’t Facebook’s data. It’s my data. And if I give Google permission to do stuff with it, I’m damned well within my rights to do so. By blocking Google, Facebook has blocked ME. And that, frankly, kind of frustrates me.

Let me put this another way. How dare Facebook tell ME that I cannot give Google access to this data!

Arrington also condemns Scoble’s early attempts at ‘data portability’:

Scoble has been on the wrong side of this issue before, when he tried to scrape his friend’s contact information out of Facebook and export it to Plaxo. In that case, it wasn’t his data and he didn’t have the right to make it portable. It’s MY data, once again, and only I should be allowed to make that decision. He thinks his new position shows that he gets the importance of privacy, but once again he isn’t thinking in terms of who really owns the data and should be allowed to make decisions around it.

Here we go, ownership of data again. So when I add someone to my network, together with his photo and other profile details, I do not ‘own’ that data. It seems pretty pointless to debate that as whenever I sign-up to a social network platform, I am agreeing to the terms and conditions of their relationship with me and to what happens to my data, privacy etc. All my agreements are with the platforms and the way I enter those agreements is definitely lacking in balance of power. We do live in the early days of individual empowerement… but even so, there is a distinct lack of tools that will allow me to be a node in a network independent of someone else’s silo or a platform. I have the same question as Danny O’Brien:

When you want to make a private picture or note available only to your friends, why do you hand it over to a multi-national corporation first?

Moreover, within social networking platforms, there is no corresponding agreement with other users. The terms of service are between me and Facebook, me and MySpace, me and Twitter, me and Flickr, me and Plaxo, me and LinkedIn, me and the socnet du jour… but they do not extend to my relationships with other individuals on the same platform. Relationships are pre-defined, much the same way terms & conditions are, from the point of the platoform, not from the point of the individual. So ironically, social networking platforms designed to help me connect with others, to create and maintain relationships with them, are not allowing me to define those very relationships…

In other words, there is no way to interact with others within the silos based on what I call P2P terms and conditions. These could be privacy agreements, if we so wish, ranging from simply not-bothered-about-what-happens-to-my-contact -details-in-your-social-graph all the way to granulated preferences for different people in my contact list. So just like in the real world – there are people I’d trust with my address book and there are some I wouldn’t trust with my address. Instead of building complicated systems and using technology to make such nuances in relationships explicit, I need tools to help me manage the complexity of human relationships. I need tools to reflect what is already in my head implicitly and defines me as a social animal. Do not tie me up in legal pretzels over various policies, creating permissions and access management nightmares in the process. In the words of Kevin Marks as paraphrased from his Social Cloud talk at Lift08:

Software cannot match out ability to sort out our friends and contact, establish how much we trust them and how we arrive at that trust. No software can fully map the relationships, let alone replace our natural ability to create and maintain them The implication is that therefore software should support the kind of cloud abstraction we have around the internet, also around our social relationships. You can feed it (the social networking app) relationships that are in the ’software in your head’, feed the stuff related to people in your network to software online. Users will assume that your software (this is aimed at developers) will be able to see the information that they have already fed into the software and be able to use it.

Indeed! By I digress. To recap, my data is a kind of externality to purchasing transactions, just like attention is an externality to my reading, watching or listening to something else. Marketing lives off my data, advertising lives off my attention. My data (and by extension me) is not respected because companies can trade it as a commodity without paying for it. The way to address this is not to make them pay for the data (and create many snake oil intermediaries in the process) but to make it possible for companies to enter into relationships with the true owners of the data.

So what is to be done? How to internalise the externality? How do I regain control over something that originates from me and is used in my transactions with others? This is the stuff of VRM.

Broadly speaking, it is about finding tools & technology to give the individual sovereignty over his data, so he can exercise choice over who gets to see it and under what circumstances. This will change the balance of powers and eventually demonstrate to companies that respecting people’s data (and by extension them), they can make more money.

* Definition of externality: Economic theory considers any voluntary exchange to be mutually beneficial to both parties, for example a buyer and seller. Any exchange, however, can result in additional positive or negative effects on third parties. Those who suffer from external costs do so involuntarily, while those who enjoy external benefits do so at no cost. Data is an externality without the third party, where the afffected party is also participating in the transaction. So not an exact theoretical match, but perhaps still helpful in understanding how we got to the point where ‘free services’ feel entitled to their users data.

