Our Data Governance Is Broken. Let’s Reinvent It.

This is an edited version of a series of talks I first gave in New York over the past week, outlining my work at Columbia. Many thanks to Reinvent, Pete Leyden, Cap Gemini, Columbia University, Cossette/Vision7, and the New York Times for hosting and helping me.

Prelude. 

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Predictions 2019: Stay Stoney, My Friends.

If predictions are like baseball, I’m bound to have a bad year in 2019, given how well things went the last time around. And given how my own interests, work life, and physical location have changed of late, I’m not entirely sure what might spring from this particular session at the keyboard.

But as I’ve noted in previous versions of this post (all 15 of them are linked at the bottom), I do these predictions in something of a fugue state – I don’t prepare in advance. I just sit down, stare at a blank page, and start to write.

So Happy New Year, and here we go.

1/ Global warming gets really, really, really real. I don’t know how this isn’t the first thing on everyone’s mind already, with all the historic fires, hurricanes, floods, and other related climate catastrophes of 2018. But nature won’t relent in 2019, and we’ll endure something so devastating, right here in the US, that we won’t be able to ignore it anymore. I’m not happy about making this prediction, but it’ll likely take a super Sandy or a king-sized Katrina to slap some sense into America’s body politic. 2019 will be the year it happens.

2/ Mark Zuckerberg resigns as Chairman of Facebook, and relinquishes his supermajority voting rights. Related, Sheryl Sandberg stays right where she is. I honestly don’t see any other way Facebook pulls out of its nosedive. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, so I will just summarize: Facebook’s only salvation is through a new system of governance. And I mean that word liberally – new governance of how it manages data across its platform, new governance of how it works with communities, governments, and other key actors across its reach, and most fundamentally, new governance as to how it works as a corporate entity. It all starts with the Board asserting its proper role as the governors of the company. At present, the Board is fundamentally toothless.

3/ Despite a ton of noise and smoke from DC, no significant federal legislation is signed around how data is managed in the United States. I  know I predicted just a few posts ago that 2019 will be the year the tech sector has to finally contend with Washington. And it will be…but in the end, nothing definitive will emerge, because we’ll all be utterly distracted by the Trump show (see below). Because of this, unhappily, we’ll end up governed by both GDPR and California’s homespun privacy law, neither of which actually force the kind of change we really need.

4/ The Trump show gets cancelled. Last year, I said Trump would blow up, but not leave. This year, I’m with Fred, Trump’s in his final season. We all love watching a slow motion car wreck, but 2019 is the year most of us realize the car’s careening into a school bus full of our loved ones. Donald Trump, you’re fired.

5/ Cannabis for the win. With Sessions gone and politicians of all stripes looking for an easy win, Congress will pass legislation legalizing cannabis. Huzzah!!!! Just in time, because…

6/ China implodes, the world wobbles. Look, I’m utterly out of my depth here, but something just feels wrong with the whole China picture. Half the world’s experts are warning us that China’s fusion of capitalism and authoritarianism is already taking over the world, and the other half are clinging to the long-held notion that China’s approach to nation building is simply too fragile to withstand democratic capitalism’s demands for transparency. But I think there may be other reasons China’s reach will extend its grasp: It depends on global growth and optimistic debt markets. And both of those things will fail this year, exposing what is a marvelous but unsustainable experiment in managed markets. This is a long way of backing into a related prediction:

7/ 2019 will be a terrible year for financial markets. This is the ultimate conventional wisdom amongst my colleagues in SF and NY, even though I’ve seen plenty of predictions that Wall St. will have a pretty good year. I have no particular insight as to why I feel this way, it’s mainly a gut call: Things have been too good, for too long. It’s time for a serious correction.

8/ At least one major tech IPO is pulled, the rest disappoint as a class. Uber, Lyft, Slack, Pinterest et al are all expected this year. But it won’t be a good year to go public. Some will have no choice, but others may simply resize their businesses to focus on cash flow, so as to find a better window down the road.

9/ New forms of journalistic media flourish. It’s well past time those of us in the media world take responsibility for the shit we make, and start to try significant new approaches to information delivery vehicles. We have been hostages to the toxic business models of engagement for engagement’s sake. We’ll continue to shake that off in various ways this year – with at least one new format taking off explosively. Will it have lasting power? That won’t be clear by year’s end. But the world is ready to embrace the new, and it’s our jobs to invest, invent, support, and experiment with how we inform ourselves through the media. Related, but not exactly the same…

10/A new “social network” emerges by the end of the year. Likely based on messaging and encryption (a la Signal or Confide), the network will have many of the same features as the original Facebook, but will be based on a paid model. There’ll be some clever new angle – there always is – but in the end, it’s a way to manage your social life digitally. There are simply too many pissed off and guilt-ridden social media billionaires with the means to launch such a network – I mean, Insta’s Kevin Systrom, WhatsApp’s Jan and Brian, not to mention the legions of mere multi-millionaires who have bled out of Facebook’s battered body of late.

So that’s it. On a personal note, I’ll be happily busy this year. Since moving to NY this past September, I’ve got several new projects in the works, some still under wraps, some already in process. NewCo and the Shift Forum will continue, but in reconstituted forms.  I’ll keep up with my writing as best I can; more likely than not most of it will focus the governance of data and how its effect our national dialog. Thanks, as always, for reading and for your emails, comments, and tweets. I read each of them and am inspired by all. May your 2019 bring fulfillment, peace, and gratitude.

Previous predictions:

Predictions 2018

2018: How I Did

Predictions 2017

2017: How I Did

Predictions 2016

2016: How I Did

Predictions 2015

2015: How I Did

Predictions 2014

2014: How I Did

Predictions 2013

2013: How I Did

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did

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Predictions 2018: How I Did. (Pretty Damn Well, Turns Out)

Mssr. Nostradamus.

Every year I write predictions for the year ahead. And at the end of that year, I grade myself on how I did. I love writing this post, and thankfully you all love reading it as well. These “How I Did” posts are usually the most popular of the year, beating even the original predictions in readership and engagement.

What’s that about, anyway? Is it the spectacle of watching a guy admit he got things wrong? Cheering when I get it right? Perhaps it’s just a chance to pull back and review the year that was, all the while marveling at how much happened in twelve short months. And 2018 does not disappoint.

Here we go:

Prediction #1: Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story. Cast yourself back to late 2017 when Bitcoin was pushing $20,000 and the entire tech sector was obsessed with blockchain everything. ICOs were raising hundreds of millions of dollars, the press was hyping (or denigrating) it all, and the fools were truly rushing in. In my prediction post, I struck a more measured tone: “…there’s simply too much real-but-boring work to be done right now in the space. Does anyone remember 1994? Sure, it’s the year the Mozilla team decamped from Illinois to the Valley, but it’s not the year the Web broke out as a mainstream story. That came a few years later. 2018 is a year of hard work on the problems that have kept blockchain from becoming what most of us believe it can truly become. And that kind of work doesn’t keep the public engaged all year long.” I think I got that right. Bitcoin has crashed to earth, and those who remain in the space are deep in the real work – which I still believe to be fundamentally important to the future of not only tech, but society as well. Score: 10/10

Prediction #2: Donald Trump blows up. I don’t usually make political predictions, but by 2017, Trump was the story, bigger than politics, and bigger than tech. I wrote: “2018 is the year [Trump] goes down, and when [he] does, it will happen quickly (in terms of its inevitability) and painfully slowly (in terms of it actually resolving). This of course is a terrible thing to predict for our country, but we got ourselves into this mess, and we’ll have to get ourselves out of it. It will be the defining story of the year.” I think I also got this one right. Trump is done – nearly everyone I trust in politics agrees with that statement. I won’t recount all the reasons, but here are a few: No fewer than 17 ongoing investigations of the President and/or his organizations. A tanking stock market that has lost all faith in the President’s leadership. Nearly 40 actual indictments and several high profile guilty verdicts. A Democratic majority in the House preparing an endless barrage of subpoenas and investigations. And a Republican party finally ready to abandon its leader. Net net: Trump is toast. It’s just going to take a while for that final pat of butter. Score: 10/10

