The real scandal in the Google purchase history non-scandal

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To give credit where due, nothing nefarious seems to be going on here. Google’s response is basically that this a user-only view on top of emails and they don’t use it any manner. Thatis the real scandal.

Many outlets recently shared stories around how Gmail has a view of your entire purchase history. I checked mine, and there is well…some pretty interesting stuff there, ranging from awkward to hilarious, over the last 10 years.

To give credit where due, nothing nefarious seems to be going on here. Google’s response is basically that this a user-only view on top of emails and they don’t use it any manner. Thatis the real scandal.

Why isn’t out personal data being used in a manner that is useful to us? Use case: I was looking to get some tailored shirts made this summer, and I totally forgot the name of the small online merchant I had used 7 years ago. If I search on Google, I get plenty of ads (how Google makes money) for this. I could search my Gmail history, but I don’t know the exact keywords to search thousands of emails. It turns out it is right there in my purchase history, and I found it effortlessly. Why doesn’t Google use my data and actually satisfy my goals, rather than show ads? Why do I have to jump through so many hoops in 2019?

Now, I can hear the Product Manager at Google: “Yes! Great idea! It is in the roadmap. Backlogged!”. Well, there are 35M developers in the world, and most of them don’t work for Google, and some of them would love to help me out. But they don’t have a way to securely access user data in Google’s silo, maintaining user privacy, and have any business models besides intrusive ads – as I have written before. If we indeed had a user-centric view of our online personal data, it would be trivial to build this out.

If we indeed had a user-centric view of our online personal data, it would be trivial to build this out.

Imagine a different future built on Blockchain technologies, where users want online services to track them more – because it is done securely, privately, and in a manner that works in the user’s interest – not showing you intrusive ads for beer in the middle of a meditation video. Users will be disturbed that you aren’t tracking their purchase history, in the same manner they’d worry their doctor has not fully read their medical history. They’d worry the devices aren’t listening to them, and automatically playing the song you are lightly humming. Can we have privacy, while delivering real user value, fueled by good business models?

This is the future we are building at Friday Night Labs.

(This story originally appeared on my personal blog: ash.money)

Ash Sharma is the founder of Friday Night Labs, a new venture focused on building a P2P economy based on Blockchain technologies. A veteran of internet products, with a strong interest in Data Sovereignty, he blogs about blockchain on ash.money

Age of Privacy – through Blockchain

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By now, you may have heard of the pronouncements of a few Silicon Valley titans (e.g.) on how they do not want government regulation privacy..is…uh, kind of important? One small problem – their incentives are completely misaligned with those of users. Users want to open their kimono in the least – while advertisers (the real customers of these companies) want….The Full Monty. As I have written before, this is ultimately a problem of business models. It is the fundamental dilemma that the Internet has grappled with for the last 25 years, and why annoying ads, fake news, misinformation, mob mentality have become dominant. Also dominant – the dolla dolla billz top internet companies are making, while not really solving these big problems. As a technologist, let me dare to dream.

In this piece, I will introduce the CUTS framework (Control, Utility, Transparency, Security), which should be the user’s contract with Internet services, with respect to personal data. I will also explain how Blockchain technologies can implement such a framework – and ultimately, a better Internet.

Privacy can be delivered, while creating even better business models.

Control: You have a locked door in your home so you can control who gets in. Imagine if some strangers have a houseparty in there without you knowing. Everyone impacted by Cambridge Analytica who had personal details shared with third parties probably has a similar feeling. Made any mistakes as a teenager? Not proud of pictures uploaded to social media after a night out?

Blockchain-based future: We encrypt high-value personal data and store it on blockchain, where it is available forever under your control (private key). Software agents run on your personal devices and ALL access to your data, without exception, is moderated by them, under policies chosen by you. All access is authenticated – you know who is using what data, why, and can cut off access at any time. This can be fully automated with even current AI capabilities. The Right to be forgotten – is as simple as dumping a private key. No forms to fill out – done.

Utility: We don’t want to be luddites and lock all our personal data into hard drives stored in the basement. Personal data is tremendously useful if traded securely. Imagine getting recommendations on a surgeon based on which other patients similar to you have been successful with them – not based on biased or fraudulent reviews, but from verifiable data. 

