Avoiding the Filter Bubble

Avoiding the Filter Bubble

For those not familiar with the ‘Filter Bubble’, the term was coined by Internet activist Eli Pariser around 2010 and refers to a state of intellectual isolation resulting from personalisation applied to the delivery of web content. The suggestion is that users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints. This effectively isolates individuals within their own cultural or ideological filter bubble.

While we could debate at length the extent to which this is a problem, few would deny its existence. In his 2011 TED Talk Eli Pariser suggests that search engines should curate results according to the following criteria, not just by relevance:

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I personally don’t fully subscribe to this view. It requires that the search algorithms will somehow curate the results according to these ethics. Thus, we have to trust someone to decide what ethical parameters are good for us and code these into the algorithms! Or, of course we could go the other way and completely remove personalisation from any results and some search engines, such as Duck Duck Go, do not personalise results and so offer us this option. However, we then lose the ability to have more relevant results ranked higher and so more manual sifting of results by the user is needed. My view is that the Filter Bubble can be largely avoided if we provide visibility of the personalisation process and control over how our personal data is being applied.

Intellectual isolation resulting from the delivery of personalised content is clearly not peculiar to the Internet. In the western world we have the choices everyday of who to listen to, what to read, the media channels to watch and the ability to switch these on and off at will. If one chooses only to read or listen to right-wing views, then this is a personal right. Each individual is at least aware that not everyone shares these same views, and they can see that alternative reading and viewing material is available. Where Internet personalisation has a real problem is that this isolation can happen (indeed is happening) without there being visibility or self-awareness of it. It becomes especially dangerous if it is used to alter opinions for financial or political gain, and we are now aware of previous abuses of influence in recent elections and referendums.

I believe that users should be given visibility of the data they are revealing for personalisation. This transparency gives the ability for self-observation (see your digital-self as revealed to others), self-measurements (revealing of statistics, trends and actionable insights), and self-comparisons (how you measure up relative to your peers). This can theoretically be achieved using existing rights to data portability under GDPR and would be a useful first step in avoiding the Filter Bubble.

The next step would then be the ability to give the user control over the degree of personalisation delivered by any service. The user regulates the cost-benefit of revealing personal information and sees how the quality of content delivered is being influenced by this. In reality, if someone wishes to live in a state of intellectual isolation this should be a choice they have made, not a situation that they are unaware of or that has been imposed upon them.

The California Consumer Privacy Act – CCPA

The California Consumer Privacy Act – CCPA

Oh no, more data privacy legislation is coming! The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) will kick in on 1st January 2020. For many of us the key questions are; what is the difference between CCPA and GDPR, and will it affect me?

The short answers are that it has similarities to GDPR but is different in several aspects, and secondly – in theory it should only really affect you if you are a citizen of California, or if you are a large company that processes personal information that includes one or more citizens from California. However, its reach will be much broader than this since companies are unlikely to adopt different policies exclusively for their Californian customers.

I am going to elaborate on these points, but still want to keep it short and so have generalised a little – you can read about it in more detail from the links I will give at the bottom.

How will CCPA affect us?

Most individual citizens may not notice much impact from CCPA, even as it comes near to the enforcement date. We may see a small email storm but less than we suffered for GDPR. The reason for this is that CCPA is largely based on opt-out rather than GDPR’s opt-in.  American citizens (especially those in California) are likely to see more activity prior to implementation. For most of us, we will be told that service terms & conditions are being updated, but then this happens regularly anyway and few of us read these before agreeing.

After implementation one change we may observe is the appearance of opt-outs regarding the sale of data – a “Do Not Sell My Personal Information” option as default – you will need to select this in order to opt-out. In addition, those aged 13-16 should automatically be opted out and so “I am over 16” might also be ticked as a default. Those under 13 will require parental consent to allow their data to be sold. Interestingly a company could sell the information of a minor without consent if they do not have “actual knowledge” that the consumer is under 16 so it will be interesting to see how this will be interpreted in practice.