Prediction #3: Facts make a comeback. Here’s what I wrote in support of this assertion: “2018 is the year the Enlightenment makes a robust return to the national conversation. Liberals will finally figure out that it’s utterly stupid to blame the “other side” for our nation’s troubles. Several viral memes will break out throughout the year focused on a core narrative of truth and fact. The 2018 elections will prove that our public is not rotten or corrupt, but merely susceptible to the same fever dreams we’ve always been susceptible to, and the fever always breaks. A rising tide of technology-driven engagement will help drive all of this.” I’d like to claim I nailed this one, but I think the trend lines are supportive. Real journalism had a banner year, with subscriptions to high-integrity publications breaking records year on year. Most smart liberals have realized that the politics of blame is a losing game. And I was happily right about the 2018 elections, which was one of the most definitive rebukes of a sitting President in the history of our nation. As for those “viral memes” I predicted, I’m not sure how I might prove or disprove that assertion – none come to mind, but I may have missed something, given what a blur 2018 turned out to be. Alas, that “rising tide of technology-driven engagement” was a pretty useless statement. Everything these days is tech-driven…so I deserve to be dinged for that pablum. But overall? Not bad at all. Score: 7/10

Prediction #4: Tech stocks overall have a sideways year. It might be hard to give me credit for this one, given how the FANG names have tanked over the past few months, but cast your mind back to when I wrote this prediction, in late December: Tech stocks were doing nothing but going up. And where are they now? After continuing to climb for months, they’re….mostly where they started the year. Sideways. Apple started at around 170, and today is at … 156. Google started at 1048, and is now at…1037. Amazon and Netflix did better, rising double digit percentages, but plenty of other tech stocks are down significantly year on year. The tech-driven Nasdaq index started the year at around 7000, as of today, it’s down to 6600. So, some up, some down, and a whole lot of … sideways. As I wrote: “All the year-in-review stock pieces will note that tech didn’t drive the markets in the way they have over the past few years. This is because the Big Four have some troubles this coming year.” Ummm….yep, and see the next two predictions… Score: 9/10.

Prediction #5: Amazon becomes a target. Oh man, YES. 2018 was the year Amazon’s ridiculous city-vs-city beauty pageant blew up in the company’s face, it was the year lawmakers and academics started calling for the company to be broken up, the year the company was called out for its avaricious business and employment practices, and recently, the first quarter in a decade that its stock has been wholeheartedly mauled by Wall St. Not to mention, 2018 is the year just about everyone who sells stuff on Amazon realized the company was creating its own self-serving and far more profitable brands. Sure, the company raised wages for its workers, but even that move turned out to have major caveats and half truths. 2018 is the year Amazon joined Google and Facebook as a major driver of surveillance capitalism (try asking Alexa what data she passes to her master, it’s hilarious…). And it’s the year the company took a black eye for selling its facial recognition technology (wait, Amazon has facial recognition technology?!) to, of all awful places, ICE. Yep, 2018 is the year Amazon became a target all right. Score: 10/10.

Prediction #6: Google/Alphabet will have a terrible first half (reputation wise), but recover after that. Well, in my original post, I predicted a #MeToo shoe dropping around Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. That didn’t happen exactly, though the whisper-ma-phone was sure running hot for the first few months of the year, and a massive sexual misconduct scandal eventually broke out later in the year. But even if I was wrong on that one point, it’s true the company had a bad first half, and for the most part, a pretty terrible year overall. In March, it had a government AI contract blow up in its face, leading to employee protests and resignations. This trend only continued throughout the year, culminating in thousands of employees walking out in protest of the company’s payouts to alleged sexual harassers. Oh, and that empty chair at Congressional hearings sure didn’t help the company’s reputation.  I also predicted more EU fines: Check! A record-breaking $5 billion fine, to be exact. Further, news the company was creating a censored version of its core search engine in China also tarnished big G. But I whiffed when I mulled how the company might get its mojo back: I predicted it would consider breaking itself up and taking the parts public. That didn’t happen (as far as we know). Instead, Google CEO Sundar Pichai finally relented, showing up to endure yet another act in DC’s endless string of political carnivals. Pichai acquitted himself well enough to support my assertion that Google began to recover by year’s end. But as recoveries go, it’s a fragile one. Score: 8/10.

Prediction #7: The Duopoly falls out of favor. This was my annual prediction around the digital advertising marketplace, focused on Facebook and (again) Google. In it, I wrote: “This doesn’t mean year-on-year declines in revenue, but it does mean a falloff in year-on-year growth, and by the end of 2018, a increasingly vocal contingent of influencers inside the advertising world will speak out against the companies (they’re already speaking to me privately about it). One or two of them will publicly cut their spending and move it to other places.” This absolutely occurred. I’ve already chronicled Google’s travails in 2018, and there’s simply not enough pixels to do the same for Facebook. This New York Times piece lays out how advertisers have responded: No Morals. In the piece, and many others like it, top advertisers, including the CEO of a major agency, went on the record decrying Facebook – giving me cause for a #humblebrag, if I do say so myself.  Oh, and yes, both Facebook and Google posted lower revenue growth rates year on year. Score: 10/10.

Prediction #8: Pinterest breaks out. As I wrote in my original post: “This one might prove my biggest whiff, or my biggest “nailed it.” Well, near the end of 2018, a slew of reports predicted that Pinterest is about to file for a massive IPO. As if by magic, the world woke up to Pinterest. It seems I was right – but as of yet, the IPO has not been confirmed. So…I’ll not score myself a 10 on this one, but if Pinterest does have a successful IPO early next year, I reserve the right to go back and add a couple of points. Score: 8/10.

Prediction #9: Autonomous vehicles do not become mainstream. Driverless cars have been “just around the corner” for what feels like forever. By late 2017, everyone in the business was claiming they’d breakout within a year. But that didn’t happen, regardless of the hype around the first “commercial launch” by Waymo in Phoenix a few weeks ago. I’m sorry, but a “launch” limited to 400 pre-selected and highly vetted beta ain’t mainstream – it’s not even a service in any defensible way. We’re still a long, long way off from this utopian vision. Our cities can’t even figure out what to do with electric scooters, for goodness sake. It’ll be a coon’s age before they figure out driverless cars.  Score: 9/10.

Prediction #10: Business leads. I think I need to avoid these spongy predictions, because it’s super hard to prove whether or not they came true. 2018 showed us plenty of examples of business leadership along the lines of what I predicted. Here’s what I wrote: “A crucial new norm in business poised to have a breakout year is the expectation that companies take their responsibilities to all stakeholders as seriously as they take their duty to shareholders“All stakeholders” means more than customers and employees, it means actually adding value to society beyond just their product or service. 2018 will be the year of “positive externalities” in business.” Well, I could list all the companies that pushed this movement forward. Lots of great companies did great things – Salesforce, a leader in corporate responsibility, even hired a friend of mine to be Chief Ethics Officer. Imagine if every major company empowered such a position? And a powerful Senator – Elizabeth Warren, who likely will run for the presidency in 2019 – laid out her vision for a new approach to corporate responsibility in draft legislation called the Accountable Capitalism Act. But at the end of the day, I’ve got no way to prove that 2018 was “a break out year” for “a crucial new norm in business.” I wish I did, but…I don’t. Score: 5/10. 

Overall, I have to say, this was one of the most successful reviews of my predictions ever – and that’s saying something, given I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years. Nine of ten were pretty much correct, with just one being a push. That sets a high bar for my predictions for 2019…coming, I hope, in the next week or so. Until then, thanks as always for being a fellow traveler. And happy new year – may 2019 bring you and yours happiness, health, and gratitude.

Related:

Predictions 2018

Predictions 2017

2017: How I Did

Predictions 2016

2016: How I Did

Predictions 2015

2015: How I Did

Predictions 2014

2014: How I Did

Predictions 2013

2013: How I Did

Predictions 2012

2012: How I Did

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did

 

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Zuckerberg In A Bunker

Mark Zuckerberg is in a crisis of leadership. Will he grasp its opportunity?

