So tell us a little about yourself. What is your core expertise?
My core expertise is as a technology lawyer, going back 30 plus years. Coming out of law school I spent over five years working with pre-web companies like CompuServe and Prodigy, helping them think through issues around privacy, cyber security, and content moderation, all of which were a big deal back then in the late 80s, early 90s. Then I spent 12 years with MCI Communications, eventually heading up their DC office; then 11 plus years at Google, where my primary issue initially was network neutrality. From DC I moved to California in 2014 to work at the Google headquarters campus, departing in May 2018. I have been providing legal and strategic counsel to small tech startups. So I suppose my core competency really is around the intersection of technology, law, policy, and strategy where tech companies, particularly web-based companies need advice.
What in your opinion is the main problem with the current data economy, it could be more than one problem?
Something that I've dubbed in my writings, the SEAMs cycle. It stands for: Surveillance, Extraction, Analysis and Manipulation. And that refers, of course, to our personal data. I consider it a positive feedback loop cycle that the web of the last 20 years has largely enabled, and the platform companies have taken advantage of. In a general sense, the problem is the surveillance and extractive nature of the web, and the web platform business models. And increasingly, how they use that power to play with our behaviours as human beings, as consumers, as citizens.
What motivates you to help solve these problems? Was there a particular trigger, a moment that sparked your awareness?
It's been a gradual, creative process. Certainly being at Google, sitting in senior level meetings, listening to the conversations around business models was part of the process. One of the phrases I remember hearing constantly, “the user is number one for us”, which for many years I thought, “that’s great!” That's a really unique and valuable perspective. Then I came to realise over time, there was a subtext that was never mentioned but was always right there in the room, which was, “and we know what's best for the user.” In addition to that, the notion of the lawyers in the company taking great pains to ensure that the company was treating people as users. The notion was once they became a customer, that brought with it certain obligations, certain duties on the side of the company, certain rights on the side of the individual. “The user” was the catch phrase, to really bring minimal baggage in terms of anything that the company actually had to do or was willing to do on behalf of the individual. So those sort of realisations over time brought me to the point where I wanted to become involved in creating alternative marketplaces, alternative social structures, processes where people had more control over access to their data, and were front and center considerations, rather than target of the SEAMs cycles that I mentioned previously.
In a way you can say that you had a ringside seat into the process, as opposed to somebody working on the outside trying to sort out the same issues.
Yes. I listened to the conversations, I saw the documents. I wasn't someone who saw myself as a whistle blower, but I did witness things that over time I was not happy about. My perspective coming out of it was, while it's fine to try to hold platform companies accountable for the things they do, either the mistakes or the purposeful harms they create in society, frankly I’m much more interested in creating the alternative. What's the thing we want to do or have in the world that's different from all this? And whatever concrete steps I can help take to make that happen. It feels to me much more like a mission.
Some of my friends have said jokingly, you’re doing penance for the sins of being inside a company like Google for 11 plus years. You could describe that as a form of motivation, I suppose. But the point is really understanding those harms - some inadvertent, some more deliberate - and then trying to figure out how to rectify them. Not just with the companies involved, but creating their alternatives — with business models and technologies that capture the better elements of us. You generate trust, generate accountability, based on the actual dynamics of that particular ecosystem.
Interesting! What is the best way to motivate everyday people to join the movement for a fair data economy?
That’s a tough question. I'll give it a shot, because I think that folks who want to create a better data economy tend to focus on the harms. We discuss all the terrible things a platform company is doing. How did your personal data end up on some Russian server farm, or something along those lines. I think certain people are motivated by that.
But I believe in the last two decades, the web platform companies have done an excellent job of making us believe that this kind of fight is futile, that our data is already out there. All the harms have been done — my social security number, my credit card numbers, are scattered all over the world. I can't do anything about it. It's sort of a reinforced hopelessness. So in some ways that trying to say, “We want to try to protect you better,” sounds like an uphill battle. And there are people who respond to that. Absolutely. But I think the bulk of the folks that I talk with on a daily basis, ordinary people having nothing to do technology, that's become the knee-jerk reaction. So I believe the thing that we need to do - and I think polypoly is really in the middle of this - is creating new value, creating real benefits.
Creating something, particularly kinds of service offerings, that are not in the online world today but that solve problems for people, that are seamless, simple to use. Or taking a lot of the same psychological tricks that some platform companies use to keep people engaged, but applying them in a way that you're creating genuine excitement, and an eagerness to become part of that new community, because it's doing good things for you. For example, promoting your personal data in different and better ways, so that you gain many types of value, including perhaps economic value. Maybe the goal is creating a trustworthy social community.
But I think the best approach to upend the current web paradigm is a combination of protecting you from the bad stuff, and unleashing value from some new stuff. And of course the challenge is, Well, how do you define that new stuff? What are the killer apps? I don’t really know at this point. I think for example that a personal data pod can be a very important element, in part because it's a lynchpin to so many other positive things that people can use to promote their data interest. I think that having both sets of conversation points going simultaneously, the protection and the promotion, to me is the best way to try to get people engaged and want to become part of this alternative paradigm.
Oh, here's an easy one. How did you become aware of polypoly? And you might want to skip the next bit, but why do you think polypoly is part of the solution? I think you touched briefly on that in the last part of your earlier answer.
I became aware of polypoly through personal connections. But quickly after doing research I realized polypoly is occupying an important niche, one that's both unto itself in creating immediate value, but also creates layers of value for other applications. And one of many things I like about polypoly is that it is multi-layered. You've got the polyPod personal data center or container residing locally with the individual. This feels like a very solid technology upon which you build things like digital identity, like data access rights, all those kinds of things. And moving on from there, the data container can become the basis for creating different platform-based technologies.
But then, you’ve also got the co-op structure, which I think is really interesting, as well as the Foundation, which is trying to help create co-ops beyond the EU. And then you have the enterprise approach as well. So it feels like polypody is taking a true ecosystem-based approach. A term that is over-utilized, I think. But in this case, a systemically assembled ecosystem. It’s looking at the different layers, technology layers, business models, the applications, and trying to find ways to hone in on the value of that and make it available to people. So I find that exciting.
Too many tech companies today I think are just one notes. Like, “Here’s your NFT (Non-fungible token). Isn't that great? Now you're a new person in the 21st century.” Well, no, an NFT is a certain application for a certain use case. We need a much bigger canvas to paint on. And so I'm impressed by what polypoly is seeking to do, because it's trying to build out that canvas.
My final question. Each of our advisors has a particular skill set, given your expertise, how would you advise polypoly to move forward? Everybody has a different take on this, so whatever pops to mind.
Gosh, it's actually a good question. I haven't completely sorted through all the different elements for building an ecosystem around something like what polypoly is doing. But I’m also not sitting in my office every day to examine the online marketplaces and technology deployments and user-side opportunities. In terms of advising polypoly, one quick thought is to go next to India, because one sees all kinds of positive signs that make it a fertile ground for new user-empowering ideas.
Overall, I would say, continue advancing on all fronts in terms of building on your current technologies, helping create these co-ops, tapping into the kinds of applications that people will find useful in their lives to promote their interests. Whatever real-world research could be done there, whatever insights can be gleaned to pull in ordinary people — over time, that helps create that community, gets the network effects going, and then you're up and running.