In the short-term it is companies with Californian customers that will be most affected. However, the Act only applies to companies of a certain size (turnover of $25 million or more), or that hold personal information on more than 50,000 consumers (or devices). Thus, it will be large companies, most of whom will already have dealt with GDPR compliance, that will be most affected. It is likely that these companies will develop policies for customers that jointly covers GDPR and CCPA.

So, will citizens benefit from CCPA? If we are already under GDPR then I can see little if any benefit. If you are subscriber to services that do not need to be GDPR compliant (e.g. a US citizen who’s personal information is held in the USA) then CCPA can give you GDPR-like rights and benefits regarding the use of your Personal Information. However, CCPA is not the same as GDPR and in many ways it is weaker.

The main differences between CCPA and GDPR

Who it applies to: CCPA only applies to citizens of California, and of course it will apply to companies that hold personal information on any citizen of California and so it will have global impact. GDPR applies to companies operating in the EU, it also applies to companies that hold or process data on EU citizens so GDPR has a greater global impact.

What does it apply to: The Act applies to “personal information”. The definition is quite wide and similar to GDPR but slightly wider in the sense that if “households” can be identified from the data then it is considered “personal information” even although an individual is not identified.

Who is regulated: CCPA only applies to larger for-profit companies that process or hold significant “personal information”. The company will have a turnover of above $25 million; or process/hold personal information of 50,000 or more individuals, households or devices; or make more than 50% of revenues from selling personal information. Any business that is not in California and does not use information on the states citizens is completely exempt. GDPR on the other hand applies to almost all companies (no matter the size) that use personal information in the EU or related to EU citizens.

What rights does it give: Consumers protected by CCPA are entitles to be given notice about the categories of information being collected and the business purpose for which it is being collected, plus any intention to sell this information with the option to opt-out of this sale. Note that CCPA relies on an opt-out policy, whereas GDPR is opt-in. The customer has the right to be told what type of information is being held, although in practice this might be a boilerplate list. The customer may request that their personal information is deleted (and there are a few exemptions to this) so this is similar to, but not quite the same as, GDPR’s ‘right to be forgotten’. CCPA has no direct equivalent to GDPR’s data portability i.e. the right to request a copy of your personal information. To comply a company only needs to disclose information about what has been collected over the last 12 months but the Act does not seem to provide an explicit right to obtain a full copy of the actual data itself. All customers must be treated equally under the Act meaning that a request made under the Act cannot be used as a reason to alter any terms or pricing for that customer.

Penalties:  Under CCPA damages of $100-750 per consumer per incident are applicable. For GDPR the penalties can be Up to €20 million, or 4% annual global turnover – whichever is higher. So, although different, both can apply severe penalties.

Read more …

This has been a very superficial look at CCPA, but hopefully its conciseness makes it useful and readable. Here are a couple of articles that provide more detailed information that I found useful in trying to understand CCPA.

CCPA: What Marketers Need to Know about the California Consumer Privacy Act

CCPA and GDPR: Comparison of certain provisions

Yelling at strangers all day trying to make a living?

Yelling at strangers all day trying to make a living?

Is the internet really broken? Are the days of direct on-line advertising numbered? Could there be a better way to pay for internet services? Are data marketplaces the answer?

There are companies emerging in the personal data space that propose data marketplaces as a revenue generating model – and they have collectively raised a lot of investment. The model assumes you are willing to share your personal data, they will sell your data for you – you get paid for this and, of course, these companies get a cut.  The argument goes along the lines of, why should someone like Google get all the advertising revenues from your data. Instead you can use a third party to sell your personal data to advertisers and organisations in order to get a small payback.

Some of these companies claim that “The Internet is Broken” and this is a way to take control of your personal data and fix this. I don’t really buy that, I do believe that the current Internet has significant flaws, in part caused by the ‘free’ services model we have come to expect. However, the idea that getting paid to be advertised to is a potential solution, does not add up for me. There is evidence that we are unhappy with the current advertising model, that we would like improved internet services, but also that we are not willing to pay directly for most services that are currently seen as ‘free’.

