Captivity rules

210px-Jail_Bars_Icon.svgIn one corner sit me, Don Marti, Phil Windley, Dave Winer, Eben Moglen, John Perry Barlow, Cory DoctorowAral Balkan, Adriana Lukas, Keith Hopper, Walt Whitman, William Ernest Henley, the Indie Web people, the VRM development community, authors of the Declaration of Independence, and the freedom-loving world in general. We hold as self-evident that personal agency and independence matter utterly, that free customers are more valuable than captive ones, that personal data belongs more to persons themselves than to those gathering it, that conscious signaling of intent by individuals is more valuable than the inferential kind that can only be guessed at, that spying on people when they don’t know about it or like it is wrong, and so on.*

In the other corner sits the rest of the world, or what seems like it. Contented with captivity.

The last two posts here — Because Freedom Matters and On taking personalized ads personally — are part of the dialog that mostly flows under this post of mine on Facebook.

Many points of view are expressed, but two sobering comments stand out for me: one by Frank Paynter and one by Karel Baloun. Frank writes,

I just don’t feel the need to see ads on Facebook. I have no personal or professional interest, and AdBlock/AdBlock+ has filtered out most for me. Oddly, since commenting on your post, I have seen 3 ads in the side bar. One was for “a small orange” and scored a direct hit! I recently read something by Chris Kovacs (Stavros the Wonder Chicken) praising the small orange hosting service so I was primed. Now, with this targeted ad coinciding with some expirations at BlueHost, GoDaddy and Dreamhost, I’m taking the plunge and consolidating accounts. Score one for Facebook targeted ads! The ads for a CreativeLive “Commercial Beauty Retouching” class and for Gartner Tableau didn’t cut it for me today, but — eh? who knows? On any given Thursday I might click through. But I really need to clean up that sidebar again. Three ads is too many.

In response to Don’s Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, Karel writes,

I don’t understand views like the one in this semi-endorsed article. Targeted advertising is aiming at the commercial fulfillment of “intention”. These are the agents that will understand what people want.

I do understand the walled garden problem, and the monopoly risk of only one company having all of this intent information. Yet, they are required to protect privacy, and all their credibility rests on that trust.

And that’s not all.

Earlier today I heard back from an old friend who wanted me to comment on his company’s approach to programmatic marketing. I invited Don in to help, and we produced a long and thoughtful set of replies to my friend’s questions (or assumptions) about programmatic (as it’s called, the adjective serving as a noun). I’ll compress and paraphrase my friend’s reply:

  • Automated matching is here to stay. We need to work with it rather than against it.

  • Facebook cares about privacy. Mark Zuckerberg even mentioned privacy in his keynote at the F8 Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.

  • Facebook has always been cautious about intrusive advertising.

  • While many don’t like surveillance and personal targeting, most programmatic marketing is in fact non-personal — it doesn’t use without personally identifiable information (PII). This is actually good for privacy.

  • In Europe, at least, there are laws regarding personally identifiable information and all the ways it cannot be used.

So maybe we freedom-lovers have to take their points. At least for now.

The flywheels of programmatic are huge. While survey after survey says most people have some discomfort with it, those people aren’t leaving Facebook in droves. On the contrary, they continue to flock there, regardless of Facebook’s threat (or promise) to absorb more of everybody’s life online.

In Fast Company, Mark Wilson (@ctrlzee) unpacks Facebook’s 10-Year Plan to Become The Matrix. (His tweeted pointer says “Facebook’s 10-year plan to trap you in The Matrix.”) I think he’s right. After reading that, and doing his usual deep and future-oriented thinking, Dave recorded this 12-minute podcast on empathy, because we’re all going to need it. And yet I am sure Dave’s ‘cast, my posts, and others like it, will leave most people, especially those in the online advertising business, unpersuaded. Life is too cushy on the inside. Never mind that privacy is absent there.

“If the golden rule applied to online advertising, none of it would be based on surveillance,” somebody said. But the ad biz obeys the gelden rule, not the golden one. They believe robotic agents can “understand what people want” better than people can communicate it themselves. And they’re making great money at it. Hey, can’t argue with excess.