Ownership of data, privacy policies and other VRM creatures

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Here are some thoughts based on what I posted to the Project VRM mailing list on the discussion about data ownership:

The ownership of data, whatever that means, is merely a starting point of VRM and our attempts to redress the balance of power between vendors and customers. I might volunteer information – to me that means I share it on my own terms – but I also need the ability to establish and
maintain relationships. For that I (others may not) need and want
the following ‘functionality’:

  1. take charge of my data (content, relationships, transactions, knowledge),
  2. arrange (analyse, manipulate, combine, mash-up) it according to my needs and preferences and
  3. share it on my own terms
  4. whilst connected and networked on the web.

That’s what I mean when I talk about turning the individual into a platform, etc etc.

This does not happen by creating a database or a data store, however personal. Store implies passive and static, even with some sort of distribution. The objective is equipping individuals with analytical and other tools to help them understand themselves better and give them an online spring board to relationships with others (in VRM context this includes vendors).

I think it’s the user who should define the nature of the data stored/shared/analysed and what data is called what – whether confidential or premium or whatever. The crucial point is being able to share it (as well as do all sorts of groovy things with it, independently of third party and without the data being hijacked, er, harvested by third parties in the process.)

In the spirit of user-driven-ness, it should be the user who determines the ‘policies’ by which his or her data is managed and shared. I don’t see why they need to be standard(ised) as my sharing preferences and tolerance are a matter of my policy* – just like security and privacy are policies, not systems, i.e. what’s secure or private to me is not necessarily the same to you and vice versa.

What happens after information/data/whatever is shared is partly provenance of the law but mostly of a relationship I have with those the data is shared with… The main issue with the latter is that it can become meaningful only if the user is the most authoritative source of his or her data. Hence I call the means of doing this the Mine!

*My take on privacy is that it is a policy of the individual, not in a sense of privacy policy for the individual selected from a given selection, in the style of Creative Commons. Huge difference. For instance, I have a policy about who I let into my house. I don’t need to display it on my doors or attach it to my address or business cards. It is far more convenient and flexible for me to decide there and then, when someone’s knocking at the door. It is my implicit privacy policy that kicks in. Sure, I don’t want junk mail or door-to-door salesmen but just because I can display notices to that effect, doesn’t mean that is the way to deal with the rest of the humankind. So online, it is about creating tools that help the individual control the data to the point that he/she decides practically and directly who gets to see what – without a third party or intermediary…

cross-posted from VRM Hub

Cost of damage, cost of repair and unruly human behaviour

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This morning I commented on JP’s blog post on Wondering about damage and repair , where he applies a useful concept of comparing the cost of damage with the cost of repair to chewing gum. It transpires that the cost of chewing gum is 3p and cost of cleaning (by councils) is 10pm and therefore the full cost born by us all as taxpayers. The question is what can be done to balance this out, as it is the balance in the right direction that keeps things ticking over – such as Wikipedia for example.

Maybe it’s time for some radical solutions. Maybe we could try something else. If a good for sale is capable of damaging “the commons” then maybe we should measure the cost of repairing that damage. If that cost exceeds the cost of damage, then we raise a tax on the good until the cost of damage is higher than the cost of repair. Half the tax is payable by the manufacturer, half by the consumer. The taxes so collected are then used to do the repairing.

chewing gum

To me using taxes to influence such things is anathema, here is why:

Hm, to me the problem with the ’solution’ to chewing gum is trying to control behaviour through taxing it – a slippery slope indeed. Apart from the fact that even if it works, i.e. in aggregate people stop or start doing more of whatever the tax is designed to change, there are _always_ unintended consequences that cause further distortion(s) in the market. Just look at financial regulations. :)

But my real objection to using any tax to control behaviour is that is it paternalistic and shifts the relationship between the state and the people from one of servant-master to master-slave.

People don’t seem to differentiate between the state and society – two separate realms that relate to the individual in fundamentally different ways. The state is political and the society, well, social. One of the features of communism (or any totalitarianism) is the explicit aim to politicise the social. In such systems, everything is political and the power is taken away from the society and individual for political purposes. Therefore, I distrust and thwart the state wherever I can. I support and strengthen society to the best of my abilities.

A bit of a political theory overkill for a chewing gum issue, however, that is the reason my alarm bells go off every time I hear proposal to tax one thing or another to change or influence human behaviour. Social solutions are always better than political and taxation IS a political solution.

The cost of repair vs cost of damange is a brilliant framework for understanding why some phenomena work and others don’t. I am with DE on how to approach it – education and lower cost of clean up. :)

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