Happier times.

It seems like an eternity, but about one year ago this Fall, Uber had kicked its iconic founding CEO to the curb, and he responded by attempting a board room coup. Meanwhile, Facebook was at least a year into crisis mode, clumsily dealing with a spreading contagion that culminated in a Yom Kippur apology from CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better,” he posted. “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask for forgiveness and I will work to do better.”

More than one year after that work reputedly began, what lesson from Facebook’s still rolling catastrophe? I think it’s pretty clear: Mark Zuckerberg needs to do a lot more than publish blog posts someone else has written for him.

And while I’m not much of a fan of the company he’s built, I think Facebook’s CEO can change. But only if he’s willing to truly lead, and take the kind of action that today may seem insane, but ten years from now, just might look like genius. What actions might those be? Well, let’s review.

Admit you have a problem. Yes, over and over and over, Facebook executives have copped a plea. But they’ve never acknowledged the real problem is the company’s core DNA. More often than not, the company plays the pre-teen game of admitting a small sin so as to cover a larger one. The latest case in point is this post-modern gem: Elliot Schrage On Definers. The headline alone says all you need to know about Facebook’s latest disaster: Blame the guy who hired the firm, have him fall on a sword, add a bit of Sandbergian mea culpa, and move along. Nope, this time is different, Facebook. It’s time for fundamental change. And that means….

Submit to real governance. Like Google, Uber, Snap, and other controversial tech companies, Facebook implemented a two-class system of shares which canonizes their founder as an untouchable god, rendering the company board toothless in moments of true crisis (and in appeasement mode the rest of the time). Following Uber’s lead, it’s time for Mark to submit to the governance of the capital markets and abandon his super majority voting powers. He must stand before his board naked and afraid for his job. This and this alone will predicate the kind of change Facebook needs.

Bring in outsiders. Facebook’s core problem is expressed through its insular nature. This is also the technology industry’s problem – an engineer’s determination that every obstacle can be hacked to submission, and that non-engineers are mainly good for paint and powder afterward. This is simply not the case anymore, either at Facebook or in tech more broadly. Zuckerberg must demand his board commission a highly qualified panel to review his company’s management and product decisions, and he must commit to implementing that panel’s recommendations. Along those lines, here are a two major thought starters:

Embrace radical change. Remember “Bringing People Closer Together” and the wildly misappropriatedTime Well Spent“? This was supposedly a major new product initiative to change Facebook’s core mission, designed to shift our attention from what was wrong with the platform – data breaches, the newsfeed, false news and election meddling – to what could be right about it: Community pages and human connection. Has it worked? Let’s just be honest: No. Community doesn’t happen because a technology company writes a blog post or emphasizes a product suite it built for an entirely different purpose. Facebook can’t be fixed unless it changes its core business model. So just do it, already. Which leads to:

Free the data. Facebook has so far failed to enable a truly open society, despite its embrace of lofty mission statements. I’ve written about this at length, so I’ll just summarize: Embrace machine-readable data portability, and build a true, Gates-line compliant platform that is governed by the people, companies, and participants who benefit from it. Yes, actually governing  is a messy pain in the ass, but failing to govern? That’s a company killer.

Many brilliant observers are calling for Mark’s head, and/or for the company to be broken up. I’m not sure either of these solutions will do much more than insure that the company fails. What tech needs now is proof that it can lead with bold, high-minded vision that gives back more than it takes. Mark Zuckerberg has the power to do just that. The only question now is whether he will use it.

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Facebook Can’t Fix This.

The last 24 hours have not been kind to Facebook’s already bruised image. Above are four headlines, all of which clogged my inbox as I cleared email after a day full of meetings.

Let’s review: Any number of Facebook’s core customers – advertisers – are feeling duped and cheated (and have felt this way for years). A respected reporter who was told by Facebook executives that the company would not use data collected by its new Portal product, is now accusing the company of misrepresenting the truth  (others would call that lying, but the word lost its meaning this year). The executive formerly in charge of Facebook’s security is…on an apology tour, convinced the place he worked for has damaged our society (and he’s got a lot ofcompany).

In other news, Facebook has now taken responsibility for protecting the sanctity of our elections, by, among other things, banning “false information about voting requirements and fact-check[ing] fake reports of violence or long lines at polling stations.”

Yep, a company that, in its core business, is currently charged with evasion, misstatements, and putting growth above civic duty is somehow still solely responsible for fixing the problems it’s created in our civil discourse and attendant democracy.

Does this feel off to anyone else?

We’ve had nearly two years of congressional hearings, nearly two years of testimony and apologies and “we must do better-isms.” While the company must be commended for actually making several things better (the ad transparency platform, for example), the fact that we continue to believe that the appropriate remedy for what ails us is to let the fox fix the holes in our chicken coop is downright….baffling.

I guess this is what you get when the folks in power are happy with the results of our elections.

But here’s my prediction, and it won’t take long for me to be proven right or wrong: Should the Democrats take control of the House, things are going to change. Quickly. Sure, with only the House, the Democrats can’t actually force any new regulation, nor can they command any cabinet level policy shifts.

But as Trump well knows (and fears), a subpoena is a powerful thing.

Now, if the Democrats don’t win the House, well, that’s another column.

(cross posted from NewCo Shift)

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Facebook, Twitter, and the Senate Hearings: It’s The Business Model, Period.

“We weren’t expecting any of this when we created Twitter over 12 years ago, and we acknowledge the real world negative consequences of what happened and we take the full responsibility to fix it.”

That’s the most important line from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s testimony yesterday – and in many ways it’s also the most frustrating. But I agree with Ben Thompson, who this morning points out (sub required) that Dorsey’s philosophy on how to “fix it” was strikingly different from that of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (or Google, which failed to send a C-level executive to the hearings). To quote Dorsey (emphasis mine): “Today we’re committing to the people and this committee to do that work and do it openly. We’re here to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one. We know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats.”

Ben points out that during yesterday’s hearings, Dorsey was willing to tie the problems of public discourse on Twitter directly to the company’s core business model, that of advertising. Sandberg? She ducked the issue and failed to make the link.

You may recall my piece back in January, Facebook Can’t Be Fixed. In it I argue that the only way to address Facebook’s failings as a public square would be to totally rethink its core advertising model, a golden goose which has driven the company’s stock on an six-year march to the stratosphere. From the post:

“[Facebook’s ad model is] the honeypot which drives the economics of spambots and fake news, it’s the at-scale algorithmic enabler which attracts information warriors from competing nation states, and it’s the reason the platform has become a dopamine-driven engagement trap where time is often not well spent.

To put it in Clintonese: It’s the advertising model, stupid.

We love to think our corporate heroes are somehow super human, capable of understanding what’s otherwise incomprehensible to mere mortals like the rest of us. But Facebook is simply too large an ecosystem for one person to fix.”

That one person, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg, but what I really meant was one company – Facebook. It’s heartening to see Sandberg acknowledge, as she did in her written testimony, the scope and the import of the challenges Facebook presents to our democracy (and to civil society around the world). But regardless of sops to “working closely with law enforcement and industry peers” and “everyone working together to stay ahead,” it’s clear Facebook’s approach to “fixing” itself remains one of going it alone. A robust, multi-stakeholder approach would quickly identify Facebook’s core business model as a major contributor to the problem, and that’s an existential threat.

Sandberg’s most chilling statement came at the end of of her prepared remarks, in which she defined Facebook as engaged in an “arms race” against actors who co-opt the company’s platforms. Facebook is ready, Sandberg implied, to accept the challenge of lead arms producer in this race: “We are determined to meet this challenge,” she concludes.

Well I’m sorry, I don’t want one private company in charge of protecting civil society. I prefer a more accountable social structure, thanks very much.

