The opportunity for networks: Trust, antitrust and sharing users

The opportunity for networks: Trust, antitrust and sharing users

This is the fourth of a series of blog reports about the status of the news landscape and a challenge to create a new one. The series is authored by Bill Densmore, a 2008-2009 RJI Fellow and originator of the Information Valet Project. View the series here.

Banks do it. Airlines do it. Phone companies do it. Why shouldn’t news organizations do it, too?

What they do is share users. And they do so because it’s convenient for their customers. The 21st-century world of public, interconnected networks — the Internet — makes sharing possible.

  • Banks popularized automated-teller machine access cards in the early 1970s. At first they worked only with your own bank. Gradually regional ATM networks formed, so you could get cash far from home. Increasingly, the regional networks are interconnected nationally and even globally – and the same card is now accepted by millions of Visa or MasterCard merchants.
  • With many (but not all) airlines with “interline exchange agreements” if your flight is canceled or seriously delayed, your originating airline will sometimes book you on a competitor’s flight at no extra charge. Major airlines do this in order to make the entire flying system more reliable, and they share the cost of these exchanges.
  • Whether you pay your phone bill to Verizon, AT&T, a regional Bell, Sprint, T-Mobile or someone else, you can make a call from a wired or mobile phone and reach pretty much anyone else — and you still pay one bill from your home-base carrier. They also share cell towers by contracting with third-party cell-tower owners and operators. Phone companies do this because the alternative — siloed networks that don’t interconnect — would so depreciate the value of a phone that far fewer people would have one. They settle their financial transactions in bulk and in background, with no trouble to the consumer.
  • The news industry, on the other hand, has a separate subscription or “paywall” account for each publisher’s website, or set of websites. I can have one bill and one payment to bank, fly or make phone calls, but if I want to collect news and information that matters to me, I have to create and maintain multiple subscriptions. And if I find one article of interest at an isolated Web service, I have no simple way to buy that one article.

A leadership role for the news industry?

In 2011, RJI published “From Paper to Persona,” and this author proposed the news industry form a non-profit consortium to guide matters of trust, identity, privacy and information commerce on the Web. If the proposal makes sense, who will lead it? One possibility: The NetGain initiative of five U.S. foundations, announced Feb. 11 in New York. It will “seek to collaborate on large projects” involving Internet data security and privacy that transform learning and education.

In a public speech Nov. 21 at the Reuters Institute at Oxford, Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said, “I am going to argue that journalism has an important role in building and deploying new technologies, shaping non­commercial parts of a new public sphere and holding to account these new extensive systems of power.”

“We need a distributed authentication system so we don’t have centralized user names and passwords,” Internet pioneer Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archives and digital library, told participants in last week’s kickoff of the NetGain initiative. “And we also need to make it so that it is private in such a way that you could read anything on the net and know you were not being spied on.”

“I am going to argue that journalism has an important role in building and deploying new technologies, shaping non­commercial parts of a new public sphere and holding to account these new extensive systems of power.”

An Internet with hundreds of thousands of groups of individuals with identities that are opaque to each other is of limited marketing value. “There is a problem in the industry when we try to maximize the potential of an audience when it is spread out across so many user profiles,” says David Gehring of Guardian News & Media. “It is hard to know how to monetize them.”

Neither Kahle nor Gehring are oblivious to each other’s views. What they envision is a system that both respects privacy when users seek it, and also allows commercial and public-benefit interests to take advantage of the ability to see a unified view of a user, with that view under the user’s control. Today, our user data is spread helter-skelter among thousands of websites. The news industry could share some responsibilty — and lead — in helping to fix that.

Collaboration — trust and antitrust

Broad elements of the U.S. news industry, including newspapers, other publishers, broadcasters and pure-play digital services, could collaborate with technology, advertising and financial-service interests to support development of a shared-user network addressing trust, identity, privacy and information commerce. (Read A Call to Action from 2011.) It could be a universal, privacy-respecting identity network – allowing a simple, one-account, one-bill way to pay the producers of valuable, personalized information.

The system should allow multiple trust and identity brokers to compete for and serve users. To make a new market for digital information – and attention – calls for convening of a unique ownership and governance framework, assembling the required technology, and assessing the impact on law, regulation, advertising and privacy.

U.S. media executives may appropriately raise a question about the potential for illegal collusion when it is proposed that they consider working together. Such affiliations are actually commonplace — trade associations are a typical example.

