The Kerfuffle

Some of you may have heard of the Facebook-Cambridge-Analytica Kerfuffle going on over the last few weeks. Some of you may even understand what the whole Kerfuffle is all about. And if you don’t, you’re not alone. One of the reasons you may not quite understand this whole thing is because a lot of companies, such as Facebook, like it that way.

So I’m going to tell you with some brevity (yes, this newsletter is a little longer than usual), what’s going on, why this is important, and how Deciding Vote is different.

First, let me share some of my credentials so you know I’m not just randomly commentating about a hot topic. I’ve been involved in Internet advertising since the turn of the millennium. “But Ben,” you might say, “you’re only 35 – how could you have been involved in Internet advertising when you were, what, 17?” You’d be right to ask such a question.

And if you were to ask such a question, to you I’d answer: “Look, the Internet was the Wild West back then. Any kid with a dial-up modem could start a website, sign contracts with advertising companies (they let me do it when I was 17, so I assumed it was legal), plaster ads on his site, and obsessively watch the pennies roll in!” Seriously, I was rolling in pennies. So what if I wouldn’t meet the $10 minimum payout, I was making tens of pennies a month not lifting a finger…except for typing code…uhhh…so, anyway. Right, my other credential: I’ve been working in the intersection of political data and digital consumer data for awhile too.

Here’s the first thing to keep in mind about all of this: no one in the industry worth their weight in pink himalayan sea salt (the super rare stuff) is surprised.

We knew that Facebook played loose with their user data back then. We could access their API and would think: “Dang, this is a lot of user data!” A lot of companies were like that, and many still are. In fact, when it comes to user data, there’s a lot of areas that are still seen as the Wild West. (But instead of rolling in tens of pennies like I was, they’re rolling in tens of trillions of pennies.)

I’m not going to guess why Facebook had this approach to their user data, but I can make one potential implication with two facts: data permissions management is a major PITA (“Pain in the ass” not the better-when-warmed bread that pairs well with just about everything), which means it costs money to do; and companies can make a lot of money in the short run with lax rules governing user data. In case that’s not clear, the implication is money: they let it happen because money. $$$!

The real problem though is this industry culture around user data. For the industry, It goes something like this: the data we collect about you is ours and we can share it with whomever we like; we’re not transparent with you about this situation because if we were and you understood, then you might not like us…or might call us to testify before Congress (a la Zuckerberg).

It’s not clear why the tide among consumers is turning now, but it is turning. This industry culture of opaque user data is finally getting a much closer and well deserved look.

So that’s the problem.

Here’s how Deciding Vote is different: we’re going to be transparent with you about sharing your data with other parties. The app naturally will collect data about you, such as: your political opinions (do you think coal power should be subsidized by the government), the candidates with whom you match (68% with Senator Bob Casey), even which parts of the app you find useful and what parts you don’t. But making your personally identifiable data available to a campaign will be your choice.

I think that you’ll want political candidates and parties to know what you think about them and what political issues you care about. After all, you probably want your voice to be heard by those who represent you in government. But if you don’t, that’s fine too. You will be the one to decide whether to tap the button to make it available to them.

We’re building a different culture around user data from the very start of this company. And I hope you will join us.