I’ve heard this language of “arms races” before, in far less consequential framework: Advertising fraud, in particular on Google’s search platforms. To combat this fraud, Google locked arms with a robust network of independent companies, researchers, and industry associations, eventually developing a solution that tamed the issue (it’s never going to go away entirely).  That approach – an open and transparent process, subject to public checks and balances – is what is desperately needed now, and what Dorsey endorsed in his testimony. He’s right to do so. Unlike Google’s ad fraud issues of a decade ago, Facebook and Twitter’s problems extend to life or death, on-the-ground consequences – the rise of a dictator in the Philippines, genocide in Myanmar, hate crimes in Sri Lanka, and the loss of public trust (and possibly an entire presidential election) here in the United States. The list is terrifying, and it’s growing every week.

These are not problems one company, or even a heterogenous blue ribbon committee, can or should “fix.” Facebook does not bear full responsibility for these problems – anymore than Trump is fully responsible for the economic, social, and cultural shifts which swept him into office last year.  But just as Trump has become the face of what’s broken in American discourse today, Facebook – and tech companies more broadly – have  become the face of what’s broken in capitalism. Despite its optimistic, purpose driven, and ultimately naive founding principles, the technology industry has unleashed a mutated version of steroidal capitalism upon the world, failing along the way to first consider the potential damage its business models might wreak.

In an OpEd introducing the ideas in his new book “Farsighted”, author Steven Johnson details how good decisions are made, paying particular attention to how important it is to have diverse voices at the table capable of imagining many different potential scenarios for how a decision might play out. “Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly,” Johnson writes.  “They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.”

Sounds like the entire tech industry over the past decade, no?

Johnson goes on to quote the economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling: “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”

It’s clear that the consequences of Facebook’s platforms never occurred to Zuckerberg, Sandberg, Dorsey, or other leaders in the tech industry. But now that the damage is clear, they must be brave enough to consider new approaches.

To my mind, that will require objective study of tech’s business models, and an open mind toward changing them. It seems Jack Dorsey has realized that. Sheryl Sandberg and her colleagues at Facebook? Not so much.

 

 

 

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Hey Jack, Sheryl, and Sundar: It’s Time to Call Out Trump On Fake News.

Next week Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, will testify in front of Congress. They must take this opportunity to directly and vigorously defend the role that real journalism plays not only on their platforms, but also in our society at large. They must declare that truth exists, that facts matter, and that while reasonable people can and certainly should disagree about how to respond to those facts, civil society depends on rational discourse driven by an informed electorate.

Why am I on about this? I do my very best to ignore our current president’s daily doses of Twitriol, but I couldn’t whistle past today’s rant about how tech platforms are pushing an anti-Trump agenda.

Seems the president took a look at himself in Google’s infinite mirror, and he apparently didn’t like what he saw. Of course, a more cynical reading would be that his advisors reminded him that senior executives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google* are set to testify in front of Congress next week, providing a perfect “blame others and deflect narrative from myself” moment for our Bully In Chief.

Trump’s hatred for journalism is legendary, and his disdain for any truth that doesn’t flatter is well established. As numerous actual news outlets have already established, there’s simply no evidence that Google’s search algorithms do anything other than reflect the reality of Trump news,  which in the world of *actual journalism* where facts and truth matter, is fundamentally negative. This is not because of bias – this is because Trump creates fundamentally negative stories. You know, like failing to honor a war hero, failing to deliver on his North Korea promises, failing to fix his self-imposed policy of imprisoning children, failing to hire advisors who can avoid guilty verdicts….and all that was just in the last week or so.

But the point of this post isn’t to go on a rant about our president. Instead, I want to make a point about the leaders of our largest technology platforms.

It’s time Jack, Sheryl, Sundar, and others take a stand against this insanity.  Next week, at least two of them actually have just that chance.

I’ll lay out my biases for anyone reading who might suspect I’m an agent of the “Fake News Media.” I’m on the advisory board of NewsGuard, a startup that ranks news sites for accuracy and reliability. I’m running NewsGuard’s browser plug in right now, and every single news site that comes up for a Google News search on “Trump News” is flagged as green – or reliable.

NewsGuard is run by two highly respected members of the “real” media – one of whom is a longstanding conservative, the other a liberal.

I’m also an advisor and investor in RoBhat Labs, which recently released a plugin that identifies fake images in news articles. Beyond that, I’ve taught journalism at UC Berkeley, where I graduated with a masters after two years of study and remain on the advisory board. I’m also a member of several ad-hoc efforts to address what I’ve come to call the “Real Fake News,” most of which peddles far right wing conspiracy theories, often driven by hostile state actors like Russia. I’ve testified in front of Congress on these issues, and I’ve spent thirty years of my life in the world of journalism and media. I’m tired of watching our president defame our industry, and I’m equally tired of watching the leaders of our tech industry fail to respond to his systematic dismantling of our civil discourse (or worse, pander to it).

So Jack, Sheryl, and whoever ends up coming from Google, here’s my simple advice: Stand up to the Bully in Chief. Defend civil discourse and the role of truth telling and the free press in our society. A man who endlessly claims that the press is the enemy is a man to be called out. Heed these words:

“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”

No one would claim these are Trump’s words, the prose is far too elegant. But the sentiment is utterly Trumpian. With with apologies to Mike Godwin, those words belong to Adolf Hitler. Think about that, Jack, Sheryl, and Sundar. And speak from your values next week.

*Google tried to send its SVP of Global Affairs and General Counsel, Kent Walker, but members of Congress have said they are tired of hearing from lawyers. It’s uncertain if the company will step up and send a leader of an actual business P&L, like Jack or Sheryl. 

 

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When Senators Ask Followup Questions, You Answer Them.

Following my Senate testimony last month, several Senators reached out with additional questions and clarification requests. As I understand it this is pretty standard. Given I published my testimony here earlier, I asked if I could do the same for my written followup. The committee agreed, the questions and my answers are below.

Questions for the Record from Sen. Cortez Masto (D. Nevada)

Facebook Audits

On April 4, 2018, following the public controversy over Cambridge Analytica’s use of user data, Facebook announced several additional changes to its privacy policies. The changes include increased restrictions on apps’ ability to gather personal data from users and also a policy of restricting an app’s access to user data if that user has not used the app in the past three months. In addition, Facebook has committed to conducting a comprehensive review of all apps gathering data on Facebook, focusing particularly on apps that were permitted to collect data under previous privacy policies. Facebook will also notify any users affected by the Cambridge Analytica data leak.

Question 1: What steps can the government take to ensure that there is proper oversight of these reviews and audits?

John Battelle’s response:

I think this is a simple answer: Make sure Facebook does what it says it will do, and make sure its response is a matter not only of public record, but also public comment. This should include a full and complete accounting of how the audit was done and the findings.

Question 2: From a technical standpoint, how effective are forensic methods at ascertaining information related to what data was transferred in these cases?

John Battelle’s response:

I’m not a technologist, I’m an entrepreneur, author, analyst and commentator. I’d defer to someone who has more knowledge than myself on issues of forensic data analysis.  

Technology for Consumer Protection

Question 1: Are there any technological solutions being developed that can help address some of the issues of consumers’ privacy being violated online?

John Battelle’s response:

Yes, there are many, likely too many to mention. Instead, what I’d like to highlight is the importance of the architecture of how data flows in our society. We should be creating a framework that allows data to flow ethically, securely, and with key controls around permissioning, editing, validation, revocation, and value exchange. Blockchains hold great promise here, but are still underdeveloped (but they’re evolving rapidly).

Data Retention

Question 1: What should we, as legislators, be thinking about to verify that – when Americans are told that their data has been destroyed – that deletion can actually be confirmed?

John Battelle’s response:

Independent third party auditing services that services such as Facebook must employ seems the most straightforward response. “Trust us” is not enough, we must trust and verify.

Law Enforcement

During the hearing we had a brief discussion on the balance between privacy and sharing data with law enforcement.

Question 1: What should companies keep in mind to ensure that they can appropriately assist in law enforcement investigations?

John Battelle’s response:

This is a delicate balance, as evinced in the varied responses to these kind of cases from companies like Apple, Twitter, Yahoo, and others. Valid search warrants, not fishing expeditions, should be the rule. We’ve got the framework for this already. The issue of how governments and law enforcement deal with encryption is unresolved. However, I fall on the side of enabling strong encryption, as I believe all citizens have the right to privacy. Lose that, and we lose democracy.  

