Put another way...
- Is what we are doing even worth 4 million dollars?
- And if so, to whom?
- And how many contributors would that entail?
Yea, good questions. We have no idea. But...
This is how we thought about it before we launched the campaign (and how we finally convinced ourselves that we could)
The other day, I was listening to Krista Tippett on Tim Ferris’s podcast, and she said something that I think helps us understand why people are so upset about this new bill that permits your ISP to sell your private browsing data without your consent:
“Anger is often what pain looks like when it shows itself in public.”
My first reaction was to think about how accurate that statement is. And to put it in some context...
I thought about why people were so angry that Congress passed this bill
...like metal fused at white heat angry, to a rarely so quantifiable degree.
For example, within days of Congress signing that bill, “the internet” was so angry that a guy named Adam raised over $200,000 in about a week, from more than 10,000 contributors to his GoFundMe campaign, and his only campaign promise was to use the money to buy and publish Congress’s browser history.
Reporters were all over the story:
- That Congress passed this bill;
- That several GoFundMe campaigns had cropped up like common pokeweed in a warm Spring;
- That thousands of people were collectively contributing a few hundred thousand dollars to those campaigns;
- And that what those campaigns were promising to do with the money was technically impossible.
It only took about a week and a half for the press to turn on those campaign organizers, and one need not have read more than the headlines to notice the shift.
- The Verge wrote, "You can't buy Congress' web history—stop trying."
- The Guardian wrote, "$190,000 for nothing? Plan to publish politicians' internet histories falters."
- The Washingtonian wrote, "Raising Money to Buy Congress’s Internet Browser History Won’t Work."
- And TechDirt wrote, "No, You Can't Buy Congress's Internet Data, Or Anyone Else's."
There were more. This is only a sampling. The predominant theme morphed from David versus Goliath, which the internet had no problem celebrating, to some shady profiteer taking advantage of people's moment of pain. Reporters hate profiteers.
But the effect of this shift in coverage was to discourage these angry people from contributing further to new, proposed solutions. It made people gun-shy to give. And that made the launch of our campaign even more difficult, because the narrative was no longer "what are we going to do about it?" It was more like "better safe than sorry you contributed to an impossible, proposed solution."
So our first challenge was to validate that our proposed solution was even possible
Many crowdfunding campaigns do not do this. The ethics of crowdfunding seem to be that it is better to launch in a moment of inspiration, try something insane, and then ask for forgiveness later if the idea turns out to be a dud. We knew we could not lean on the same low bar, lest we become reporters' new punching bag and further obfuscate the important, ongoing conversation of how we--the collective internet--were going to solve the problem this bill creates.
Our next challenge was to really understand why people were angry about the bill
Were there varying reasons why people were angry? Were there varying versions of what an ideal solution might look like. If we hoped to make any meaningful impact, we needed to tell the right story: background, plot, subtext, theme, etc. We needed to answer these questions about the people we were proposing to help (including ourselves, our friends, and our family, by the way).
If you want to understand why people are angry, then you have to understand why they are in pain. And for me, the logical progression I encountered over and over again seemed to validate the statement's accuracy (other than the whole "if a tree falls in a forest" case of a person who is angry behind closed doors; also valid, but we will ignore that case for now).
"What I whisper to my wife, at night, while we are lying in bed; the song I softly sing to my kid minutes before, as I rock him to sleep; whether my trip to the bathroom after dinner resulted in number one or number two—all of these private moments happen in my home. Should knowledge of them be for sale?
No, these are my secrets, made so by the fact that, from inside my home, I should have a reasonable expectation of privacy."
When I asked people to tell me why they were angry about the bill and what an ideal solution might look like, there were some patterns:
- People hate missed expectations;
- People hold dear the expectation of privacy in the home;
- There is something offensive about a decision to sell a person's secrets--and especially without first consulting that person;
- The most important thing people wanted to know was how to opt out from their private data being sold.
Our last challenge was to clearly delineate between the economic and political elements of the issue
One part of the “browser history bill” problem is economic.
How might we ensure that no individual’s rights are trampled on despite the new bill? The answer, we think, is basically twofold.
- We need to give people an easy way to opt out their browser history from being for sale;
- And we need to be ready to bankroll any necessary litigation against ISPs who try to turn this inch into a mile, and incidentally, infringe on any number of your still-protected rights.
We designed our campaign to provide for both.
The other part of the problem if political.
How might we channel the internet’s collective anger into meaningful participation in the political process? The answer here is not novel. But our approach, I think, is.
If you oppose this new browser history bill, the most important thing you could do for yourself (and for everyone else who shares your position), is tell your representatives what you think and why. The reason that few people actually do this is twofold:
- Sitting down to write a letter is time-consuming.
- And even if you do that once, the second challenge is that committing to a frequent rhythm of writing and sending new letters is even more time-consuming.
But what if neither of these were time-consuming? What if it were possible to frequently tell your representatives what you think without having to spend so much time to do it? This is why Veeto CTO, Matt Feld, built Speak (a political advocacy app and non-profit).
If you oppose this browser history bill, Speak will automatically generate hundreds of custom opposition letters on your behalf, let you edit them as much or as little as you wish, and then send them to all of your representatives with literally one click. The result is that your representatives hear from you every few days, and like injustice itself, this makes your political position on this issue hard to forget. This form or direct, democratic participation is your best chance at effecting this bill’s eventual repeal.
(Although threatening to buy and publish Congress’s browser history is a fun and emotionally satisfying idea, it is not as effective as good ol’ speaking-up).
