“It’s trust, more than money, making the world go around.”
The week before last, I visited Yahoo! to give the keynote talk in their User conference, which brought together large companies (Google, Facebook, etc), startups (large ones like USV portfolio firm CloudFlare and a great deal of way smaller ones), professors, and digital rights advocates (for example, Rebecca MacKinnon, whose current book Consent of the Networked is an important read) to discuss the significance of human/digital rights issues into the management of web applications.
I was there to talk to the investor perspective — why and how we think about the notion of”user ” as we create and manage investments in this area.
First, I would like to point out a couple of things which may not be obvious to people that aren’t regulars in discussions about electronic rights, or human rights in the context of communication & information services. First, there was substantial work done (in the UN, among other areas ) to establish a set of criteria in the intersection of business and human rights. Second, concerning digital rights, most the conversation is about two issues: freedom of expression/censorship and privacy/surveillance. And third, it is important to mention that the conversation about digital rights is not only about the state ensuring that platforms respect user rights, but it is equally about the programs ensuring that the state does.
Increasingly, just how much we trust them in that role will become a distinguishing feature and a stage of competition among platforms.
I work at Union Square Ventures — we’re investors in web and cellular businesses that build social programs. I also have academic affiliations in the MIT Media Lab at the Center for Civic Media, which studies how people use technology and media to participate in civic issues, and in the Berkman Center for Internet & Society in Harvard Law School which studies tech & internet policy.
So, to begin: a guiding idea is that the internet (as we know it now ) is not only an open, amorphous mass of arbitrary peer-to-peer communications. It is actually a set of highly architected adventures:
Internet & mobile technologies are providing us the chance to experiment with how we organize ourselves, for work, for enjoyment and for community. (by way of instance, the slide comes from an MIT research that seemed at which types of social ties — near, clustered ones, or even further, poorer ones — were effective in changing health behaviour ).
At USV, we see this as part of a wider macro change from bureaucratic hierarchies into networks, and the networked version of organizing is fundamentally transformative across industries and sectors.
1 large opportunities, since this shift happens, it to show the abundance around us.
It’s as if lots of the things we have been looking for — whether it is a response to a question, an asthma inhaler in a time of crisis, a ride across town, someone to speak to, or a snowblower — are actually right there, nearby at the atmosphere around us, but it is previously not been possible to see them or join them.
That’s changing, and this change has the potential to help us solve issues that have been out of reach. Which is great, because for as much progress we have made, there are still big problems out there to handle:
To get a (relatively) trivial one, this is exactly what most California freeways seem like daily. In much of the world, our transport systems are broken and inefficient.
We obviously do not have our shit together if things like this can occur.
…and we’ve got tons to find out when it comes to affordable and accessible healthcare (not the least of which is the way to construct an insurance market website).
…and education is becoming worse and worse (for younger grades) and increasingly more expensive (for faculty ). There is no question that the supply / demand balance is out of whack, rather than taking into consideration the abundance that’s around us.
So: all of these are critical problems facing global society (and the ones that I mentioned here are simply a small portion of them at that).
All these issues can and should benefit from our newfound opportunity to re-architect our services, trades, data flows, and relationships with one another, built around the concept that we are now able to surface connections, connections, data, and opportunities that we just could not before we were connected.
But… to be able to do that, the first thing we will need to do is architect a system of trust — one which nurtures community, ensures security, and takes into account balances between different dangers, opportunities, rights and duties.
Initially, that meant figuring out the way to get”peers” from the community to trust each other — the classic case being Ebay’s buyer and seller evaluations which initiated the concept of peer-to-peer commerce. With a stranger online seemed preposterous.
Lately, the conversation has shifted to building trust with the public, particularly in the context of law, as peer services intersect more and more with the actual world (by way of instance, Airbnb, Uber, and the peer-to-peer ride sharing firms and their associated regulatory challenges over the last 3 years).
As more and more of our actions move onto internet and mobile platforms, and these platforms take on rising governance and stewardship functions, we will need to trust they’re doing it in good faith and endorsed by fair policies. That trust is vital to success.
Concerning community & network governance, platforms set policies which take into consideration issues like law enforcement of rules (both public laws and network-level policies), freedom of expression and the freedom to connect & arrange, and transparency & access to information (both concerning the policies and actions of the system, and re: the information you create as a participant in the area ).
When you consider it, you understand that these are very much the exact issues that authorities grapple with in creating public policy, which internet platforms really look a great deal like governments.