Questions 2: As lawmakers, what should we be aware of as we try to strike the right balance between privacy and safety in this area?

John Battelle’s response:

Democracy is open, messy, transparent, and has many failures. But it’s the best system yet devised (in my humble opinion) and privacy lies at its core. That means criminals will be able to abuse its benefits. That is a tradeoff we have to accept and work around. Sure, it’d be great if law enforcement had access to all the data created by its citizens. Until it’s abused, and cases of this kind of abuse by government are easy to find.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D. Conn) Questions for the Record 

Privacy Legislation

Across hearings and questions for the record, members of Congress have raised concerns about the data collection tactics used by Facebook that are not made clear to its users. As I stated during the hearing, I am interested in putting into place rules of the road for online privacy, taking into consideration the European General Data Protection Regulation. During the hearing Mr. Battelle and others offered support for the intent of GDPR, but expressed reservations about the implementation and unintended consequences. I look forward to any further thoughts from the panelists regarding how to implement data privacy rules in the United States.

 Question for All Panelists:

Question 1. In addition to any recommendations or comments on what types of legislation or other measures could help protect consumer privacy, what lessons and principles of the California Consumer Privacy Act and the GDPR should Congress consider in privacy legislation?

 John Battelle’s response:

Implementation of sweeping legislation like those mentioned above is extremely onerous for small business. Instead of using that as an excuse to avoid legislation, the policy should incorporate remedies for smaller business (IE, enabling federation of resources and response/compliance, enabling trusted intermediaries).

The principle of empowering the consumer is embodied in both GDPR and CCPA. While well intentioned, neither envision how that empowerment will truly be effective in a modern digital marketplace. Take the principle of data portability. It’s one thing to allow consumers to download a copy of their data from a platform or service. But for that data to drive innovation, it must be easily uploaded, in a defined, well-governed, machine-readable format, so that new kinds of services can flourish. Watch how large tech platforms chip away at CCPA and attempt to subvert that ecosystem from taking root. Consider how best to ensure that ecosystem will in fact exist. I’m not a legislative analyst, but there must be an enlightened way to encourage a class of data brokers (and yes, they’re not all bad) who enable re-aggregation of consumer data, replete with permissions, revocation, validation, editing, and value exchange. Happy to talk more about this.

Questions for Mr. Battelle:

Question 2. You have written at length about the influence of Facebook and Google on the advertising and third party data market. In your experience, has Facebook driven the ad market as a sector to more invasively collect data about people? What other changes in the ad market can be attributed to the dominance of Google and Facebook?

John Battelle’s response:

Yes, without question, Facebook has driven what you describe in your initial question. But not for entirely negative reasons. Because Facebook has so much information on its users, larger advertisers feel at a disadvantage. This is also true of publishers who use Facebook for distribution (another important aspect of the platform, especially as it relates to speech and democratic discourse). Both advertisers and publishers wish to have a direct, one to one dialog with their customers, and should be able to do so on any platform. Facebook, however, has forced their business model into the middle of this dialog – you must purchase access to your followers and your readers. A natural response is for advertisers and publishers to build their own sophisticated databases of their customers and potential customers. This is to be expected, and if the data is managed ethically and transparently, should not be considered an evil.

As for other changes in the ad market that might be attributed to FB and GOOG, let’s start with the venture funding of media startups, or advertising-dependent startups of any kind. Given the duopoly’s dominance of the market, it’s become extremely hard for any entrepreneur to find financing for ideas driven by an advertising revenue stream. Venture capitalists will say “Well, that’s a great (idea, service, product), but no way am I going to fund a company that has to compete with Google or Facebook.” This naturally encourages a downward spiral in innovation.

Another major problem in ad markets is the lack of portable data and insights between Facebook and Google. If I’m an advertiser or publisher on Facebook, I’d like a safe, ethical, and practical way to know who has responded to my messaging on that platform, and to take that information across platforms, say to Google’s YouTube or Adwords. This is currently far too hard to do, if not impossible in many cases. This also challenges innovation across the business ecosystem.

Questions for the Record

Senator Margaret Wood Hassan (D. New Hampshire)

Question 1. The internet has the potential to connect people with ideas that challenge their worldview, and early on many people were hopeful that the internet would have just that effect. But too often we have seen that social media sites like Facebook serve instead as an echo chamber that polarizes people instead of bringing them together, showing them content that they are more likely to agree with rather than exposing them to new perspectives. Do you agree this is a problem? And should we be taking steps to address this echo chamber effect?

John Battelle’s response:

Yes, this filter bubble problem is well defined and I agree it’s one of the major design challenges we face not only for Facebook, but for our public discourse as well. The public square, as it were, has become the domain of private companies, and private companies do not have to follow the same rules as, say, UC Berkeley must follow in its public spaces (Chancellor Carol Christ has been quite eloquent on this topic, see her interview at the NewCo Shift Forum earlier this year).

As to steps that might be taken, this is a serious question that balances a private corporation’s right to conduct its business as it sees fit, and the rights and responsibilities of a public space/commons. I’d love to see those corporations adopt clear and consistent rules about speech, but they are floundering (see Mr. Zuckerberg’s recent comments on Holocaust deniers, for example). I’d support a multi-stakeholder commission on this issue, including policymakers, company representatives, legal scholars, and civic leaders to address the issue.

Question 2. In your testimony you discuss the value of data. You stated that you think in some ways, QUOTE, “data is equal to – or possibly even more valuable than – monetary currency.” We in Congress are seeking to figure out the value of data as well to help us understand the costs and benefits of protecting this data. Can you expand on what value you think data has, and how we should be thinking about measuring that value – both as citizens and as legislators?

John Battelle’s response:

Just as we had no idea the value of oil when it first came into the marketplace (it was used for lamps and for paving streets, and no one could have imagined the automobile industry), we still have not conceived of the markets, products, and services that could be enabled by free flowing and ethically sourced and permissioned data in our society. It’s literally too early to know, and therefore, too early to legislate in sweeping fashions that might limit or retard innovation. However, one thing I am certain of is that data – which is really a proxy for human understanding and innovation – is the most fundamentally valuable resource in the world. All money is simply data, when you think about it, and therefore a subset of data.

So how to measure its value? I think at this point it’s impossible – we must instead treat it as an infinitely valuable resource, and carefully govern its use. I’d like to add my response to another Senator’s question here, about new laws (GDPR and the California Ballot initiative) as added reference:

Implementation of sweeping legislation like those mentioned above is extremely onerous for small business. Instead of using that as an excuse to avoid legislation, the policy should incorporate remedies for smaller business (IE, enabling federation of resources and response/compliance, enabling trusted intermediaries).

The principle of empowering the consumer is embodied in both GDPR and CCPA. While well intentioned, neither envision how that empowerment will truly be effective in a modern digital marketplace. Take the principle of data portability. It’s one thing to allow consumers to download a copy of their data from a platform or service. But for that data to drive innovation, it must be easily uploaded, in a defined, well-governed, machine-readable format, so that new kinds of services can flourish. Watch how large tech platforms chip away at CCPA and attempt to subvert that ecosystem from taking root. Consider how best to ensure that ecosystem will in fact exist. I’m not a legislative analyst, but there must be an enlightened way to encourage a class of data brokers (and yes, they’re not all bad) who enable re-aggregation of consumer data, replete with permissions, revocation, validation, editing, and value exchange. Happy to talk more about this.

Question 3. Mark Zuckerberg has said that he sees Facebook more as a government than a traditional company.  Among other things, governments need to be transparent and open about the decisions they make. Many large institutions have set up independent systems — such as offices of inspectors general or ombudsmen and ethics boards — to ensure transparency and internally check bad decisions.  Facebook has none of those controls. What kinds of independent systems should companies like Facebook have to publicly examine and explain their decision-making?