And hell, when even Frank Paynter (one of us freedom-loving types) kinda digs Facebook scoring an advertising bulls-eye on his ass, maybe the uncanny valley is just uncanny, period. Which is what Facebook wants. More surveillance, more shots, more scores. Rock on.

So let’s face it: captivity rules — until we can prove that freedom beats it.

If you want to work toward freedom, IIW is a good place to start (or, for veterans, to keep it up). Week after next. See you there.

If not, join the crowd.

[Later…] Frank has a helpful comment below, and Karel has responded with this long piece, which I’ll read ASAP after I get off the road, probably tomorrow (Monday) night, though it might be later. [Still later…] I’ve read it, and it’s very helpful. I’ll respond at more length when I get enough time later this week.

Meanwhile, thanks to both guys, and to everybody on the Facebook thread, for weighing in and taking this thing deeper. Much appreciated.

*[Later again…] Read what Don Marti writes here in response to my opening paragraph above. Excellent, as usual.

11 responses to “Captivity rules”

  1. I left a long, probably incomprehensible comment on Facebook that I’ll copy/paste to here. It only touches on a small part of the huge issue of freedom raised by your blog post. If I had to sit in a corner, there’s no better corner to sit in than the one you described at the beginning of your post. And my heart is with the Indie Web, not the walled gardens, although I think the walled gardens or “silos” as some are calling them now have their place. I like my credit uion’s web presence, and I like Amazon. Both are walled gardens keeping track of info I provide them. But hell… here’s that comment I left on Facebook. (Press the tl:dr button now if patience isn’t your strong suit…):

    Everybody who has paid Facebook so much as a dime, raise your hands. Okay, you can all go sit in the corner. You need a big time-out. For those of us who play here on Facebook for free, there is the potential annoyance of advertising by those others who are over there in the corner doing the big time-out.

    Today, I see no advertising in my sidebar which tells me that my ad-blocker is working like a champ. The other day when I saw three ads, none of which were for bald spot cover-up, erectile dysfunction or Porcelana skin care, I was bemused since they all hit me close to where I live. One was for web hosting services, one for hobbyist photography classes, and one by those wretched scroungers at Gartner who have, over the last thirty-five years, managed to help me understand the systems industry a little bit better. I don’t have a problem with these ads when they break through my defenses, nor do the keyword ads on GMail bother me, nor the “you might also like” ads on Amazon. I am annoyed by inept advertising that prevents some pages from loading quickly whether I see the ad or not, but in general, if I want secrecy and/or privacy I know how to get it. Maybe I should be more concerned about security of on-line transactions, but I’m as likely to get ripped off when some big-box store loses my credit card numbers to a hacker as I am by somebody busting through the security of transactions at places like Amazon.

    Years ago, when I had more reason to fear surveillance than just the standard Martin Niemöller caveats, I was more concerned about about what the government could learn about me than about information that was being gathered by industry and advertisers. Today, now that the integration of private and public surveillance is pretty much complete and the only difference between the NSA and Google is that Google has a much better ROI, I’m pretty much standing aside from those concerns. This doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t be concerned. If you’re a doper, for example, or an active revolutionary, or any kind of garden variety hugger, mugger, or thief, then by all means take care. They can throw any of us in jail for any reason at any time, but lawbreakers are at greater risk than boring folks like me. I think that’s all I have to offer on the subject, but I’ll admit I felt an ego boost when you acknowledged my FB comment in your recent blog post.

    Thanks Doc.

  2. Thanks, Frank.

    I had to take off on errands after rushing this post, which I almost didn’t publish at all. (My original title was “Maybe they’re right.”) All the time out on the road I felt awful about kinda casting you in a role that wasn’t right about you, and I was eager to change it when I got back.

    Given your long and generous reply, however, it’s best to let the whole thing stand — and maybe continue through more dialog here and in that Facebook thread. (Where I haven’t been yet.)

    At issue for me, as I look toward the years (or months, or days, or decades) I have left, is leverage. I have no doubt that all the good things I mentioned in that opening paragraph will come to prevail, at least to some degree, in the fullness of time. But do I have enough leverage left to make much if any of it happen? Or have I already done enough to step back and let stuff play out?

