At a Silicon Valley meeting, founders, funders and others at a Mozilla meeting envision a better future for web, turning away from data surveillance with entities that help manage privacy and identity
A summary by Bill Densmore, executive director, ITEGA.org
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., Sept. 13, 2019 — An ambitious effort by company founders, their funders and foundations to turn the priorities of global technology away from the likes of “surveillance capitalism” — and toward new concepts of data integrity — is underway with a series of meetings in Cambridge, Mass., Silicon Valley, Seattle and New York. It’s called “Race to the Top: A New Business Paradigm for Identity Data.”
Organizers of the “Race to the Top” initiative are defining investing principles and tools that demonstrate profit is possible while supporting personal privacy and trustworthy identity control. At the Mozilla-hosted meeting participants reviewed Race to the Top draft principles, and heard directly from five startup entrepreneurs about how they are implementing. (Details below)
A talk by Jaron Lanier, an interdisciplinary scientist with Microsoft Labs, was designed to shake up the thinking of those in a meeting room at the Mozilla Foundation in Mountain View, Calif., who hosted the Sept. 13, 2019 gathering. In order to promote candid conversation, participants pledged to abide by Chatham House Rule, under which their names and affiliation would not be attached to specific comments.
The next gathering is Oct. 24 in Seattle. Investing principles under discussion for possible adoption cover such things as data integrity and responsibility, transparency and accountability, accessibility and openness, fairness and inclusion.
Lanier, co-author of the Sept. 2018 Harvard Business Review article, “A Blueprint for a Better Digital Society,” and the Sept. 23, 2019 New York Times op-ed video, “Jaron Lanier Fixes the Internet,” talked about what is broken currently. He defined a new term: “Data integrity.”
“We’ve put everybody in a Skinner box,” Lanier, an author and Internet pioneer, told 26 participants in the “Race to the Top” initiative, as he described an Internet based primarily on getting the attention of users and then selling targeted advertising. “It makes you more irritable. The method of engagement is who clicks more, who stays more. Fight or flight is measured, so all the people who are scared or angry about Black Lives Matter get reinforced more and are introduced to each other. You get a KKK or a renewed Nazi movement.”
“Race to the Top” is a reference to the idea that technology aimed at the incentives Lanier cites is a “race to the bottom” – an accelerating race for profits from services which divide communities by obscure, non-public methods, and reward users – and advertisers – for inadvertent encouragement of anti-social behavior or speech. Venture investors participating so far include Omidyar Network, International Finance Corp (IFC), Structure Capital, Georgian Partners, PickAxes & Shovels, Anthemis Group, Floodgate, PT Ventures, WestWave Capital, Glasswing Ventures, and DBL Ventures.
One useful outcome of the meeting was a new focus on the critical importance of determining data “provenance.” Startup entrepreneurs at the meeting also asked for tools to help them understand and adopt privacy and identity protecting principles. A key next step decided on by participants was the need to build out a toolkit for investors to help them not only identify early stage companies using best practices, but to define and support those best practices as companies grow through their seed stages.
Some key ideas emerged from the day-long Mozilla meeting, the second of four:
- Race to the Top is intended to “operationalize good,” to permit investors to be able to audit concepts of fairness, community, trust and respect for individual data privacy and identity control. So a key challenge is to define new investing principles and measurement tools that apply such values and ethical implications uniformly.
- A consensus of participants in Mountain View was that their optimism in the early days of Internet technology has been soured by evidence of centralization and negative social impacts, that there should be alternatives — but people have trouble and need help imagining a different world and rekindling optimism. Participants said they felt less discouraged and professionally lonely because of efforts like Race to the Top.
- As enforcement of privacy becomes increasingly regulated in the European Union, California and elsewhere, companies will want to “outsource” the risk of data breaches and data misuse. This is creating a new class of service and tech companies specializing in such risk management as agents of the underlying companies. It is an investment opportunity as well.
- A key unanswered question is what happens to sensitive personal data when a company, which holds it, is sold or enters bankruptcy. If its business model was build on valuing such data, what happens to the data, and to that value? Are laws sufficient in this area?
- The “provenance” – originating source – of personal data is among the most critical threads running through the business of information collection and exchange, as are the ideas of “ownership” or “control” of how data are used.
