He helped Yahoo give away news for free; now he has an idea for helping with privacy

This is a sidebar to a longer piece found at the Reynolds Journalism Institute website.

John Taysom

John Taysom lead Reuters PLC’s venture arm when it became one of the earliest investors in Yahoo! Inc. He helped Reuters in 1995 negotiate the first contract that allowed Yahoo to carry wire stories free to the public — perhaps the first example of wholesale “giving away” professional news away for free on the web.
Now, the British-based entrepreneur and investor is working on a new challenge – how to make it possible for Internet users to receive personalized service – and relevant advertisements — without having to give up their private information.
Taysom’s idea, called temporarily “Three’s a Crowd,” is just one example of innovation which takes an expansive view of privacy to include control of personal data, and the trust relationships that go with it.
The idea of a non-government, non-profit organization to store and map user attributes is what Taysom is exploring. He first authored a June 2012 paper while on Harvard University fellowship. 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.
Taysom has turned his idea into a patent, originated in 2008 in Britain and granted Aug. 19, 2014 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. (Patent No. 8,812,372). (Here is PRINTABLE version of patent, with diagram). His basic insight: Create a network of databrokers who store and aggregate profiles of people with like interests, grouping the people into segments for matching with relevant ads, but closely guarding the identities of individuals within the groups. His idea envisions that news organizations could be such brokers.
For at least seven years, experts in the news industry have recognized a looming challenge – how to curb growing reliance on unauthorized sharing of personal data in order to support journalism via digital advertising.
“We are hemorrhaging personal information, others are profiting from it, and we are getting substandard product,” veteran new-media executive and consultant Elizabeth Osder said during the 2008 Reynolds Journalism Institute gathering, “Blueprinting the Information Valet Economy.” She added: “Citizens need to eventually take control of that information because that is about their privacy. Maybe there is a role for media companies to help facilitate that community gold . . . I want all of those places where I sign up for to be managed on my desktop in the way that I can control and look at them rather then me going off and finding stuff.”
Other initiatives besides Taysom’s:

      • Drummond Reed, has formed the for-profit Respect Network, which he says is supported by 75 companies, some of them name brands. The network, in the process of launching, uses OASIS XDI data-exchange protocol (a non-proprietary open standard) to allow websites to understand and respect the privacy needs and personal attributes of individuals as they log in across multiple websites. “The reason I don’t think it will be completely and desperately opposed by Google and Facebook is it will be difficult for them to take that position,” says Reed, “because it will really expose the deep underbelly of concern. We are bringing the Respect Network to market because of that issue, because of how much proprietary control they have over that information.”
    • News organizations should take the lead in supporting consumer privacy because it will add to the trust relationship they share with readers and users, says Josh Stearns, the journalism program officer at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The foundation is now engaged in a two-year research project with six small local commercial newsrooms in New Jersey and New York to see what might sustain them. Stearns, formerly with FreePress.net, is a founding board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Stearns sees promise in an idea, like Taysom’s, to forming a non-profit co-operative or association that establish common protocols for privacy, identity and payment management. “I think there is a huge opportunity now with non-profit community journalism sites and local journalism sites who are open to sharing technology and need economies of scale,” Stearns said in an RJI interview. “It could really be a great fit for this. Having it be a nonprofit or being endorsed or affiliated with civil watchdog groups would be good.”

A non-profit exchange to help manage trust is an idea which also appeals to Kevin Davis, executive director of the non-profit Investigative News Network, in Encino, Calif. INN is a trade association for more than 100 U.S. online investigative and local news enterprises, most of them nonprofit. “This seems strategically aligned with us,” he said in a RJI interview. “The amount of distrust in the media right now, is tremendous. So people — particularly people under the age of 35 — only trust what their peers tell them as being valid. If I am a trusted friend of yours and I share an article from The New York Times — they are using social signals as a filter or a trump card in figuring out what they should or shouldn’t trust.”
“There is an opportunity,” adds interviewee David Nicol, a professor and director of the Information Trust Institute at the University of Illinois in Urbana. “There are some problems left in the areas of privacy. “Folks have gotten rather sensitized to privacy and so one can imagine that for this kind of effort [a shared-user network] to succeed you are going to have to have a story with respect to privacy.”
Finding a balance between the desire of publishers to have and use customer personal data, and giving customers – users – control over that data is an unsolved challenge so far, says Sascha Meinrath, a technology privacy activist and researcher for the New America Foundation, in Washington, D.C. “Yes, we need some online identity and mechanism for having some cross-platform, cross-media identification,” he says. “But under the current regime that would be an epic disaster because it would be so privacy invasive.” Meinrath continues:
“Without it being tied to meaningful privacy safeguards, people would be able to link together stuff that I have kept deliberately separate. We keep running up on those rocky shoals because we are trying to do one without the other. We are trying to perfect profile analysis and predictive algorithms without providing consumer protections, which creates this huge incentive to obfuscate your identity, to provide data that is wrong in order to not have your identity and your privacy violated. What we keep coming down to is you cannot have all the upside and all this power of identifying and targeting without some sort of safeguards as well. Without government mandates about what is acceptable behavior, there will always be more money made on the other side of that wall. We are facing a classic tragedy of the commons problem.”

“Profile” control and distributed trust next big things?

In 2011, the idea of a non-profit trust network prompted Eric Newton, a key executive with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to comment in reaction the “Paper to Persona” RJI white paper. He said people should by law have access to their marketing profiles “in the same way they now have access to their credit-score information, and also the ability to modify these.” Having control over one’s “cyber profile” would be a big thing, Newton said.
Knight Foundation vice president John Bracken and engineer turned accidental entrepreneur Craig Newmark, founder and principal owner of Craigslist, has been saying since 2010 that a distributed trust network – to help people manage their reputations and privacy, is the “next big thing on the web.” Newmark told GigaOhm’s Mathew Ingram in a video interview that as a society we needed to “get our act together and make this happen.”
A commissioned survey of 1,000 Americans conducted in March, 2013, by Forrester Research Inc. lends support to the views of Stearns, Nicol and Newton that privacy protection is a business opportunity for the news industry. The survey and report, “Differentiate With privacy-led Marketing Practices: As People Get Wiser, Respectful Collection And Use Of Customer Data Become Crucial,” listed four principal findings:

  • Consumers are increasingly concerned about their personal data and are taking steps to protect it.
  • Individuals are most frustrated by marketers “profiteering” from their personal data
  • Consumers are more loyal to, and willing to share data with, brands they trust
  • Marketers should take a privacy-led approach to customer data collection and use

“Increasingly we’re having to move to a kind of cookie-free world and Google and everybody else is trying to emphasize the signed-in user so we can evolve out of cookies which are becoming unwieldy,” former Google manager David Gehring (who now advises the Digital News Initiative in Europe) said when interviewed by RJI. “So what would be good would be having some system in place for identifying users — in ways that still maintains their privacy and security — but facilitates the sharing of that user profile across media organizations that then lends itself to better monetization.”
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