VRM Mojo Working

Think of the industrialized world as Kansas and the Internet as Oz. The difference is actually more radical than that, because the Internet is real. From the perspective of industry, the Internet is actually surreal. It’s a place that calls for depiction by Dalí, or Escher or Magritte. For example, the term “content” suggests a quantity of stuff we can “upload”, “download” and “distribute.” Yet, most of the time we are actually copying and proliferating. That’s because data moves by a process of replication. “The Internet is a copy machine”, Kevin Kelly says.

So, how do we “protect” something that is not a thing, has value, and is easily copied? Well, there are lots of ways, but maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe the better question is, Who do we share it with, and what decisions about it do we, as a couple, make about it?

Questions about protection usually devolve into arguments about ownership, and that’s a red herring. As Joe Andrieu explains in Beyond Data Ownership to Information Sharing, “sometimes the arguments behind these efforts are based on who owns—or who should own–the data. This is not just an intellectual debate or political rallying call, it often undermines our common efforts to build a better system.” Joe offers five propositions for consideration:

  1. Privacy as secrecy is dead
  2. Data sharing is data copying
  3. Transaction data has dual ownership
  4. Yours, mine, & ours: Reality is complicated
  5. Taking back ownership is confrontational

Of #3, Joe says,

In the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in a confrontation with Mr. Hand, Spicoli argues “If I’m here and you’re here, doesn’t that make it our time?” Just like the time shared between Spicoli and Mr. Hand, the information created by visiting a website is co-created and co-owned by both the visitor and the website. Every single interaction between two endpoints on the web generates at least two owners of the underlying data.

This is not a minor issue. The courts have already ruled that if an email is stored for any period of time on a server, the owner of that server has a right to read the email. So, when “my” email is out there at GMail or AOL or on our company’s servers, know that it is also, legally, factually, and functionally, already their data.

Because of all five points, Joe suggests,

Rather than building a regime based on data ownership, I believe we would be better served by building one based on authority, rights, and responsibilities. That is, based on Information Sharing.

Joe isn’t just talking here. He and others are working on exactly that regime:

At the Information Sharing Work Group at the Kantara Initiative, Iain Henderson and I are leading a conversation to create a framework for sharing information with service providers, online and off. We are coordinating with folks involved in privacy and dataportability and distinguish our effort by focusing on new information, information created for the purposes of sharing with others to enable a better service experience. Our goal is to create the technical and legal framework for Information Sharing that both protects the individual and enables new services built on previously unshared and unsharable information. In short, we are setting aside the questions of data ownership and focusing on the means for individuals to control that magical, digital pixie dust we sprinkle across every website we visit.

Because the fact is, we want to share information. We want Google to know what we are searching for. We want Orbitz to know where we want to fly. We want Cars.com to know the kind of car we are looking for.

We just don’t want that information to be abused. We don’t want to be spammed, telemarketed, and adverblasted to death. We don’t want companies stockpiling vast data warehouses of personal information outside of our control. We don’t want to be exploited by corporations leveraging asymmetric power to force us to divulge and relinquish control over our addresses, dates of birth, and the names of our friends and family.

What we want is to share our information, on our terms. We want to protect our interests and enable service providers to do truly amazing things for us and on our behalf. This is the promise of the digital age: fabulous new services, under the guidance and control of each of us, individually.

And that is precisely what Information Sharing work group at Kantara is enabling.

The work is a continuation of several years of collaboration with Doc Searls and others at ProjectVRM. We’re building on the principles and conversations of Vendor Relationship Management and User Driven Services to create an industry standard for a legal and technical solution to individually-driven Information Sharing.

Our work group, like all Kantara work groups, is open to all contributors–and non-contributing participants–at no cost. I invite everyone interested in helping create a user-driven world to join us.

It should be an exciting future.

It isn’t easy to “set aside questions of data ownership”, of course, because possession is 9/10ths of human perception. We are grabby animals. Our thumbs do not oppose for nothing. We even “grasp” ideas. This is why one of the first words a toddler utters is “mine!”

As it happens, this is also a key insight of The Mine! Project, whose About page says,

The Mine! project is about equipping people with tools and functionality that will help them:

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

The Mine! aims to be an (infra)structure for other solutions – VRM (relationships with individuals and vendors, transactions), self-defined identity, authentication, data portability and hopefully many more.

These and other projects are visited by Neil Davey in a post in MyCustomer.com on VRM and the new tools of engagement. This follows up on an earlier post, based on the same interview with me. I wrote about it as well in How VRM helps CRM.

When we started here at the Berkman Center, the idea was never that we’d do this development ourselves, but would instead provide a place where we could share our thoughts, show our work, do research, publish what we’ve learned, and encourage more development.

Nice to see the mojo working.


  1. Don Marti

    Why is there so much attention to protecting the content from the people instead of protecting the people from the content? Most of the content on the Internet is spam, crap, malware, wrong, harmful, or would provoke a “TMI, la la la I can’t hear you la la la” if someone told it to you in person. But most of the people who use the Internet are not bad people.

  2. Doc Searls

    Don, maybe it’s because possession is 99/100ths of the “content provider.” Or maybe it’s what Whitman said about human beings: that, unlike animals, they are being “demented with the mania of owning things”. I’ve found myself in more conversations lately that sound toward online advertising the way that Newspapers and magazines have sounded toward their advertising sides since forever: “Well, we need this distasteful stuff because it pays for the good stuff.” Hey, maybe Google is a way of protecting us from bad advertising content, given that we’d otherwise be hit with a steady stream of it in any case, and most of that would be worse crap. But I gotta wonder.

  3. Judi

    Perhaps it’s not so much that we “upload, download, or distribute,” because this is actually what we do. The attitude that bothers me is that we’re said to “consume” the content: we are protected from piracy by DRM and served adverblasting such as the latest fashions in ringtones, our latest needs in burgers, and blinky banners about things that we shouldn’t live without. We consume by buying and using up (as in limited licensing) the content that’s put before us. In this world, the content is something to be owned.

    This is a very different framing of interaction than the sharing model. We are talking about having a conversation (Cluetrain), sharing ideas and commerce. Content is also a Cathedral and Bazaar problem. To some people, a brand is a cathedral: market identity, protection, someone telling you what to do. To others, the Internet and digital world writ large is not about the content that we “consume.” It’s about having a platform for a more fully engaged life.

  4. David

    Would it be fair to say that the key to an a user-driven world of data is the individual? While many of us are well-versed in the ways in which one can organize files and manage our personal data, there are millions of people who have been lured into data complacency by user interfaces that promise the world and deliver yet another proprietary home to manage. How can they know better? Is there an opportunity to provide a standard virtual file structure for the average person that not only wants to control data that is shared but who wants to also store things like a visual and oral history for eternity? The internet is not entirely my co-pilot but as Judy said, its a platform, and while there is a good reason to speak about the benefits of leveraging personal data to empower the masses, there is also great value in my saving and selectively sharing how that stream of data elements forms a complete story.

  5. SEO forums

    Rather than building a regime based on data ownership, I believe we would be better served by building one based on authority, rights, and responsibilities. That is, based on Information Sharing. 🙂 Thanks

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