- Starting around 2010 and accelerating since then, the public is increasingly aware of how information about them is collected and used by online technologists. It makes them anxious but not sure exactly what is going on. They are not yet actively making consumer choices based on that anxiety, because they aren’t yet aware of alternatives beyond the growth of browser ad blocking.
- There’s a need to establish a support system for startup and mature companies, which adopt privacy and identity protecting principles. They need a way to learn about how to understand and implement such principles. Rather than merely censoring bad corporate actors, companies that practice good identity and data privacy should be cited and rewarded publicly when they do so. “Someone needs to provide that rallying point,” observed one participant.
- A “theory of change” articulated by those present involves (a) creating public demand for more responsible data privacy and identity practices then (b) encouraging supply of such services and (c) establishing regulations which encourage both. “What I’m going to take from this is what are the policy levers we should be recommending,” said one person.
In his talk, Lanier said an unequal distribution of market power between tech titans and their public users distributes profits unequally. Network effects make competition difficult. He said there is a need for a new type of organization (Lanier calls them MIDS – “mediators of individual data” in a Harvard Business School paper) that collect consumer power so that it can negotiate rules and rights with the titans. Other terms roughly similar in concept cited by participants included “identity service provider,” a “consumer co-operative”, “information fiduciaries”, “data mutuals” or “information valets.”
Lanier said the web needs solutions that operationalize paying for data – both paying the public for their attention and data attributes – and paying producers of unique content and services. “I want the open-source community to think about moving toward a society of compensation that is as open and democratic as possible,” said Lanier. “As opposed to everything is free – which leads to a less open and equitable society.”
“Google has control of the backlinks, Facebook as control of identity – but transactions – we haven’t solved that yet,” added Lanier. “Getting to the point where we have efficient transactions is absolutely essential . . . to subscribe to The New York Times you have to start a whole new password, credit card, and anxiety in the back of your mind. The burden is the raw transaction cost.”
Participants seemed to have a sense that:
- The public network for information exchange is at a pivotal moment
- There are a set of overlapping and perhaps compatible ideas for fixing it
- A challenge is creating a supporting ecosystem for doing so
- The concept of “Race to the Top” is understandable.
- It is focused on developing an alternative, a reciprocal of “surveillance capitalism.”
- What is that to be called? Is it a form of “stakeholder capitalism?”
- Could it borrow from the open-source movement and be called “open capitalism”?
THE RACE TO THE TOP PRINCIPLES
The “Race to the Top” initiative is intended to be adopted by venture-capital firms as part of their investing strategies and oversight of companies they back – a set of principles and tools that could become a new class of “key performance indicators” or KPIs. A small team at Omidyar Network, the philanthropy and investing unit of eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, is supporting development of the principles and tools with the idea they will become public investment benchmarks. The initiative is developing conceptual tools investors can use to benchmark appropriates processes and technologies. The 12 principles cover these concepts:
- Safety and security
- Privacy by design
- Data integrity and respect
- Transparency and auditability
- Accessibility and openness
- Transfer continuity
- Benefits to individuals and communities
- Fairness and inclusion
- Risk and impact proportionality
- Trustworthy operations and relationships
- Engagement with customers and stakeholders
- Sustainable growth
To begin to test applicability of the principles, and learn how companies might be subjected to investing tests and benchmarks — tools — for their operations and values-based behavior, the gathering at Mozilla invited five startups to participate in a “lightning round” describing their business. A goal — see how their products and services overlap with and apply the 12 principles.
- EASI is a development-stage company founded by a former Cisco executive seeking to field “ethical advertising services” based upon user-permissioned data resulting from a coordinated approach to user authentication, authorization and accounting.
- D-ID in testing technology which adjusts the data behind facial images so that the picture still looks like a picture, but it becomes impossible for facial recognition systems to search and identify individuals.
- Indie Computing Corp. has deployed home services — a private “cloud” — where inviduals can store all their personal data and securely access it from any device remotely.
- JLINC Labs is designing a way of moving information across databases with permissions, custody and control at a granular level, so users can decide how their data is shared.
- Desic Labs is creating a a dot-com space for personal data, to collect it to your own personal device and be able to analyze it yourself.