Blockchain-based future: Most Blockchains have a native token and a concept of networked value exchange. We can develop market-based mechanisms that incentivize sharing of quality data, price that data in, say, Bitcoin, and reward users who created that data. This upends annoying advertising, and instead creates a more efficient economic system of data exchange. This is our focus at Friday Night Labs.

Transparency: Do you know why you get so much physical junk mail, especially offers? It is because your bank likely sells your information to marketers without you knowing. It’s slipped into legalese, backed by powerful lobbies at government agencies. Wouldnt it be nice to know who is using your information? Is your medical history only getting shared by the hospital you are visiting, or also pharma companies who will now target you with spray-and-pray advertising?

Blockchain-based future: Immutable (append-only) ledgers have pristine records. Transactions are out in the open – sunlight principle. Shady companies will get exposed and will have to be much more accountable for data misuse. No legal battles, it will be plain to see which data was used by who, when, and whether it was unauthorized.

Security: The best security engineers in the industry work for your favorite Internet company. Many of them have been hacked. Repeatedly. Non-tech companies such as Equifax are even more vulnerable. Ever stayed at a Marriott? At this point you have to assume your personal information, social security number, passport, your kids names ARE out there and being traded on the dark web for a few bucks. Is this state of the art security?

Blockchain-based future: Bitcoin is a network that has been in production for 10 years, has market cap > $100B today, used by 40M people. Any self-respecting hacker wants to hack this network, and I am sure many have tried. Yet – despite the tremendous incentive – Bitcoin has never been hacked once (exchanges have been, which is very different). There are Exabytes of new internet data being created every few days for 5B+ people, and we have to build data solutions that can be secured at scale.

How you can help build this future

If you are an engineer, pick any open-source Blockchain project and try to build small use cases on top of it. If you are a designer, think of the tough user interface problems around private key management. If you are a product manager, think about new business models around use cases that have stagnated (e.g. local search) in the industry. If you are a marketer, think about how we can tell the world about this new technology and convey benefits (payments, data ownership, better services). If you are just curious about Blockchain – get a wallet, get some crypto, and learn more about this new technology that’s likely to make waves over the next few years.

Ash Sharma is the founder of Friday Night Labs, a new venture focused on building a P2P economy based on Blockchain technologies. A veteran of internet products, with a strong interest in Data Sovereignty, he blogs about blockchain on ash.money

5 Things You Likely Got Wrong About Blockchain

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(This post originally appeared as part of the SF Blockchain Week conference)

Anyone who remembers the 90’s internet boom knows what a massive technology hype cycle looks like. Then, as now, there will be good and bad ideas in tech. Blockchain technologies are bound to improve our lives in the 21st century, but we should clear a few misconceptions towards understanding them better.

1. It is not anti-bank.

“Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks” was the pointed message recorded in the genesis block of Bitcoin – the first blockchain to achieve scale. While partially to provide proof of the date (January 3, 2009), the political message behind this move was taken by many to mean opposition to banks. This is simply not true. Bitcoin, and blockchain tech in general is meant to provide an alternative to central banks, not entirely replacing global banking infrastructure. While the promise of crypto today is primarily to provide sound money, banks will continue to do much more than payments in the global economy. We will still need loans, credit instruments, and other financial services, perhaps done more efficiently on blockchain. Banks will, however, need to significantly evolve and adapt to this new technology and consumer expectations it will bring. Filling out 400 pages of forms and waiting “five to ten business days” for a home loan to approve, will be met with blank stares and/or laughter.

2. Economics Over Tech

Cryptography, peer-to-peer systems, proof-of-work, even blockchain as a data structure, have all individually been around for decades – that’s not what’s new or interesting. The magic is the unique combination of these in creating strong economic incentives and producing decentralized consensus – the core idea behind blockchain tech. In proof-of-work systems, there are several constituents (e.g. users, miners, developers) who have strong economic motivation to work together. Users want sound money and interesting use cases built, miners want block rewards in crypto, and developers want to see their contributions achieve scale. Most of the unknowns and complex area of research in blockchain are, in fact, in economics, from game theory in change governance, to token economics in monetization.

