Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?

In an earlier blog on privacy in the era of Big Data and Social Media, I explored how our “analog identities” are increasingly embedded in our digital profiles. In particular, the boundaries between personal/private information and public/open data are becoming so blurred that we risk losing sight of what individual, legal and commercial rights we have to protect or exploit our own identity. No wonder that there is so much interest in what blockchain solutions, cyber-security tools and distributed ledger technology can do to establish, manage and protect our digital ID – and to re-balance the near-Faustian pact that the illusion of “free” social media has created.

Exchanging Keys in “Ghostbusters” (“I am Vinz Clortho the Keymaster of Gozer”)

It’s over 20 years since “The Net” was released, and more than 30 since the original “Ghostbusters” film came out. Why do I mention these movies? First, they both pre-date the ubiquity of the internet, so it’s interesting to look back on earlier, pre-social media times. Second, they both reference a “Gatekeeper” – the former in relation to some cyber-security software being hijacked by the mysterious Praetorian organisation; the latter in relation to the “Keymaster”, the physical embodiment or host of the key to unleash the wrath of Gozer upon the Earth. Finally, they both provide a glimpse of what a totally connected world might look like – welcome to the Internet of Things!

Cultural references aside, the use of private and public keys, digital wallets and payment gateways to transact with digital currencies underpins the use of Bitcoin and other alt coins. In addition, blockchain solutions and cyber-security technologies are being deployed to streamline and to secure the transfer of data across both peer-to-peer/decentralised networks, and public/private, permissioned/permissionless blockchain and distributed ledger platforms. Sectors such as banking and finance, government services, the health industry, insurance and supply chain management are all developing proofs of concept to remove friction but increase security throughout their operations.

One of the (false) expectations that social media has created is that by giving away our own personal data and by sharing our own content, we will get something in return – namely, a “free” Facebook account or “free” access to Google’s search engine etc. What happens, of course, is that these tech companies sell advertising and other services by leveraging our use of and engagement with their platforms. As mere users we have few if any rights to decide how our data is being used, or what third-party content we will be subjected to. That might seem OK, in return for “free” social media, but none of the huge advertising revenues are directly shared with us as ordinary end consumers.

But just as Google and Facebook are facing demands to pay for news content, some tech companies are now trying to democratise our relationships with social media, mobile content and financial services, by giving end users financial and other benefits in return for sharing their data and/or being willing to give selected advertisers and content owners access to their personal screens.

Before looking at some interesting examples of these new businesses, here’s an anecdote based on my recent experience:

I had to contact Facebook to ask them to take down my late father’s account. Despite sending Facebook a scanned copy of the order of service from my father’s funeral, and references to two newspaper articles, Facebook insisted on seeing a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Facebook assumes that only close relatives or authorised representatives would have access to the certificate, but in theory anyone can order a copy of a death certificate from the UK’s General Register Office. Further, the copy of the certificate clearly states that “WARNING: A CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY”. Yet, it appears that Facebook was asking to see the certificate as a way of establishing my own identity.

(Side note: A few years ago, I was doing some work for the publishers of Who’s Who Australia, which is a leading source of biographical data on people prominent in public life – politics, business, the arts, academia, etc. In talking to prospective clients, especially those who have to maintain their own directories of members and alumni, it was clear that “deceased persons” data can be very valuable to keep their records up to date. It can also be helpful in preventing fraud and other deception. Perhaps Facebook needs to think about its role as a “document of record”?)

So, what are some of the new tech businesses that are helping consumers to take control of their own personal data, and to derive some direct benefit from sharing their personal profile and/or their screen time:

  1. Unlockd: this Australian software company enables customers to earn rewards by allowing advertisers and content owners “access” to their mobile device (such as streaming videos from MTV).
  2. SPHRE: this international blockchain company is building digital platforms (such as Air) that will empower consumers to create and manage their own digital ID, then be rewarded for using this ID for online and mobile transactions.
  3. Secco: this UK-based challenger bank is part of a trend for reputation-based solutions (e.g., personal credit scores based on your social media standing), that uses Aura tokens as a form of peer-to-peer or barter currency, within a “social-economic community”.

Linked to these initiatives are increased concerns about identity theft, cyber-security and safety, online trust, digital certification and verification, and user confidence. Anything that places more power and control in the hands of end users as to how, when and by whom their personal data can be used has to be welcome.

Declaration of interest: through my work at Brave New Coin, a FinTech startup active in blockchain and digital assets, I am part of the team working with SPHRE and the Air project. However, all comments here are my own.

Next week: Investor pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

Update on the New #Conglomerates

My blog on the New Conglomerates has proven to be one of the most popular I have written. I’d been contemplating an update for a while, even before I heard this week’s announcement that Verizon is buying the bulk of Yahoo!. Talk about being prescient…. So, just over two years later, it feels very timely to return to the topic.