In general, legal precedents in the U.S. may find collaboration legal if its effect is unambiguously pro-consumer.

In general, legal precedents in the U.S. may find collaboration legal if its effect is unambiguously pro-consumer. An example might be setting standards that make for a more efficient — and more competitive — marketplace. In June 2010, the Information Valet Project asked Thom Lambert, a University of Missouri School of Law professor, to describe the basis of U.S. antitrust law and enforcement, in the context of potential collaboration among newspapers.

There are well-documented examples of sanctioned collaboration around technical standards or services that create a more efficient public market. Utilities maintain wires to move electricity sold by others; railroads fix tracks, cars and locomotives so all manner of goods may reach markets. These infrastructures benefit consumers in countless ways, and those ways are constantly changing. Of course any collaboration will need to access expert legal and practical knowledge in this area.

Supporting the nonprofit network with user fees?

The idea of a nongovernment, nonprofit organization to store and map user attributes is being explored by former Reuters global product chief John Taysom. He first authored a June 2012 paper while on Harvard University fellowship. Taysom, who in 1995 helped negotiate Reuters’ first contract that allowed Yahoo to carry wire stories, went on to become a British-based venture investor. Taysom says he wants to help reconcile privacy with ad targeting. “This project is a call to action for those who believe that there is a compromise: Better privacy and better sharing of information,” Taysom wrote in 2012. He believes the organization storing user profiles — the “trusted vault for personal data” — could be self-sustaining through usage fees, presumably paid by the public either overtly or as part of a broader subscription.

The idea of a nongovernment, nonprofit organization to store and map user attributes is being explored by former Reuters global product chief John Taysom.

Within the news industry, efforts at collaboration have been spotty. But a breakthrough may have occurred on March 18, 2014, when The Washington Post announced it would begin offering selected online news products as a free premium for subscribers to selected regional newspapers. The move marked experimentation by a key U.S. publisher with the concept of a shared-user network, as The Post’s digital content became bundled with that of regional partners.

The Post’s experiment raises intriguing questions about intent, value and opportunity. Has it opened the way for consideration of a broader news- and information-industry collaboration? Seeking answers to that question was part of what motivated RJI to undertake more than 85 interviews of news-industry and other experts to consider ideas for sustaining journalism.. We reviewed the history and current state of news-industry collaboration regarding digital users, payments, advertising and content. We sought answers to these and other questions. (Read more about The Post experiment.)

Facebook — the de facto private identity manager

Since the birth of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, managing the security and identity of users has slowly emerged as a critical issue. Into the void of online identity management has stepped Facebook. Using its own cookies, “Like” buttons and its Facebook Connect login system — used by many applications and websites as an alternative to a local account login — Facebook has managed to become, in the view of most publishers and technologists, a de facto identity management system for 1.3 billion Web and mobile users. Facebook understood years ago that users didn’t like multiple logins. And Facebook Connect was a way for the platform company to gather lots more data from different sources on what users were doing. It took publishers a long time to understand what was going on.

That Facebook, without regulation, might ascend to be the de facto identity management system for the entire Internet is not wholly far fetched. Research reported in February 2015 by The Atlantic found that in at least four Asian countries, more survey respondents believe they are on “Facebook” and didn’t realize that also meant they were on the “Internet.” The story was headlined: “Facebook is Bigger than the Internet.”

That Facebook, without regulation, might ascend to be the de facto identity management system for the entire Internet is not wholly far fetched.

There will eventually be a need for a sort of overall information-protection agency to arbitrate the use of user identity information, author Julia Angwin writes in her 2013 book, “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” Angwin, who reported on advertising technology and privacy for The Wall Street Journal before joining the nonprofit ProPublica, believes that adopting a privacy-protecting role for the public could help the news industry regain its footing.

“All of this behavioral ad tracking is what destroyed the news industry,” she said in an RJI interview. “Because it used to be that you sold your audience but now your audience can be found somewhere else more cheaply and nobody wants to buy your audience. So now, news and privacy are actually aligned and bringing those back into alignment should, I think, be achieved by a nonprofit because you have the trust. It is great to start off with a value proposition that is saleable — which is being the good guys.”