3. Payments are a Small Part of the Potential

Payments remain the killer app for blockchain, but that’s only scratching the surface. Almost anything that can be digitized, and has clear benefits from decentralized consensus, will eventually find itself on blockchain. This is the true potential of a service economy – tokenized digital assets that can be reliably owned and traded seamlessly, with value exchange built right in. In plain terms, imagine being able to buy a movie ticket with the option to skip previews (or only the previews if that’s your thing), or automatically selling it to someone else if your GPS indicates you are running late. Or using IoT sensors in self-driving cars to negotiate right of way with other cars automatically, making micro-payments to skip ahead if you are running late to an interview and want to cut through traffic. Global trade is worth 50 trillion dollars today, representing a majority of World GDP, and blockchain can apply a step function to it.

4. It’s On the Same Level as the Internet

Blockchain technologies are not built on top of the consumer internet we know necessarily – they instead construct a parallel network of value. Blockchains such as Bitcoin make no assumption about communication mechanisms used to broadcast transactions or how various nodes on the network talk to each other. If the Internet is available, great, but imagine making payments for essential goods in a disaster struck area that may not have such infrastructure ready. You could send crypto transactions over ad hoc networks created from smartphones over Bluetooth. Self-driving cars in the example above could send micro-payments directly to each other, without inefficiently going through a carrier cell tower a mile away and then back to the car behind them. Beyond the network topology, we should regard blockchain not as a successor to the internet, but a technology at the same level, except focused on value exchange. We built great content and applications for the consumer internet, and will need to re-imagine things of value worthy of blockchain.

5. Blockchain Is Under-Hyped

I know, I know, hear me out. It is easy to feel inundated by DApps, ICOs, new consensus algorithms, and what not launching on a daily basis. However, in drawing comparison with how the Internet evolved, it is quite possible that we are witnessing only the use cases that seem within reach – the equivalents of email and IRC. Haven’t seen the World Wide Web level scenarios yet, with profound consequences on our social and economic lives.

As legendary venture capital John Doerr remarked in a 1995 interview in context of his investment in Netscape, many people viewed the Internet through the lens of what they knew and understood (e.g. TV networks, print magazines) and missed the leaps of imaginations necessary to evaluate the technology’s true potential (every person on this planet can be an instant publisher, Twitter, Youtube, mobile computing).

Let’s keep an open mind about the potential of blockchain technologies, while not suspending critical thinking. Two plus two will never equal five – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But, at the same time, is a failure of imagination hindering your understanding of what could be possible with blockchain? Let’s find out together. Let’s build it together.

Ash Sharma is the founder of Friday Night Labs, a new venture focused on building a P2P economy based on Blockchain technologies. A veteran of internet products, with a strong interest in Data Sovereignty, he blogs about blockchain on ash.money

A new business model for the internet

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Moving beyond advertising and e-commerce, peer to peer exchange of personal data can create a powerful new business model for the internet

If you were active on the internet in the early 90’s as I was, you knew it was revolutionary to you – but meh to the general populace. Email and browsing was very limited, and few people understood the power of the upcoming revolution of the consumer web. There was a lot of invention, but very limited adoption, and little sense of business models, with most projects being open source, contributed by a few hero programmers.

What really scaled the consumer web up was a pivot of focus towards Adoption (e.g. better UX offered by Netscape) and Business Models (who knew this could work). The latter was especially important, because it created strong incentives for further invention and adoption. Few people realize that the most successful companies of the dot com era relied more on ingenious business models – Google Search’s performance based advertising model for low-tier customers is an example – than on inventing better tech.

That’s lasted a good 25 years. Selling (e-Commerce) and offering to sell (Advertising) is a booming business, likely pulling in close to a half Trillion USD in sales every year globally. However, this comes at significant cost to user experience. Current business models incentivize hoarding of user’s personal data, silo-izing it, surveilling users secretly, selling it to 3rd parties, while imposing onerous privacy policies. And with all of these stockpiles of data, how often have you seen a useful ad that actually led to a purchase? Despite ALL of that data, and despite ALL of that sweet, juicy artificial intelligence, the brightest engineers  – what do you think of a technology that is wrong 99.95% of the time?