The one important lever we think our campaign could pull, if successful?
The other important effect of our solution to the economic side of the problem is that each person who opts out his or her browser history is helping to devalue the market. With fewer people’s browser history to sell, ISPs have less incentive to bulldoze over your or anyone else’s right to privacy. And obviously, one massive way you can help this campaign help you is to tell as many people as you know to also opt out their browser history. Let’s devalue this market!
Ultimately, self-interest > revenge
Too often, otherwise well-intentioned ideas rely on fear and emotion--fear of life after privacy, anger at those elected officials who betrayed our trust. We believe the only antidote to that fear is self-interest.
Thus, we designed a campaign that is not based solely moralistic or partisan grounds, but on pure self-interest. We devised each perk to appeal to the person whose contribution claims it. For your contribution to this cause, you know exactly what you are getting, and that thing has concrete value to you (example: we opt out your private data from being sold).
And hey, if the ripple effect of our fly-in-the-ointment campaign is to help repeal this bill down the road, that is icing on cake--for which we can all take credit. But in the meantime, you have spent your dollars to ensure that you are protected and that your voice is heard.
We recognize the danger that ISPs may try to ignore your opt-out request
It is a shameless posture with which we are quite familiar, having combated it in primarily cell phone carriers from 2013 to 2015.
That is why we are pledging to allocate 50% of the funds raised through this campaign to set-up a dedicated legal fund. This legal fund will be added to the list of Veeto membership benefits, the purpose of which is to bankroll the cost of legal proceedings.
So let’s say that you contribute this campaign, opt out your browser history, and your ISP somehow ignores your request, and in doing so, they infringe on one or more of your rights. You would have cause to sue your ISP, but you might not have the funds. Well if you are a Veeto member, now you do. As you can see, our goal is to leave ISPs no wiggle room once you tell them that your browser history is not for sale.
We also recognize the limits of political participation and of this campaign in particular
History offers an unsettling number of examples when politicians ignored the interests of their constituents to pad their own political pockets. Once we elect them, no one can force our representatives to protect or imperil us. But we can make sure they know the political risk they are taking when they advocate for this bill.
With Speak, we can offer our representatives a constant preview of election day results the next time their seat is put to a vote. That is the thing about putting in writing what you think and why. It leaves an unequivocal record of what a politician’s constituents wanted, and as I have learned during my time at Veeto, there is no room for ignorance between pencil and paper--or keyboard and email, in this case.
The most important political question of 2017
The fight against ISPs selling your browser history is, we believe, the most important political question of 2017. And other than the fact that there are Congressmen and ISP executives who wanted this bill to pass, this question is almost entirely non-partisan: I have not met anyone yet who favors the idea that ISPs should be permitted to sell people’s private browser history.
Who are the enemies of this campaign?
This campaign is not the venue for finger-pointing or political rhetoric. Let me be clear about that. Indeed, it might very well be the case that people who object to the bill do so for differing reasons. That is totally fine. What we share in common is that we oppose this bill for its intended effect on our previously protected privacy.
The people who fear this campaign the most are the people who stand to profit from this new permission the bill gives them; the enemy is the permission, not the people who--let’s be gracious--are simply doing their jobs and angling to maximize their own self-interests.
Who is this campaign for?
We believe that everyone who contributes to this campaign shares a unified sense of discontent: if you feel that you, as an individual citizen, have lost the power to alter society (or if you feel that you never had it), because those with power have long enjoyed exemption from accountability, then this campaign is for you.
Again, we may not all agree on the specific purpose of Congress or an ISP, but what we might all agree on is this: neither endures because it necessarily fulfills its proper purpose, but because it possesses the power.
And the right to sell a private citizen’s private browser history is, we believe, too great a power to permit.
The goal of this campaign is to chip away at (by opting out) and box in (with the legal fund) that power--and if we are able to help take it back altogether, well, that is probably the best possible outcome we could hope for.
Why did Veeto decide to join this fight?
Like you, when this bill passed, we were angry, too--because we felt betrayed by the people who said they would protect us. We applauded the early efforts by Adam and others to do something about it. But as the details of those campaign promises unfolded, it became clear to us that we all needed a better strategy, a winning strategy, something that would actually deliver concrete results to the individuals who supported the cause.
As founders of Veeto, we also knew that we had a particular combination of assets and expertise that (to our knowledge) no one else had. We believed we could make a difference, but it would require putting both Veeto and Speak on pause for a couple of months. It was not an easy decision. But we could not forget that feeling of injustice.
We believe the perks this campaign promises are both necessary and attainable. And right now, we believe this is the most important work we have.
Does the technology that will deliver these perks already exist?
Yes. To fulfill the promised perks, we are using the existing Veeto and Speak apps, retooling them a bit to serve the specific purposes the perks require. So while there is still work to be done to get the apps to that point, the core technology already exists.
Other than this campaign, what other options do I have to fight back against this bill?
This campaign is a platform for movement that does not yet exist. It is not a substitute for your contribution to the fight or a salve for the pain you are feeling.
It is instead a solution, one possible solution, but there might be others still to come. Having been in the “justice as a service” space for many years, we have come to assume the attitude of “the more the merrier,” because ultimately, every founder working in this space would probably rather not have to do the work they are doing, in the following way: “I would rather be poor in a world that did not need Veeto (an actual quote from Matt).”
This campaign is an effort to give each man and woman a way to regain control of the privacy they value, and because of our focus on the individual cost-benefit analysis, we suggest you also consider supporting organizations like the EFF that advocate for changes and protections at the macro level.