    This blog once had dozens of thousands of readers per day. Now it has dozens. My Twitter feed has 22k followers, but a typical tweeted link gets only a handful of clicks, because everybody’s following everybody, and tweets tend to have more misses than hits for any one follower. I’m sure I could have more leverage if I used Facebook to full advantage, but I’m a crank about operating there, even though approximately everybody I ever knew is there and apparently pleased with it.

    So I’m just kinda wondering out loud about stuff here. Thanks for helping.

  3. Doc, as you say, this polarised conversation is not merely about ads and privacy and data ownership. The nature and value of freedom is the issue here too. One shouldn’t need to add the adjective ‘individual’ as there isn’t any other kind of freedom. The trouble is that its benefits though vast and acknowledged by most are emergent and so near invisible to those who exert control or shoulder responsibility for outcomes/results/ROI/profits etc. Let’s face it, control works – walled gardens do keep people in, oppression does stop people from doing things… The price is innovation that didn’t happen, progress that got stalled, happiness that was curtailed.

    Despite my cynical (or realistic) view of where things are going with personal data, privacy, openness etc, I agree that what you and a determined handful of us have been striving for will happen in the ‘fullness of time’. This may not be any time soon but can you think of any better way to spend your time and use your skill? And then there’s always the snowball thing…

    1. Thanks, Adriana. Agreed on all counts. I appreciate the encouragement, and harbor some hope that the snowball will roll in at least one of our lifetimes. (For others: here is what Adriana and I mean by “the snowball thing.”)

  4. Jay Rosen has some of the same pixel distribution issues that you’ve described, Doc. He will be the first to tell you that his attempt to game the system in Facebook has been very amusing. Early in the game I suggested that all he has to do is cut Zuckerberg and Company a check and his problem getting his posts into the feeds of his friends and followers will disappear. I still think that’s true, and I think that for all the billions of [registered] users on Facebook, it may be that the company still doesn’t have a very good business model. With a market cap of 102 billion US dollars after the 2012 IPO, one wonders why they need a business model at all. We’re talking Uncle Scrooge money-bin numbers when you get up in the 100 billion range. But I suppose all those shareholders want something to show for the wallpaper they purchased, so it will help to contrive an excuse for the investment.

    Here’s what I was thinking… obviously the company will have multiple lines of business as it matures, and AdClick revenue is one of the cheesiest. Another line of business that may appeal to a new generation of folks who have no clues regarding an independent web may be self publishing and premium distribution. These people won’t have the cultural baggage of self publishing. Most of them will never have heard of a “vanity press,” and they won’t find the term to be pejorative. Anyway, might we possibly predict the descent of the social media giant into the mundane world of Harlequin’s DellArte Press?

    They have to go somewhere from advertising revenue and social gaming, and I don’t think they trust the public enough to really open up for value added app development. I think they cannibalized some of their ad revenue a few years ago when they allowed businesses to create their own pages, so now selling favorable distribution rights might be a winner for them.

    I know this is a big tangent from the walled garden and surveillance issues, but I haven’t thought much about Facebook before now. It seems like it will be a company with a beginning, a middle and an end, and I hope the end is more interesting and quicker coming than–for example–DEC’s. I’m sure something will disrupt the very concept of this private aggregation of eyeballs.

    Maybe they can be the disruptor instead of the disrupted. Maybe they could do us all the service of destroying the Apple iStore/Google App Store duopoly and tear down their walled garden at the same time, positioning apps for AllPhones. Something’s going to happen. I don’t know what it is.

    But at least it won’t be Meercat.

    1. Good analysis, Frank. Thanks.

      I think both Facebook and Google want to move beyond the B2B advertising business and into B2C businesses of various kinds. That’s why Facebook bought WhatsApp and Google is doing Google Fiber. I see many possible upsides (also for VRM), some of which may actually come to pass. You add some good ones there too.