Despite ALL of that data, and despite ALL of that sweet, juicy artificial intelligence, the brightest engineers  – what do you think of a technology that is wrong 99.95% of the time?

There is a better way. What if you could personalize your Amazon shopping results with your Facebook data? What if you didn’t have to wait for Youtube to release a better mobile app that actually has some decent filters you find useful? In all of these cases, there is a Producer (e.g. an eCommerce seller or an App developer) a Consumer (you!) and an intermediary (BigTechCo.). What if the Producer and Consumer could be placed closer to each other so they can actually find better solutions? That is the basis of efficient free markets, an area where Blockchain tech shines.

Imagine a world where personal data is freely traded – between consenting parties – as opposed to through surveillance mechanisms of tech intermediaries. The analytics data you produce in watching videos online, is valuable to a developer who would want to create a better app than Youtube. Blockchain technology can create such a marketplace, with a strong concept of data ownership with users, and provide them a return monetarily, or in kind (e.g. with better UX). More importantly, it can allow for trading of solutions to common problems that have been solved – say it is Saturday evening and you are looking for a vegetarian restaurant that is good for kids, and has available seating right now, with good parking options. Yes you can Yelp, Opentable, then maybe call a bunch of restaurants if needed. But guess what? That problem was solved by another person 5 minutes ago, who is already at that restaurant. Could you benefit from her personal data, traded on the Blockchain, facilitated by a service, so you don’t have to re-solve the same problem?

This creates a new business model, akin to the stock market, where owners can exchange assets (personal data) for monetary value (in Bitcoin Cash) or for another asset (a solution to a problem they face). This can be automated via software agents that will bid/ask on behalf of the user in the background, guaranteeing maximal return on their personal data. Creators of the marketplace, and developers (who could, say, develop an app that solves a particular problem) could be provided a cut from the bid/ask spread. No advertising, no surveillance, no hacking, full privacy. Free exchange of data with the user’s consent  on a P2P basis – powered by Blockchain – is a much better business model for the internet, and an unstoppable idea whose time has come.

Free exchange of data with the user’s consent  on a P2P basis – powered by Blockchain – is a much better business model for the internet, and an unstoppable idea whose time has come.

 

 

 

 

Blockchain: More economics, less tech

Blockchain is about creating better economics; the technology is incidental.

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A decentralized append-only ledger that maintains integrity via cryptographic..blah blah blah….

What is an economy? It is a bit like team sports. You define who the players are. Who keeps score. What are the rules to pass the ball around. Who wins, who loses. Throughout history, the rule of this game have evolved to create new equilibria in our economic life. Humans were hunter-gatherers, then farmers, then specialized labor, then factory workers, then office desk warmers. Through a combination of technology, government, interplay between capital and labor, we have created many different kinds of these games economies in several thousand years of civilized living. There is a range, from Hong Kong (free market) to Venezuela (communist), from free-form black markets to regulated weapons.

For the first time in history, we are able to define new economies, with pre-set protocols rules, and efficient exchange of peer to peer value.

Enter Blockchain. For the first time in history, we are able to define new economies, with pre-set protocols rules, and efficient exchange of value. The technology behind all of this has existed for decades – what’s new is its application in efficient economics. No human intermediaries (Blockchain itself is an intermediary, but it’s transparent and predictable via code), a currency (e.g. Bitcoin) to exchange value, and tokens to represent real-world assets. There can be permissioned Blockchains, that will likely mimic merchant guilds of the past. There are open Blockchains – that’s where the most potential lies – akin to self organizing street markets.

This is the real promise: bespoke, efficient economies, that allow trade between peers, with optimized ways of exchange. It is easy to be enamored with the tech; real value is in the economics.

 

The real reason decentralization matters

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Centralization has tremendous advantages. Faster decision making. Stability. Security. Performance. There are good reasons to centralize. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple have amassed trillions of dollars of value – with centralization.