Advertising is a very inefficient model, how many impressions of an advert result in an actual lead or a sale? There are three parties involved in the traditional on-line advertising model but only one of them gets a significant benefit – the adverting company. The seller and the consumer seem to get the poor end of the bargain but have limited powers due to a lack of competition. The consumer gets constantly bombarded with unwanted advertisements, the seller has to pay the cost of this inefficiency in order to gain on-line exposure to customers. An oligopoly exists in on-line advertising with Google and Facebook owning over 60% of the worldwide market and these companies hold monopoly positions with search and social media respectively. These ‘free’ internet services are the source from which our personally identifiable information (PII) is harvested in order to power the ad machine.

In a 2009 blog Seth Godin, the pioneer of permission marketing, was repeating a point about not needing many customers, but needing good loyal customers, to make a living, and he talked about “yelling at strangers all day trying to make a living” which pretty much sums up the current on-line advertising model, and he went on to say “You don’t find customers for your products. You find products for your customers.” which begins to describe an on-line brokerage model that I believe can be used to erode the on-line advertising model. Displacement of the current model will not happen overnight for a number of reasons; first – the on-line advertising oligopolies will defend their current lucrative position, secondly – although the model might be more efficient in the long run it will introduce some inital pain for the seller adjusting to a new model, and finally – it requires the creation of new services to efficiently join up buyers and sellers.

BrokerageThere are many examples of very successful brokerage companies working in niche areas. In the UK two of the largest online companies Money Supermarket and Skyscanner offer services that find their customers what they are looking for efficiently. Worldwide; Ebay, Uber, Airbnb & Kayak are all examples of highly successful companies running efficient brokerage models. Consider the conversion rate and value of a visitor to one of these sites compared to on-line advertising. It has been estimated that the average citizen is exposed to more than 5000 adverts every single day (J Walker-Smith, Yankovich Inc.), so how can you possibly gain attention in such a marketplace without a strong brand and a lot of marketing budget?  Unfortunately, if you are a small company playing this game you may well spend all day yelling at strangers, and may not manage to make a living, even if you do have the best product.

Once we can capture rich data on the client-side we can begin applying brokerage, affiliate and referral models that will benefit the citizen across, not just niche areas, but all products and services. This will provide more efficient sales channels to sellers and ultimately erode the advertising revenues of the existing oligopolies. Machine learning and AI can be much more effective on the client-side where we can trust our that our personal data is only being used by digital agents working to our agenda (we may even use blockchain to make this transparent), as opposed to the current secret agents working to their own agenda.

Why we are not doing an ICO

Why we are not doing an ICO

Late last year Trisent considered the option of an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) or Token Sale, but having considered this at length we decided not to proceed. In previous companies I have raised working capital from VCs, Angel Investors and private individuals. I have not raised any capital using crowd sourced means and ICOs are, of course, a recent innovation in crowd funding. ICOs come in different forms, and they are fundamentally different from other crowd sourced funding because of the offer of digital tokens as opposed to rewards or equity. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of an ICO there are many articles on the Web here is a link to the Wikipedia entry.

Introduction

Trisent has a product in development (1-timeline) that will include a blockchain element along with a lot of data security.  It also monitors data storage and accesses and the revenue model lends itself to the use of a utility token. The implementation of our product will result in the decentralisation of control over personal data (i.e. each individual will have full control of their data). We already have a tested prototype, the founders have a good track record and we have an impressive Advisory Board including an international expert on cryptography and blockchain. All of these factors might suggest that we were in an ideal position to raise funds via an ICO.

The reasons

Here are the five main reasons we decided against the ICO route.

Perception

We spoke with many people about the ICO option open to us. For some they seemed excited and encouraged us, but for others it caused either confusion and a lot of explanation, or worse derision. We realised that many people believed that ICOs were scams, a passing fad, or just an improper way to raise funds. The alignment to Bitcoin could not be avoided and if we did an ICO we would certainly be perceived in a different light, and not all positive. Our core business is based on helping citizens to benefit from their personal data. This requires us to be trusted and an ICO could erode this trust with some potential customers, although it would also bring in interest and greater trust from others.

