Respect Network offers antidote to Facebook privacy flaws

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright June 24, 2014
Summary:
The launch of a global infrastructure promising to keep our data private in the cloud offers a stark alternative to today's social media incumbents and ad networks

RespectNetwork_Logo_V_RGB-300x300
Call me old-fashioned, but I'm a great believer in personal privacy, even online. So when I heard that the founder of the Respect Network is motivated by a belief that Facebook has got it all wrong on privacy, I was eager to attend its global launch in London on Monday evening.

The Respect Network's aims are certainly ambitious. The goal is to build a global infrastructure for private data that rivals the scale and popularity of the Visa network for financial transactions. Can it work? This is how CEO Drummond Reed put it at Monday's launch:

Our inspiration was Facebook. We reasoned that if a quarter of the people on earth are willing to hand over all their personal data to a social network that made it easy for them to connect and share with others, then how many people would join a network that turned all of that upside down?

The network's core proposition is that — unlike Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Apple, ad networks and many other commercial online operations — it will be respectful of individual privacy. Instead of hoovering up as much data as it can about your personal preferences, behaviors and relationships with no acknowledgement save a perfunctory 'terms and conditions apply', the Respect Network aims to turn the tables and put individuals back in control of their own data and its innate value.

As such, this week's launch is of significant potential import to any enterprise with a stake in the future of digital business (which means pretty much everyone).

We are all equal

Underpinning the Respect Network is a legally enforceable reputation system designed to ensure all participants in the peer-to-peer network keep each member's cloud data private, portable and protected from unauthorized intrusion. Members have complete control over where to store their data (including on their own devices) and exactly what is shared with others and for how long. If they choose to share any of their data or relationships with a business provider, they can expect to share in the value of that transaction.

Three years in the making, the network is now live and seeking its first million members. Each will pay a $25 lifetime membership which is intended to crowdfund growth of the network, including an $8 million grant program to fund development of new applications and services.

Doc_Searls
Doc Searls

In return, members get to choose their own unique lifetime 'cloud name', which begins with an equals sign, such as =your.name. The symbol, explained Cluetrain Manifesto and Intention Economy author Doc Searls at the launch, "embodies the notion that we are all equal." When business memberships open up in November, their cloud names will begin with a + sign, designed to convey a role to add value to the network.

Monetizing relationships

There are already more than 70 partners contributing infrastructure, services and applications to the network. They are attracted by the promise of a business model that takes the global credit card networks as its template, enabling network transactions on which it charges an interchange fee. As Reed explained:

Respect Network TFAQ-Figure-4-300x273

Unless you've got a sustainable business model it's not going to work. It can't be advertising or data broking because the whole network has to be private ...

It's not [financial] transactions that were monetizing, it's relationships.

Recruiting those first million members is a crucial step in building the necessary scale to be of interest to potential business service providers. As with any ecosystem, continued growth will depend on that initial member base being sufficient to attract developers of new services and applications that are appealing enough to attract more new members. In effect, the Respect Network needs its own 'killer app'. Is that within reach?

Privacy and convenience

Some of the conveniences available simply from becoming a member look appealing already to social media refuseniks like me (I don't have a personal Facebook or Google+ account and I limit my interactions with LinkedIn because of privacy concerns). Alongside the launch of business memberships on November 3rd will come the Respect Connect button, an alternative to social media login buttons that will allow members to sign up for a website or service knowing that it adheres to the network's Respect Trust Framework. Or as Reed explained: "You never have to worry about a privacy policy again."

Some of the early network apps being demonstrated illustrated other conveniences. SocialSafe creates an aggregated library of all of your social media data, giving you one place to track and search all your your history of social media activity.

Paogo is a data storage provider that, says CEO Graham Sadd, relieves businesses of the cost and risk of protecting and holding individual data. He described the service as "an anti-social network" because it is used when individuals want to share data privately rather than publicly.

But how to persuade the billions who, unlike me, pretty much never think about online privacy and even if they do are easily persuaded to give it up in exchange for convenient, free services? It is the potential to realize the value of personal data for the individual that holds the most intriguing possibilities here. The Respect Network's business model is predicated on sharing its interchange fee three ways — one third to the network, one third to the cloud service provider and one third to the individual member whose data it is.

Trusted relationships

Drummond-Reed
Drummond Reed

As Reed told one of the network's founding partners in a blog interview last month, this is something new:

[P]eople are not going to sell their personal data to companies — that's got the value equation entirely wrong. The real value is to use the data in the context of growing a deeper and more trusted relationship with a company. So I believe the personal information economy will turn out to be the trusted relationship economy ...

For consumers, the Respect Network offers all the benefits of fully open standard, interoperable, portable personal clouds, ie, a place where people can store and share any of their personal data (files, photos, videos, contacts, financial records, medical records, etc.) with full privacy, ownership and control. But unlike today's personal cloud services (eg, Apple iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive), on the Respect Network your personal cloud is:

  • Fully portable between personal cloud providers (just like you can move your money to any bank),
  • Fully networked, so you can safely and securely share any file, photo, or item of digital data with any other person or business on the network, and
  • An open platform for a new apps that can provide powerful new value propositions based on trusted private data sharing.

For businesses, the Respect Network represents a new channel for building trusted private relationships with customers — a way to communicate and share data with strong privacy, security, and customer control. Such a channel has never existed before — it's as new as Internet email was 20 years ago or Facebook was 10 years ago. It fundamentally enables the 'control shift' by giving individuals control over their own data.

Verdict

  1. Overall I'm intrigued by this launch. It seems to have significant potential, even though there are almighty hurdles of adoption and trust to overcome.
  2. I do feel there's a lot of potential for confusion in the Respect Network's use of the term 'private cloud' to describe what it offers, given that this is clearly a shared, public service and is not what is generally understood by that term. Changing just two letters to call it a 'privacy cloud' would seem much clearer.
  3. I may be in a minority, but I'm a user who restricts participation in the likes of Facebook, Google and LinkedIn precisely because I don't trust what they're doing with my data. That hurts them because their dataset is poorer as a result. Respecting user privacy may make it harder to collect a rich dataset but in the long run collecting data in the context of a trusted relationship is going to produce a more accurate result.
  4. Back before the days of social media, there was a moment in 2002 when Microsoft suddenly resolved to turn over a new leaf when Bill Gates stepped out on stage to launch 'Trustworthy Computing'. Microsoft had earned itself a reputation as not caring about its platform's exposure to malware and hacking, and needed to turn that image around. Today, Facebook has a similar image problem on user privacy. Can we look forward to the day when Mark Zuckerberg steps out on stage to declare a newfound commitment to 'Respectful Networking'? I do hope so.

Footnote: Respect Network will hold four more launch events during July in San Francisco, Sydney, Tel Aviv and Berlin. Why start in London instead of Silicon Valley? Coming on the same day that Salesforce.com opened its skyscraper European headquarters in the city, Reed's answer will please London's tech cheerleaders:

This is where the energy is strongest — and awareness of privacy is higher here in Europe. So we decided it made sense to launch first here.

Disclosure: Salesforce.com is a diginomica premier partner.

Image credits: all courtesy of Respect Network.