Which is why, when we hear fevered pitches around “Decentralization now!”, we should dig deeper into to the fundamentals and ask ourselves why (and in which scenarios) decentralized services could be better, and why it matters in the first place.

Merely getting rid of intermediaries with business as usual, is not a strong enough reason. And it’s not new anyway – value chains have been optimized for as long as business has been around. Similarly, arguments around “economic rents” also miss the mark. Blockchains charge economic rents as well, don’t they? They may be lower, but, again – that’s not what’s new.

The real value of decentralization is in high-scale exchange of ideas and innovation.

The largest creation of wealth comes from trade (exchange of goods and services), which now contributes to a majority of the World GDP.  Decentralization, via blockchains, have the promise of enabling Peer-to-Peer exchange, regardless of arbitrary borders or custodians. This exchange is currently in the form of currencies – but will soon be in physical goods and services, ideas, software, services on blockchains.

Case in point: Why doesn’t LinkedIn provide a score on flexible work arrangements for employers? It’s not that they can’t – they have locations of 500M users, and could find out what percent are able to, say, work from home on Fridays. Having that data in hand could be important before you accept an offer with your new employer. There are Glassdoor reviews, but they are vulnerable to trust problems, spam, and may be from people very unlike you.

There are indeed people who need this, just ask any professional who has kids. Also, there are developers who would want to build this. However, centralized services like LinkedIn get in the way, because their current business models don’t allow for it. A product manager at LinkedIn probably has this feature in her backlog, but will backlog it because a small percentage of users (in their view) need it and there is “bigger fish to fry”.

Now imagine a world where you could exchange this workplace flexibility data with your peers, securely, anonymous, in a trusted manner, built by developers, incentivized through blockchain economics. How much more innovation could be unleashed, that has been bottled up for years because of centralization? How many more products and services could exist? Could long tail scenarios now be served – since we are all in the long tail at some point in our daily lives? Could I use my social personalization (locked up by Facebook) to get better search results in eCommerce (locked up by Amazon)? Or..gasp….could I imagine buying a Google Chromecast on Amazon without them fighting like kids, and not thinking what’s best for consumers?

This is the real reason decentralization matters. Unleashing untold innovation to the masses by getting rid of the gatekeepers enabled by centralized business models.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Holy Wars of Blockchain

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There are messianic figures. Gloom and doom scenarios are drawn out. There is a mysterious prophet whose identity is concealed. There are two sects who vehemently disagree on the rightful successor of the prophet, and swear oath towards the “original”, “real” creed….

This could be a story about a medieval-era holy war, but is just as applicable to the recent split in the Bitcoin blockchain into BTC (Bitcoin Core) and BCH (Bitcoin Cash), both of whom claim to be the real Bitcoin, with vicious attacks on each other. And then, perhaps akin to the Reformation movement, there is Ethereum, led by their own version of Martin Luther, who recently pinned something to the door of the church.

I have been to too many meetups and discussions where people get extremely riled up into beliefs and sometimes over-the-top fervor. People point to this whitepaper and that, as if referencing verses from their favorite Holy Book. And just like medieval times, the average bystander is dazed and confused, seeking an explanation for the seemingly supernatural transformation we are going through in the world of Blockchain. They are still looking to find the one true messiah to take them to salvation. And then, there are the new Blockchain televangelists, who I will not name here – you know who.

So let’s prescribe each other, the pill..of chill. Too much religion, dogma, and blind belief never leads to good outcomes. We should stay open to criticism. This community needs all of the smartest minds on all sides of these wars, to work together.

Keep an open mind, hold common sense and stay rational. Strong beliefs, but loosely held. That’s what I intend to do.

 

 

Why “Ash.Money”

No, I don’t think money is all important in life. Money is simply a means, it’s not the end. I do believe, however, that as an institution, freedom to choose money that cannot be debased, is the promise of Blockchain in producing more economic liberty in the world – hence my focus on programmatic money as a better medium of exchange.

Ash Money (play on Cash Money) is a moniker some friends gave me, and I kept.

And to conclude, let’s let Biggie do the talkin.