Growth of the platforms

The growth of Silicon Valley has yielded a set of ubiquitous network platforms that aim to create silos of users for multiple services and products. While some might include others in the list, five key platform companies are Google/YouTube, Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Apple and Amazon. Yahoo and AOL might also be included.

Collectively, they hold accounts of billions of users. Apple and Amazon in particular hold hundreds of millions of credit-card-enabled accounts. Your Apple ID applies to any application on your Apple device – computer, tablet or phone. Ditto for Amazon. Increasingly, you can use your Facebook login through Facebook Connect to log into third-party services — which means Facebook can begin to watch your activity there, too.

“We are afraid of Google,” wrote Mathias Dopfner, chief executive of Axel Springer, in an open letter to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.

“We are afraid of Google,” wrote Mathias Dopfner, chief executive of Axel Springer, in an open letter to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. It was at the start of a period during which the big German publisher forbade Google to link to its content. “I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly.” In a subsequent speech, he asked: “Will technology companies be the new and only distributor of content?” After two weeks, Axel Springer caved — citing drastically diminished site traffic — and re-opened to Google search. Facebook allegedly wants also to encourage publishers to lodge their content right on Facebook’s servers, to improve the user experience, something that the late New York Times media critic David Carr suggested would make publishers “serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.” (Read an excerpt of Doepfner’s speech.)

“There should be an alternative to Facebook in terms of a keeper of all of the information,” says interviewee and media-venture investor Mike Wheeler of Westerly Partners LLC in Connecticut. “I just don’t know where it is going to be. … The only frictionless consumer application I’ve seen – and it came long before the smartphone, Apple Pay and Near Field Communications (NFC) — is E-ZPass. People know they stick their E-ZPass on their car and whatever tollbooth they go through, it works. No one has come up with the online, on-air version of that.”

Alternatives to Facebook identity

The news industry lacks a common system for single-signon or user authentication across multiple news websites that might be competitive with Facebook Connect.

  • In the last 10 years, Tier 1 U.S. universities running on the Internet 2 network have used open-source Shiboleth and SAML trust technology to achieve single login access across 100 independent campuses and institutions.
  • Working largely apart from the news industry, an information coalition of interest groups including banks, technology companies, the health-care industry and governments, have reached the conclusion that the Internet needs a common protocol for managing user trust and identity that is not controlled by either governments or any single, private, investor-owned enterprise. The news industry could contribute to this effort, called NSTIC.
  • In mid-2014, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a multi-million dollar grant to the Mozilla Foundation — the entity responsible for maintaining the Firefox Web browser – to allow it to extend the work of the In an unprecedented collaboration among The New York Times and The Washington Post, the project is building a way for public users to see and link all their commenting activity across multiple websites — a persistent identity tool. At its core, the New York Times-Washington Post project is about building an identity ecosystem for the Web and for public users to compete with Facebook Connect, says Dan Sinker, project director and a Columbia College of Chicago instructor. He says it will work like Twitter or Facebook to provide a network login across multiple news sites.

“We want to have systems that are actually open but also take user data and user privacy seriously and give the user control of that information,” Sinker said in the RJI interview. “That’s the big problem with Facebook Connect — Facebook does not have a great deal of respect for the consumer and the user has almost no control over what Facebook does with the data — Facebook has all the control.”

Sinker says the project began by researching what users want in a single-login system. He said they found that users want to “engage in ways where you want to have more control over user information so you can have persistent identity across a site or multiple sites without having an interloper.”

Did Google’s Schmidt back idea of shared-identity service?

User identity management is critical to the Web, because “in the online world you need to know who you are dealing with,” Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt told All Things Digital during a 2011 D9 Conference at Rancho Palos Verdes, California. After talking about the success of Google’s competitor — Facebook Connect — Schmidt told ATD’s John Paczkowski:

Facebook can be understood as the first generally available way of disambiguating identity.

“Facebook can be understood as a great site to spend time with your friends and photos and postings and social updates. But another way to understand it is that it’s the first generally available way of disambiguating identity. And identity is incredibly useful because in the online world, you need to know who you’re dealing with. Historically on the Internet, such fundamental services are not owned by a single company. There are multiple sources. I think the industry would benefit by having an alternative to that. From Google’s perspective, if such an alternative existed, we would be able to use that to make our search better, to give better recommendations for YouTube, to do various things involving friends.”

Could the news industry help create such an alternative?

Next week: The privacy challenge.

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