      Meanwhile, it’s always hard to argue against success. I know many successful companies that want to embrace VRM, but have too many antibodies inside who say no. Even when potential disruptions are not only clear but ideal to embrace, most companies won’t embrace them because they are too vested in their current businesses and models, and it’s too easy for the no-sayers inside to rationalize away the threats. Two notable exceptions to that, by the way, are Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I remember Bill saying, when Windows NT came out, “Our competition isn’t Apple. It’s Windows 98.” And I remember Steve Jobs saying the same thing about Mac OS X vs. OS 9. But both those guys were all-powerful and far-sighted CEOs. I don’t know about Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page. Neither of them have the same obvious personalities and flaws as Bill and Steve.

      One CEO for whom I have a small degree of hope is Marissa Mayer. (What she says here, for example, is encouraging.) But I’m not holding my breath. The curb weights of encouraging vs. discouraging news is like to those of a brick vs. a pyramid.

  5. Hey Doc et al. I appreciate the dialog and the tone. There is something to be said for taking it down a notch. Too much of the contrarian argument gets tuned out because it is simply too abrasive. (I personally like abrasive – and write a bit that way myself from time to time.) But it gives the passive audience a convenient “out”. Why bother with this negative spiral? There are too many other things to worry about… and I like “free”, even on the terms Aral and others have described it.

    And that, to me, is the missing component in what should be a much louder debate – at least here in the US (it’s already pretty loud in Europe and Australia). There isn’t a clear enough articulation of what is at stake and we are all masters of cognitive dissonance at this point anyhow.

    I have made the analogy that we are like the native Americans, trading away land (data) which we never conceived as “owning” for goods/services that, after all, are nice to have. The fact that Manhattan went for $24 (apocryphal but substantively accurate) didn’t seem like a bad deal at the time. After all, they were selling the sleeves out of their vest. Ahhh, the beloved mixed metaphor…

    In a future world most of us (certainly me included) have trouble conceiving, the loss of digital freedom is not an apparent threat. The Wired article you reference goes in that direction but who really visualizes a VR-dominate world right now. Technologists. Not the mass of 1.3B on FB.

    And then of course there are nuggets of real value in the models that perpetuate today, as this dialog attests.

    So on the one hand, you have all the digital goodies and on the other you have an abstract dystopia. Tough to win the hearts and minds there. In fact, I would argue the reason this discussion has more public traction in Europe/Australia is that there is a healthy anti-imperialism sentiment. Not the digital imperialism that is a very real threat but the old-fashioned anti-yankee emotions. Would a German Google or French Facebook or Australian Amazon get this kind of push back? I wonder.

    Indie is doing a heroic job in trying to build good alternatives. That’s an important element.

    If you really want to be heard on the data freedom point, we are going to need more smoking guns on the Big Data abusers. Articulate the risk and damage to users beyond poor practice. So far, they have done a magnificent job of misdirecting to big, bad government — where they are also buying heavy influence while simultaneously espousing a libertarian platform. Funny, in a sad way.

    1. Thanks, Tim. Well put. Agree with all of it. (I’d say more, but need some sleep. Been sprinting a marathon here.)

  6. Chris Crawford Avatar
    Chris Crawford


    I only heard about you and your effort a couple days ago, from Bruce Schneier and others at Berkman. That being said: what you and this community is doing is hugely important. I’m just a second year law student with no following or company or whatever, but I’ve been thinking about personal ownership of data for months now — and I’m convinced that this is the only way to solve privacy. I cannot be the only person who independently arrives at this conclusion, and needs to know if there are others out there like them, who agree with them. Finding your project was a huge relief and a shot in the arm; stick around and keep up the good work!

    And let me know if I can ever help you or anybody else in this community,

    Chris Crawford
    HLS ’16

  7. Hi, Chris! Great to see you here, and thanks for the kind words. Validation and encouragement is always welcome.

    And, in fact, we can use your help, so look for a personal email soon. 🙂

  8. Well, if you haven’t seen this, I am sure you will shortly. John Oliver’s Edward Snowden interview is brilliant. Funny, yes, but also illustrative of my point above. People don’t understand the issue in abstraction. Thank goodness for the wisdom of… dick pics.

    My one criticism of this is that it again focuses almost solely on the government surveillance aspect, largely missing the point that the Big Data co’s are actually much more aggressive than the US Government in this regards. And much more effective.

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