Monday, November 25, 2019

Tim Berners-Lee's "Contract for the Web" Forgets One Thing!

Tim Berners-Lee's "Contract for the Web" (today in his NY Times op-ed) is a worthy effort -- but it seems to ignore the key contract element that he called on us to fight for a year and a half ago.

The new Contract lists Principle 4, "Make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone" -- but the sub-points for that principle gloss over the fundamental problem he raised in his message on the 29th birthday of the Web (3/12/18, emphasis added):
Today’s powerful digital economy calls for strong standards that balance the interests of both companies and online citizens. This means thinking about how we align the incentives of the tech sector with those of users and society at large
Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.
Create a new set of incentives and changes in the code will follow. We can design a web that creates a constructive and supportive environment."
The Contract for the Web should include a new Financial Contract to align incentives to benefit not only Web platforms, but their users.
  • The contract should require that user pay at a level that corresponds to the value they get with consideration to their ability to pay. 
  • It should shift from the zero-sum game of "artificial scarcity" to a win-win game of fairly sharing our digital abundance to benefit both service providers and each consumer. 
  • It should also shift from the opaque extraction of attention and data in exchange for supposedly "free" services, to transparently negotiating with each consumer how (and at what price) advertising and commerce should serve all three parties involved:  the service provider, the advertiser, and that consumer. 
I have written on this blog and elsewhere about why that is essential, and how it can be done. Two of the simplest statements of those proposals were published in Techonomy:
Details of how that can be accomplished using the FairPay framework have been published in Harvard Business Review, and in journals on pricing and on marketing. Specific comments on Berners-Lee's 2018 message are in these several blog posts.

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[Update 12/13:]  It has been pointed out to me that the Contract does address the topic of business models (with regard to privacy and data rights) in Principle 5, Clause 3(b): "Promoting innovative business models that strengthen data rights, respect privacy, and minimize data collection practices." I am pleased to note that, and look forward to seeing progress. At the same time, this underlines an important point that may not have been clear in my original post.

This question of business models -- while very important to privacy and data rights -- is of even greater importance and urgency with regard to deeper issues of how the Web benefits or harms society.
  • As we see in the growing concerns about past and upcoming elections, the harm is not just to personal privacy and data, but to how the advertising-based business models of dominant Web services are inflaming polarization and radicalization of users (with clear effects on politics, elections, and society), rather than enlightening us.
  • The reason is that inflaming users increases their engagement and thus the number of ad impressions to be sold, while enlightening users does not advance that business incentive. 
  • Social media and search engines could be world-changing forces to not only "bring the world closer together" but to augment human intellect and enlightenment -- instead they are driving us apart and making us stupid.
  • That threatens not only our privacy and data, but the foundation of our democracy and freedom.
The articles and blog posts I have linked to above address privacy and data rights as just one aspect of this broader theme. Two additional post that dig deeper into these broad issues are:

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