Image sourced from dc.wikia.com

Image sourced from dc.wikia.com

Of the so-called FANG tech stocks, when I was writing back in May 2014, Facebook had recently acquired WhatsApp and Oculus VR. However, apart from merging Beats Music into its own music service, Apple has not made any big name deals, but has made a number of strategic tech acquisitions. Meanwhile, Amazon has attempted to consolidate its investment in delivery company, Colis Privé, but got knocked back by the French competition regulators. Netflix finally launched in Australia in March 2015, and within 9 months had 2.7 million customers, a growth rate of 30% per month. Finally, Google has since renamed itself Alphabet, and purchased AI business Deep Mind.

Over the same period, Microsoft appears to have reinvigorated its strategy: back in May 2014, Microsoft had just completed its acquisition of Nokia. Since then, Microsoft has announced it is buying LinkedIn (following the latter’s purchase of Lynda.com in 2015), but has also shut down Yammer, which it had only bought in 2012. The acquisition of LinkedIn has been framed as a way to embed corporate, business and professional customers for its desktop and cloud-based productivity tools (and maybe give a boost to its hybrid tablet/laptop PCs). On the other hand, Microsoft has a terrible track record with content-based products and services, as evidenced by the Encarta fiasco, and the fact that Bing is an also-ran search engine. I think the jury is still out on what this transaction will really mean for LinkedIn’s paying customers.

So, what are the big tech themes, and where are the New Conglomerates competing with each other?

First, despite being the “next big thing”, VR/AR is still some way off being fully mainstream (although Pokémon GO may change that….). Apple and Google will continue to go head-to-head in this space.

Second, content streaming is not yet the new “rivers of gold” for publishing (and the sale of Yahoo! might confirm that there’s still gold in those advertising hills….). But music streaming (Apple, Spotify, Amazon and Google – plus niche services such as Bandcamp and Mixcloud) is gaining traction, and Amazon is building more content for SVOD (to compete with Netflix, Apple and Google). But quality public broadcasters such as BBC, ABC and NPR are making great strides into audio streaming (via native apps and platforms like TuneIn) and podcasting. One issue that remains is the fact that digital downloads and streaming still suffer from geo-blocking, and erratic pricing models.

Third, Amazon continues to build out its on-line retail empire, even launching private label groceries. Amazon will also put more of a squeeze on eBay, which does not offer fulfillment, distribution or logistics and is a less attractive platform for local used-goods sellers compared to say, Gumtree.

Fourth, Amazon is making a play for the Internet of Things (which, for this discussion, includes drones), but both Apple and Google, via their hardware devices, OS capabilities and cloud services, will doubtless give Amazon a run for its money. Also, watch for how Blockchain will impact this sector.

Finally, payments, AI, robotics, analytics and location-based services all continue to bubble along – driven by, for example, crypto-currencies, medtech, fintech, big data and sentiment-based predictive tools.

Next week: Another #pitch night in Melbourne…

 

 

 

 

Taxing the Intangibles – coming soon to a screen near you!

No sooner had Netflix launched in Australia than Treasurer Joe Hockey announced the imposition of GST on “intangibles” purchased from overseas vendors. The Treasurer has also indicated that the GST-free threshold for on-line imports will be lowered from the current $1,000. Dubbed the “Netflix tax”, Australian consumers should now expect to pay more for their digital content such as video, music, software and e-books, even though on most evidence, we are already charged more for comparable products than in other markets.

Geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers…

Backdrop

We all know why the Treasurer has proposed this scheme: the Government has to make up for declining tax receipts, and appease the States who are squabbling over the allocation of GST revenue between them. Plus the current Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance by companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft (who divert locally sourced income to offshore entities to reduce their income tax liability in Australia) is driving the public and political agenda on global tax minimization schemes (which are nothing new, of course).*

But it’s not as simple as slapping an extra 10% on the price of a movie download, even though GST is a relatively easy and cost-effective way of generating tax revenue. For one thing, there is little consistency in how vendors currently sell their digital products in Australia. Secondly, geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers, leading to the sort of content piracy infringement that will now make local ISP’s and their subscribers more vulnerable to legal action, following the recent “Dallas Buyers Club” court ruling. Thirdly, local retailers who have long campaigned to have the GST-free threshold removed or lowered fail to acknowledge why customers prefer to shop from overseas vendors.

Goods & Services Tax

GST (similar to VAT in Europe) is a simple consumption tax. It applies to the sale or supply of most items (except things like fresh food and health services) at a flat rate of 10%.

Even better, the Government and the tax authorities rely on businesses to collect, report and remit GST receipts, making it relatively cheap to administer (when compared to other taxes) via the Business Activity Statement process managed by the Australian Taxation Office.

The GST is a key topic of the current review of the tax system – likely to result in a higher rate (or different rates), and/or broader application to items not currently included.

Vendor Inconsistency

In principle, I don’t have a problem in paying GST on digital items I buy from overseas vendors – but there is so much inconsistency that there is a risk of consumers having to pay two lots of sales tax.

For example, every iTunes receipt issued by Apple Pty Ltd (an Australian entity) states that the sale amount already includes GST – in which case, Apple should be remitting that component to the ATO, and no need for a price increase.