While we believe that the perception would change over time, and the ICO itself would bring new enthusiastic customers, it was clear that Trisent’s reputation would be altered if we went down this path.

Stability

It is clear that most investors in ICO tokens are speculators. Many are attempting to lock some of their digital currency assets into something real, tangible, something more than a currency that could in theory head south to zero. Unfortunately, most ICO investment are so early stage that the value of a token cannot be determined and a scatter gun approach (spread betting) has been used by many investors with very limited diligence. This has led to ICOs raising considerably more than these same companies could have raised from private equity suggesting that they are overvalued – which can create future problems when they try to deliver tangible value inline with the token market price. However, even worse in the short-term is volatility of digital currencies. Public stock markets have volatility issues where external factors (e.g. political and economic issues) can significantly change a company valuation and cause problems for them. However, the changes seen in public markets over months, can be seen in digital currency markets in just hours. Without a strong utility value in a digital token, the value of a company’s token economy is at the mercy of the digital currency rollercoaster.

Stability can be achieved in tokens if they are tied to some utility value (rather then the currency from which they were purchased). However, in early stage companies the utility value is rarely demonstrated and it is all down to external speculation.

Regulation

There is a lot that could be said about regulation. However, the real problems seem to stem, not from the need for new regulation, but around clarity regarding how existing regulation should apply to ICOs and how tokens are classified. This dilemmais is potentially serious – in the UK and USA different interpretations of the existing laws applied to a token sale could span from a legitimate tax free funding all the way to – ‘go to jail’. It seemes that the best way to ensure good tax treatment and avoid going to jail, is to set-up the company where there is clarity on how laws will be applied and where ICOs are welcomed – Switzerland, Singapore, Gibraltar and Malta being popular examples.

In reality we had an existing company and were not willing to restructure it and go abroad.

Investor expectations

With private equity investments, including equity crowdfunding, the expectations from investors are reasonably clear. The needs of the company and the investor are not the same but both parties generally understand each other. In the case of token investors, it is not clear that their needs are well aligned with the company. The investor may have made large gains in their digital currency in the past – they have then reinvested profits in a company (whose tokens are probably overvalued) and they are likely looking for more short-term gains. The problem is that the company will take considerable time to deliver value and if the token is overpriced in the first place this is going to make it doubly difficult.

Since ICOs are still in their infancy it is not clear what impact this will have in the longer-term and is likely to be governed by the type of token in play and whether it is traded privately or through digital currency exchanges.

Timing

In late 2017 when we were considering an ICO there was an appetite for token sales from investors. However, a ‘goldrush’ mentality was setting in, many companies were set-up just for the purposes of raising cash in an ICO. There were interesting companies, there were scam companies, there were well intentioned but naïve companies. The crypto-currency markets were rallying and fear of missing out (FOMO) was causing every fool and their dog to rush in, thus artificially sustaining the upward trend that was begining to resemble a Ponzi scheme. Many of the holders of significant crypto-currency realised that this rise was likely to result in a heavy crash and this further encourage them to diversify their now high valued digital currencies into digital tokens and so further fuelling the ICO market.

It was clear to us that something had to give, we did not know exactly when or the end result. However, it was obvious the current trend could not be sustained indefinitely. Therefore, an ICO in early 2018 did not look like good timing. In the end, it could have been worse, but the large falls did occur and the appetite for ICOs has diminished.

Conclusion

I have probably painted a rather negative outlook on the ICO scene here, but that is only because I have presented the reasons why we, an established UK company, did not proceed with our ICO. I have not presented the alternative case in favour of an ICO and there are many potential positives here. The overarching reason, as you can see, is largely due to current uncertainties in a number of areas. I believe that many of these uncertainties will diminish as ICOs become more mature – and just like conventional crowdfunding, after some evolution they will will enter the mainstream and we will look back and wonder what all that fuss was about back in 2017-18.