John Battelle’s response:

OK, this one is simple. Facebook is NOT a government. If it is, I don’t want to be a “citizen.” I think Mr. Zuckerberg is failing to truly understand what a government truly is. If indeed Facebook wishes to become a nation state, then first it must decide what kind of nation state it wishes to be. It needs a constitution, a clear statement of rights, roles, responsibilities, and processes. None of these things exist at the moment. A terms of service does not a government make.

However, all of the ideas you mention make a ton of sense for Facebook at this juncture. I’d be supportive of them all.

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My Senate Testimony

(image) Today I had a chance to testify to the US Senate on the subject of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and data privacy. It was an honor, and a bit scary, but overall an experience I’ll never forget. Below is the written testimony I delivered to the Commerce committee on Sunday, released on its site today. If you’d like to watch, head right here, I think it’ll be up soon.  Forgive the way the links work, I had to consider that this would be printed and bound in the Congressional Record. I might post a shorter version that I read in as my verbal remarks next…we’ll see.


 

Honorable Committee Members –

 

My name is John Battelle, for more than thirty years, I’ve made my career reporting, writing, and starting companies at the intersection of technology, society, and business. I appreciate the opportunity to submit this written and verbal testimony to your committee.

Over the years I’ve written extensively about the business models, strategies, and societal impact of technology companies, with a particular emphasis on the role of data, and the role of large, well-known firms. In the 1980s and 90s I focused on Apple and Microsoft, among others. In the late 90s I focused on the nascent Internet industry, the early 2000s brought my attention to Google, Amazon, and later, Twitter and Facebook. My writings tend to be observational, predictive, analytical, and opinionated.

Concurrently I’ve been an entrepreneur, founding or co-founding and leading half a dozen companies in the media and technology industries. All of these companies, which span magazines, digital publishing tools, events, and advertising technology platforms, have been active participants in what is broadly understood to be the “technology industry” in the United States and, on several occasions, abroad as well. Over the years these companies have employed thousands of staff members, including hundreds of journalists, and helped to support tens of thousands of independent creators across the Internet. I also serve on the boards of several companies, all of which are deeply involved in the technology and data industries.

In the past few years my work has focused on the role of the corporation in society, with a particular emphasis on the role technology plays in transforming that role. Given this focus, a natural subject of my work has been on companies that are the most visible exemplars of technology’s impact on business and society. Of these, Facebook has been perhaps my most frequent subject in the past year or two.

Given the focus of this hearing, the remainder of my written testimony will focus on a number of observations related generally to Facebook, and specifically to the impact of the Cambridge Analytica story. For purposes of brevity, I will summarize many of my points here, and provide links to longer form writings that can be found on the open Internet.

Facebook broke through the traditional Valley startup company noise in the mid 2000s, a typical founder-driven success story backed by all the right venture capital, replete with a narrative of early intrigue between partners, an ambitious mission (“to make the world more open and connected”), a sky-high private valuation, and any number of controversial decisions around its relationship to its initial customers, the users of its service (later in its life, Facebook’s core customers bifurcated to include advertisers). I was initially skeptical about the service, but when Sheryl Sandberg, a respected Google executive, moved to Facebook to run its advertising business, I became certain it would grow to be one of the most important companies in technology. I was convinced Facebook would challenge Google for supremacy in the hyper-growth world of personalized advertising. In those early days, I often made the point that while Google’s early corporate culture sprang from the open, interconnected world wide web, Facebook was built on the precept of an insular walled garden, where a user’s experience was entirely controlled by the Facebook service itself. This approach to creating a digital service not only threatened the core business model of Google (which was based on indexing and creating value from open web pages), it also raised a significant question of what kind of public commons we wanted to inhabit as we migrated our attention and our social relationships to the web. (Examples: https://battellemedia.com/archives/2012/02/its-not-whether-googles-threatened-its-asking-ourselves-what-commons-do-we-wish-for ; https://battellemedia.com/archives/2012/03/why-hath-google-forsaken-us-a-meditation)

In the past five or so years, of course, Facebook has come to dominate what is colloquially known as the public square – the metaphorical space where our society comes together to communicate with itself, to debate matters of public interest, and to privately and publicly converse on any number of topics. Since the dawn of the American republic, independent publishers (often referred to as the Fourth Estate – from pamphleteers to journalists to bloggers) have always been important actors in the center of this space. As a publisher myself, I became increasingly concerned that Facebook’s appropriation of public discourse would imperil the viability of independent publishers. This of course has come to pass.

As is well understood by members of this committee, Facebook employed two crucial strategies to grow its service in its early days. The first was what is universally known as the News Feed, which mixed personal news from “friends” with public stories from independent publishers. The second strategy was the Facebook “Platform,” which encouraged developers to create useful (and sometimes not so useful) products and services inside Facebook’s walled garden service. During the rise of both News Feed and Platform, I repeatedly warned independent publishers to avoid committing themselves and their future viability to either News Feed or the Platform, as Facebook would likely change its policies in the future, leaving publishers without recourse. (Examples: https://battellemedia.com/archives/2012/01/put-your-taproot-into-the-independent-web ; https://battellemedia.com/archives/2012/11/facebook-is-now-making-its-own-weather ; https://shift.newco.co/we-can-fix-this-f-cking-mess-bf6595ac6ccd ; https://shift.newco.co/ads-blocking-and-tackling-18129db3c352)

Of course, the potent mix of News Feed and a subset of independent publishers combined to deliver us the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and we are still grappling with the implications of this incident on our democracy. But it is important to remember that while the Cambridge Analytica breach seems unusual, it is in fact not – it represents business as usual for Facebook. Facebook’s business model is driven by its role as a data broker. Early in its history, Facebook realized it could grow faster if it allowed third parties, often referred to as developers, to access its burgeoning trove of user data, then manipulate that data to create services on Facebook’s platform that increased a Facebook user’s engagement on the platform. Indeed, in his early years as CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was enamored with the “platform business model,” and hoped to emulate such icons as Bill Gates (who built the Windows platform) or Steve Jobs (who later built the iOS/app store platform).

However, Facebook’s core business model of advertising, driven as it is by the brokerage of its users’ personal information, stood in conflict with Zuckerberg’s stated goal of creating a world-beating platform. By their nature, platforms are places where third parties can create value. They do so by leveraging the structure, assets, and distribution inherent to the platform. In the case of Windows, for example, developers capitalized on Microsoft’s well-understood user interface, its core code base, and its massive adoption by hundreds of millions of computer users. Bill Gates famously defined a successful platform as one that creates more value for the ecosystem that gathers around it than for the platform itself. By this test – known as the Gates Line – Facebook’s early platform fell far short. Developers who leveraged access to Facebook’s core asset – its user data – failed to make enough advertising revenue to be viable, because Facebook (and its advertisers) would always preference Facebook’s own advertising inventory over that of its developer partners. In retrospect, it’s now commonly understood in the Valley that Facebook’s platform efforts were a failure in terms of creating a true ecosystem of value, but a success in terms of driving ever more engagement through Facebook’s service.

For an advertising-based business model, engagement trumps all other possible metrics. As it grew into one of the most successful public companies in the history of business, Facebook nimbly identified the most engaging portions of its developer ecosystem, incorporated those ideas into its core services, and became a ruthlessly efficient acquirer and manipulator of its users’ engagement. It then processed that engagement into advertising opportunities, leveraging its extraordinary data assets in the process. Those advertising opportunities drew millions of advertisers large and small, and built the business whose impact we now struggle to understand.