Which makes sense, because both in the case of authorities and web-enabled networks, the fundamental task is to construct an architecture around that other action occurs. You construct the roads and the other essential public infrastructure, and then you set the ground rules that permit the community and market to operate.
Needless to say, there’s an important difference: web networks aren’t governments, and aren’t bound by all of the requirements & responsibilities of public institutions. They are free to make their own rules of engagement, which you agree to if you choose to engage (or not) in that community.
So when there are significant differences in how platforms make and apply rules, those differences may be the foundation for consumer choice (e.g., it is a lot easier to move from Facebook to Google than it is to move from the US to Canada).
I would like to set some additional emphasis on the problem of information, as it is growing so fast and continues to be so much in the forefront of the public conversation over the last year.
We’re creating — and sharing — more information than we ever have before.
Everywhere we go, on the internet and in real life, we’re leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that may mined for many purposes. For our own good (e.g., restaurant recommendations, private health advice ), for social functions (crowdsourced traffic reports, donating data to cancer research), for industrial purposes (advertisement targeting & retargeting, financing free articles ), and also for nefarious purposes (spying, identity theft).
One distinguishing idea within all this is that the difference between information sharing which we opt into and information sharing that occurs to us. Certain web services (by way of instance USV portfolio firm Foursquare, emphasized above) create a business out of giving people a reason to talk about their information; getting them to buy into the notion that there is a transaction going on here — my information today for something of value (to me, to my friends, to the world) later. It is proving true that many people will happily make that trade, given an understanding of what is happening and what the benefits (and risks) are.
Convincing someone to talk about their information with you (and with others in your platform) is an exercise in establishing trust.
And my perception is that the firms that most establish that confidence, and best demonstrate that they can stand behind it, are likely to be the ultimate winners.
I think about this a great deal in the context of health. There’s so much to gain by collecting and sharing our health data.
And If we do not get this right (“this” being the sensitive matter of managing personal data), we miss out on the chance to do very important things.
And there isn’t any lack of startups working to: a) help you extract this information (see 23andme), b) enable you to share this information (see Consent to Research and John Wilbanks’ excellent TED talk on sharing our wellness information ), and c) construction tools in addition to this information (see NYU Med Center’s virtual microscope job ).
We’re pushing the boundaries of what information people are eager to talk about, and testing the waters of who they are eager to discuss it with.
Which brings us back to the concept of competition, and why winning trust is your future.
We’re just just just scratching the surface of knowing whether and how to anticipate the software we work with.
EFF’s Who’s Your Back report ranks major tech & communications companies on their user security policies. And, most efficiently (for me at least), the Google Play store lists the information access requests for every new program you install (“you need my place, and you are a flashlight??”) .
You may be saying:”that’s fine, but most individuals do not pay any attention to the stuff”.
That may be true today, but I expect it to change, as we deal with more and more sensitive information in more parts of our lives, and as more businesses and associations betray the trust they have established with their own users.
There’s no shortage of #fail here, but we could suffice for today with two recent examples:
Instagram’s 2012 TOS upgrade snafu captured users by surprise (who possesses my photos?)
So… how can mobile and web businesses win on trust?
We are starting to see some early signs:
Notice the significant spike in traffic to the privacy-oriented search engine, USV portfolio firm, DuckDuckGo, around June of 2013, marked by [I] on the chart.
And needless to say, a great deal of tech companies have started to release transparency reports — at the very least, beginning to shine some light on the degree to which, and the way in which, they comply with government-issued asks for consumer data.
There are juicier stories of programs going to bat for their customers, most recently Twitter combating the Manhattan DA in court to guard an Occupy protester’s information (a struggle they finally lost), and secure email provider Lavabit shut down entirely instead of hand over user information to US authorities in the context of their Snowden investigation.
And this will without doubt continue be a frequent theme, as net and mobile companies to more and more for more people.
And, I must note — none of this would be to say that mobile and web companies should not comply with legal data requests from authorities; they need to, and they do. But they also must understand that it is not always straightforward, that they have an opportunity (and oftentimes a responsibility) to consider the user rights consequences of the policies and their procedures when dealing with these sorts of situations.
Finally: this is a massive issue for startups.
I recently discovered security researcher Morgan Marquis-Boire opinion that”any internet startup with user grip has a chance of receiving a government information petition approaching 1″. But that is not what startups are considering when they’re sending their first product and going after their initial users. They’re concerned about product market match, not what community management policies they will have, how they will react when law enforcement comes knocking, or how they will handle their terms of support as they grow.
However, assuming they do get grip and the consumers come, these questions of trust and governance will become central to their success.