However, Adobe chooses to invoice me from Ireland, and as such no GST (or VAT) is applied, but I am charged forex fees, even though the invoice amount is expressed in Australian dollars, because my bank treats this as a foreign transaction.

Meanwhile, although some UK vendors I buy from direct do not apply GST/VAT on my orders (Amazon UK included), others do – meaning I risk having to pay both the GST and VAT. As a further sign of vendor inconsistency, Amazon’s US store does not appear to deduct US sales tax for foreign customers; neither the UK or US Amazon stores sell music downloads to Australian customers; and Amazon’s Australian store only sells e-books and apps.

Geo-blocking

The decision in the “Dallas Buyers Club” IP infringement case brought by Voltage Films, has again drawn attention to Australia’s poor reputation for copyright piracy as evidenced by the number and frequency of illegal downloads.

Some journalists have commented that distributors often delay the local release of imported content (for various reasons) although this was not seen as a justification for piracy (and quite rightly so).

While foreign films are frequently released later in Australia, it’s interesting that TV (even free to air channels) has woken up to this, and now broadcasters rush to fast-track imported shows to keep audiences happy.

It’s also interesting to note that the Productivity Commission, as part of its competition policy review of IP laws, has suggested that if local rights holders and distributors choose not to exercise their commercial rights, under a “use it or lose it” model, third-party distributors would be able to step in. This also has the potential to undermine the archaic industry practice of geo-blocking, whereby sales of music, film and TV content (physical and digital) are restricted by territory.

Local retailers and distributors need to lift their game

Does the absence of GST really encourage consumers to buy from offshore retailers? I would beg to differ.

Local rights holders often do not bother to make content and products available in Australia. And local retailers won’t usually stock products if they are not readily available from wholesalers or distributors.

I recently had to contact an overseas artist, the UK record label and its Australian distributor several times to make their music available online in Australia. The local distributor had not bothered to release the content, even though they had the rights, but geo-blocking prevented me from accessing it legally from overseas suppliers.

It’s the combination of inadequate local distribution, non-availability, higher prices and lacklustre service that encourages Australian consumers to buy from overseas, even if that means circumventing geo-blocking. In many cases, I doubt the addition of GST will be a serious deterrent to online overseas shopping.

In my own case, I once found that the local branches of a global retail brand chose not to stock the item I wanted, and their US parent geo-blocked me from ordering on-line. So I resorted to buying in the “grey” or parallel imports market, from an offshore vendor willing to ship direct to Australia. It was still cheaper, even after shipping costs, and even if GST had been added (I probably paid US sales tax on the transaction anyway), than if I had bought from a local retailer (assuming they bothered to stock the item).

Hopefully, this debate on GST and the Productivity Commission’s review of competition policy will finally give local retailers an incentive to do a better job of serving their customers.

* The debate on corporate tax minimization might want to look at where “value” is created, and where the revenue is booked, that gives rise to a tax on the resulting profits. For me, the retail value of intangibles such as digital products is created when someone pays to download them, at the point of sale – i.e., in the consumer’s geographic location.  Although the vendor may argue that the IP is owned by an offshore entity to whom they must pay royalties, the individual download itself does not have any standalone value, until it is accessed by the consumer. Even a high rate of royalty repatriation could not be more than the retail price, so logic might suggest that local profits should be taxed accordingly.

Next week: What can we learn from the music industry?

C-Suite in a quandry: To Blog or Not To Blog…

Should CEO’s be on social media? That is the question many boards, PR advisers, marketeers and C-Suite occupants are faced with these days. Partly driven by existentialist angst (“I Tweet therefore I am”), partly a desperate act of “me too”, many CEOs are in a dilemma about how to engage with the new media.

While it might sound like a good idea to have a CEO blog, in the wrong hands or used inappropriately, it can come across as inauthentic, too corporate, or just crass.

The use of CEOs as “personal brands” is nothing new – think of Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs, Jack Welch etc. And while social media has the potential to extend the CEO’s reach to customers, shareholders and employees, it also abhors a vacuum. If companies do not take control of their public persona, their customers and employees (supporters and detractors alike) will fill the void for them.

I am seeing this debate play out in different ways:

First, there is a difference between a personal brand and a business brand, so it is important to establish boundaries while recognising how the CEO’s personal standing can be used effectively to complement the corporate presence.

Second, having the CEO recognised as an expert can enhance personal influence but may not directly benefit the company if it is not relevant to the business – does Warren Buffet’s prowess on the ukulele boost instrument sales, or help the share price of Berkshire-Hathaway?

Third, if CEOs do choose to outsource their blog content, make sure it is genuine and aligns not only with the CEO’s personal values but also with those of the company, customers, shareholders and employees.

Finally, CEOs or Boards struggling with this topic, or those worried about whether to take the plunge into social media would be advised to consult Dionne Kasian Lew‘s new book, “The Social Executive”, which is sure to become an essential guide on the subject.