To truly understand the impact of Facebook on our culture, we must first understand the business model it employs. Interested observers of Facebook will draw ill-informed conclusions about the company absent a deep comprehension of its core driver – the business of personalized advertising. I have written extensively on this subject, but a core takeaway is this: The technology infrastructure that allows companies like Facebook to identify exactly the right message to put in front of exactly the right person at exactly the right time are, in all aspects of the word, marvelous. But the externalities of manufacturing attention and selling it to the highest bidder have not been fully examined by our society. (Examples: https://shift.newco.co/its-the-advertising-model-stupid-b843cd7edbe9 ; https://shift.newco.co/its-the-advertising-model-stupid-b843cd7edbe9 ; https://shift.newco.co/lost-context-how-did-we-end-up-here-fd680c0cb6da ; https://battellemedia.com/archives/2013/11/why-the-banner-ad-is-heroic-and-adtech-is-our-greatest-technology-artifact ; https://shift.newco.co/do-big-advertisers-even-matter-to-the-platforms-9c8ccfe6d3dc )

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has finally focused our attention on these externalities, and we should use this opportunity to go beyond the specifics of that incident, and consider the broader implications. The “failure” of Facebook’s Platform initiative is not a failure of the concept of an open platform. It is instead a failure by an immature, blinkered company (Facebook) to properly govern its own platform, as well as a failure of our own regulatory oversight to govern the environment in which Facebook operates. Truly open platforms are regulated by the platform creator in a way that allows for explosive innovation (see the Gates Line) and shared value creation. (Examples: https://shift.newco.co/its-not-the-platforms-that-need-regulation-2f55177a2297 ; https://shift.newco.co/memo-to-techs-titans-please-remember-what-it-was-like-to-be-small-d6668a8fa630)

The absolutely wrong conclusion to draw from the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that entities like Facebook must build ever-higher walls around their services and their data. In fact, the conclusion should be the opposite. A truly open society should allow individuals and properly governed third parties to share their data so as to create a society of what Nobel laureate Edmond Phelps calls “mass flourishing.” My own work now centers on how our society might shift what I call the “social architecture of data” from one where the control, processing and value exchange around data is managed entirely by massive, closed entities like Facebook, to one where individuals and their contracted agents manage that process themselves. (Examples: https://shift.newco.co/are-we-dumb-terminals-86f1e1315a63 ; https://shift.newco.co/facebook-tear-down-this-wall-400385b7475d ; https://shift.newco.co/how-facebook-google-amazon-and-their-peers-could-change-techs-awful-narrative-9a758516210a ; https://shift.newco.co/on-facebook-a156710f2679 ; https://battellemedia.com/archives/2014/03/branded-data-preferences )

Another mistaken belief to emerge from the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that any company, no matter how powerful, well intentioned, or intelligent, can by itself “fix” the problems the scandal has revealed. Facebook has grown to a size, scope, and impact on our society that outstrips its ability to manage the externalities it has created. To presume otherwise is to succumb to arrogance, ignorance, or worse. The bald truth is this: Not even Mark Zuckerberg understands how Facebook works, nor does he comprehend its impact on our society. (Examples: https://shift.newco.co/we-allowed-this-to-happen-were-sorry-we-need-your-help-e26ed0bc87ac ; https://shift.newco.co/i-apologize-d5c831ce0690 ; https://shift.newco.co/facebooks-data-trove-may-well-determine-trump-s-fate-71047fd86921 ; https://shift.newco.co/its-time-to-ask-ourselves-how-tech-is-changing-our-kids-and-our-future-2ce1d0e59c3c )

Another misconception: Facebook does not “sell” its data to any third parties. While Facebook may not sell copies of its data to these third parties, it certainly sells leases to that data, and this distinction bears significant scrutiny. The company may not wish to be understood as such, but it is most certainly the largest data broker in the history of the data industry.

Lastly, the Cambridge Analytica scandal may seem to be entirely about a violation of privacy, but to truly understand its impact, we must consider the implications relating to future economic innovation. Facebook has used the scandal as an excuse to limit third party data sharing across and outside its platform. While this seems logical on first glance, it is in fact destructive to long term economic value creation.

So what might be done about all of this? While I understand the lure of sweeping legislation that attempts to “cure” the ills of technological progress, such approaches often have their own unexpected consequences. For example, the EU’s adoption of GDPR, drafted to limit the power of companies like Facebook, may in fact only strengthen that company’s grip on its market, while severely limiting entrepreneurial innovation in the process (Example: https://shift.newco.co/how-gdpr-kills-the-innovation-economy-844570b70a7a )

As policy makers and informed citizens, we should strive to create a flexible, secure, and innovation friendly approach to data governance that allows for maximum innovation while also insuring maximum control over the data by all effected parties, including individuals, and importantly, the beneficiaries of future innovation yet conceived and created. To play forward the current architecture of data in our society – where most of the valuable information is controlled by an increasingly small oligarchy of massive corporations – is to imagine a sterile landscape hostile to new ideas and mass flourishing.

Instead, we must explore a world governed by an enlightened regulatory framework that encourages data sharing, high standards of governance, and maximum value creation, with the individual at the center of that value exchange. As I recently wrote: “Imagine … you can download your own Facebook or Amazon “token,” a magic data coin containing not only all the useful data and insights about you, but a control panel that allows you to set and revoke permissions around that data for any context. You might pass your Amazon token to Walmart, set its permissions to “view purchase history” and ask Walmart to determine how much money it might have saved you had you purchased those items on Walmart’s service instead of Amazon. You might pass your Facebook token to Google, set the permissions to compare your social graph with others across Google’s network, and then ask Google to show you search results based on your social relationships. You might pass your Google token to a startup that already has your genome and your health history, and ask it to munge the two in case your 20-year history of searching might infer some insights into your health outcomes. This might seem like a parlor game, but this is the kind of parlor game that could unleash an explosion of new use cases for data, new startups, new jobs, and new economic value.”

It is our responsibility to examine our current body of legislation as it relates to how corporations such as Facebook impact the lives of consumers and the norms of our society overall. Much of the argument around this issue turns on the definition of “consumer harm” under current policy. Given that data is non-rivalrous and services such as Facebook are free of charge, it is often presumed there is no harm to consumers (or by extension, to society) in its use. This also applies to arguments about antitrust enforcement. I think our society will look back on this line of reasoning as deeply flawed once we evolve to an understanding of data as equal to – or possibly even more valuable than – monetary currency.

Most observers of technology agree that data is a new class of currency in society, yet we continue to struggle to understand its impact, and how best to govern it. The manufacturing of data into currency is the main business of Facebook and countless other information age businesses. Currently the only participatory right in this value creation for a user of these services is to A/engage with the services offered and B/purchase the stock of the company offering the services. Neither of these options affords the user – or society – compensation commensurate with the value created for the firm. We can and must do better as a society, and we can and must expect more of our business leaders.

(More: https://shift.newco.co/its-time-for-platforms-to-come-clean-on-political-advertising-69311f582955 ; https://shift.newco.co/come-on-what-did-you-think-they-do-with-your-data-396fd855e7e1 ; https://shift.newco.co/tech-is-public-enemy-1-so-now-what-dee0c0cc40fe ; https://shift.newco.co/why-is-amazons-go-not-bodega-2-0-6f148075afd5 ; https://shift.newco.co/predictions-2017-cfe0806bed84 ; https://shift.newco.co/the-automatic-weapons-of-social-media-3ccce92553ad )

Respectfully submitted,

John Battelle

Ross, California

June 17, 2018

5 Comments on My Senate Testimony

Do We Want A Society Built On The Architecture of Dumb Terminals?

God, “innovation.” First banalized by undereducated entrepreneurs in the oughts, then ground to pablum by corporate grammarians over the past decade, “innovation” – at least when applied to business – deserves an unheralded etymological death.

But.

This will be a post about innovation. However, whenever I feel the need to peck that insipid word into my keyboard, I’m going to use some variant of the verb “to flourish” instead. Blame Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps for this: I recently read his Mass Flourishing, which outlines the decline of western capitalism, and I find its titular terminology far less annoying.

So flourishing it will be.

In his 2013 work, Phelps (who received the 2006 Nobel in economics) credits mass participation in a process of innovation (sorry, there’s that word again) as central to mass flourishing, and further argues – with plenty of economic statistics to back him up – that it’s been more than a full generation since we’ve seen mass flourishing in any society. He writes:

…prosperity on a national scale—mass flourishing—comes from broad involvement of people in the processes of innovation: the conception, development, and spread of new methods and products—indigenous innovation down to the grassroots. This dynamism may be narrowed or weakened by institutions arising from imperfect understanding or competing objectives. But institutions alone cannot create it. Broad dynamism must be fueled by the right values and not too diluted by other values.

Phelps argues the last “mass flourishing” economy was the 1960s in the United States (with a brief but doomed resurgence during the first years of the open web…but that promise went unfulfilled). And he warns that “nations unaware of how their prosperity is generated may take steps that cost them much of their dynamism.” Phelps further warns of a new kind of corporatism, a “techno nationalism” that blends state actors with corporate interests eager to collude with the state to cement market advantage (think Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich).

These warnings were proffered largely before our current debate about the role of the tech giants now so dominant in our society. But it sets an interesting context and raises important questions. What happens, for instance, when large corporations capture the regulatory framework of a nation and lock in their current market dominance (and, in the case of Big Tech, their policies around data use?).

I began this post with Phelps to make a point: The rise of massive data monopolies in nearly every aspect of our society is not only choking off shared prosperity, it’s also blinkered our shared vision for the kind of future we could possibly inhabit, if only we architect our society to enable it. But to imagine a different kind of future, we first have to examine the present we inhabit.

The Social Architecture of Data 

I use the term “architecture” intentionally, it’s been front of mind for several reasons. Perhaps the most difficult thing for any society to do is to share a vision of the future, one that a majority might agree upon. Envisioning the future of a complex living system – a city, a corporation, a nation – is challenging work, work we usually outsource to trusted institutions like government, religions, or McKinsey (half joking…).

But in the past few decades, something has changed when it comes to society’s future vision. Digital technology became synonymous with “the future,” and along the way, we outsourced that future to the most successful corporations creating digital technology. Everything of value in our society is being transformed into data, and extraordinary corporations have risen which refine that data into insight, knowledge, and ultimately economic power. Driven as they are by this core commodity of data, these companies have acted to cement their control over it.

This is not unusual economic behavior, in fact, it’s quite predictable. So predictable, in fact, that it’s developed its own structure – an architecture, if you will, of how data is managed in today’s information society. I’ve a hypothesis about this architecture – unproven at this point (as all are) – but one I strongly suspect is accurate. Here’s how it might look on a whiteboard:

We “users” deliver raw data to a service provider, like Facebook or Google, which then captures, refines, processes, and delivers that data back as services to us. The social contract we make is captured in these services’ Terms of Services – we may “own” the data, but for all intents and purposes, the power over that information rests with the platform. The user doesn’t have a lot of creative license to do much with that data he or she “owns” – it lives on the platform, and the platform controls what can be done with it.

Now, if this sounds familiar, you’re likely a student of early computing architectures. Back before the PC revolution, most data, refined or not, lived on a centralized platform known as a mainframe. Nearly all data storage and compute processing occurred on the mainframe. Applications and services were broadcast from the mainframe back to “dumb terminals,” in front of which early knowledge workers toiled. Here’s a graph of that early mainframe architecture:

 

This mainframe architecture had many drawbacks – a central point of failure chief among them, but perhaps its most damning characteristic was its hierarchical, top down architecture. From an user’s point of view, all the power resided at the center. This was great if you ran IT at a large corporation, but suffice to say the mainframe architecture didn’t encourage creativity or a flourishing culture.

The mainframe architecture was supplanted over time with a “client server” architecture, where processing power migrated from the center to the edge, or node. This was due in large part to the rise the networked personal computer (servers were used  for storing services or databases of information too large to fit on PCs). Because they put processing power and data storage into the hands of the user, PCs became synonymous with a massive increase in productivity and creativity (Steve Jobs called them “bicycles for the mind.”) With the PC revolution power transferred from the “platform” to the user – a major architectural shift.

The rise of networked personal computers became the seedbed for the world wide web, which had its own revolutionary architecture. I won’t trace it here (many good books exist on the topic), but suffice to say the core principle of the early web’s architecture was its distributed nature. Data was packetized and distributed independent of where (or how) it might be processed. As more and more “web servers” came online, each capable of processing data as well as distributing it, the web became a tangled, hot mess of interoperable computing resources. What mattered wasn’t the pipes or the journey of the data, but the service created or experienced by the user at the point of that service delivery, which in the early days was of course a browser window (later on, those points of delivery became smartphone apps and more).

If you were to attempt to map the social architecture of data in the early web, your map would look a lot like the night sky – hundreds of millions of dots scattered in various constellations across the sky, each representing a node where data might be shared, processed, and distributed. In those early days the ethos of the web was that data should be widely shared between consenting parties so it might be “mixed and mashed” so as to create new products and services. There was no “mainframe in the sky” anymore – it seemed everyone on the web had equal and open opportunities to create and exchange value.

This is why the late 1990s through mid oughts were a heady time in the web world – nearly any idea could be tried out, and as the web evolved into a more robust set of standards, one could be forgiven for presuming that the open, distributed nature of the web would inform its essential social architecture.

But as web-based companies began to understand the true value of controlling vast amounts of data, that dream began to fade. As we grew addicted to some of the most revelatory web services – first Google search, then Amazon commerce, then Facebook’s social dopamine – those companies began to centralize their data and processing policies, to the point where we are now: Fearing these giants’ power over us, even as we love their products and services.

An Argument for Mass Flourishing

So where does that leave us if we wish to heed the concerns of Professor Phelps? Well, let’s not forget his admonition: “nations unaware of how their prosperity is generated may take steps that cost them much of their dynamism.” My hypothesis is simply this: Adopting a mainframe architecture for our most important data – our intentions (Google), our purchases (Amazon), our communications and social relationships (Facebook) – is not only insane, it’s also massively deprecative of future innovation (damn, sorry, but sometimes the word fits). In Facebook, Tear Down This Wall, I argued:

… it’s impossible for one company to fabricate reality for billions of individuals independent of the interconnected experiences and relationships that exist outside of that fabricated reality. It’s an utterly brittle product model, and it’s doomed to fail. Banning third party agents from engaging with Facebook’s platform insures that the only information that will inform Facebook will be derived from and/or controlled by Facebook itself. That kind of ecosystem will ultimately collapse on itself. No single entity can manage such complexity. It presumes a God complex.

So what might be a better architecture? I hinted at it in the same post:

Facebook should commit itself to being an open and neutral platform for the exchange of value across not only its own services, but every service in the world.

In other words, free the data, and let the user decide what do to with it. I know how utterly ridiculous this sounds, in particular to anyone reading from Facebook proper, but I am convinced that this is the only architecture for data that will allow a massively flourishing society.

Now this concept has its own terminology: Data portability.  And this very concept is enshrined in the EU’s GDPR legislation, which took effect one week ago. However, there’s data portability, and then there’s flourishing data portability – and the difference between the two really matters. The GDPR applies only to data that a user *gives* to a service, not data *co-created* with that service. You also can’t gather any insights the service may have inferred about you based on the data you either gave or co-created with it. Not to mention, none of that data is exported in a machine readable fashion, essentially limiting its utility.

But imagine if that weren’t the case. Imagine instead you can download your own Facebook or Amazon “token,” a magic data coin containing not only all the useful data and insights about you, but a control panel that allows you to set and revoke permissions around that data for any context. You might pass your Amazon token to Walmart, set its permissions to “view purchase history” and ask Walmart to determine how much money it might have saved you had you purchased those items on Walmart’s service instead of Amazon. You might pass your Facebook token to Google, set the permissions to compare your social graph with others across Google’s network, and then ask Google to show you search results based on your social relationships. You might pass your Google token to a startup that already has your genome and your health history, and ask it to munge the two in case your 20-year history of searching might infer some insights into your health outcomes.

This might seem like a parlor game, but this is the kind of parlor game that could unleash an explosion of new use cases for data, new startups, new jobs, and new economic value. Tokens would (and must) have privacy, auditing, trust, value exchange, and the like built in (I tried to write this entire post without mentioned blockchain, but there, I just did it), but presuming they did, imagine what might be built if we truly set the data free, and instead of outsourcing its power and control to massive platforms, we took that power and control and, just like we did with the PC and the web, pushed it to the edge, to the node…to ourselves?

I rather like the sound of that, and I suspect Mssr. Phelps would as well. Now, how might we get there? I’ve no idea, but exploring possible paths certainly sounds like an interesting project…

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