The Web has become increasingly problematic for ordinary people, with many of its drawbacks stemming from an enormous and profitable ecosystem of multisided platforms, advertisers and data brokers – all operating under the ‘SEAMs’ (surveil, extract, analyze and manipulate) paradigm. These entities typically treat each of us as mere ‘users’, and demonstrate little accountability or loyalty towards us. The end result is an online experience lacking in trustworthy agency and support. Nonetheless, Web end users, for the most part, continue to accede to these extractive SEAM cycles in exchange for a plethora of convenient, no-cost services.
This paper posits that a new type of entity – the digital fiduciary – harbours the potential to anchor a disruptive Web ecosystem, being premised on elevating human trust, agency, and support. The paper provides a brief overview of the challenges, the rationale, and the steps being taken by one such new entity, Deeper Edge LLC, to test and validate core elements of being a digital fiduciary.
In particular, an initial Proof of Concept (PoC) process is designed to surface key going-in assumptions about the new company’s core value propositions – including market demand and supply, service offerings, business models and governance. These assumptions are then to be validated via empirical and market research. While much remains to be accomplished in the coming months, two digital fiduciary models hold out particular promise: trustworthy, agential, and supportive business-to-consumer (B2C) offerings, and wholesale trust layers embedded in business-to-business (B2B) offerings.
I. Problems Worth Solving for Web Users
When they work well, markets are true conversations between willing buyers and sellers. In too many ways, however, the Web is not such a place – even as it remains the only known way to enjoy useful and entertaining aspects of online life.
There are at least three core problems with the dominant Web ecosystem: exploitative corporate practices, paucity of user-controlled applications, and lack of meaningful online support. A common thread to all three drawbacks is the treatment of human beings as mere passive users, rather than agential customers or patrons. Whether and how this treatment mirrors, or shapes, our online consumer psychology is an important design element to be explored.
First, over the past two decades, Web ecosystems of platforms, advertisers, and data brokers have been employing what could be called the SEAMs paradigm—Surveil users, Extract data, Analyze for insights, and Manipulate for impact. The SEAMs paradigm is embedded as reinforcing feedback cycles in computational systems that mediate, and seek to control, aspects of human experience. Fronting those cycles are unbalanced multisided platforms (corporation as controllers, patrons as users), Institutional AIs (consequential and inscrutable decision engines), and asymmetrical interfaces (one-way device screens, environmental scenes, and bureaucratic unseens). The inevitable result is a steady decline in consumer trust in the Web.
Second, cutting-edge tech innovations remain in the hands of a relative few, and are not shared more widely. An example is the ‘Institutional AI’ computational systems that Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft provide to users, in the guise of representing their personal interests. Without considerable technical expertise, the average person cannot hope to replicate the capabilities of these advanced computational systems. As these technologies dominate the market – with incumbent algorithms mysteriously steering attention and content into “echo chambers” – seemingly little room remains for granting users more agency over their online experiences.
Third, many end users of the Web accurately believe that they have wholly inadequate support online from the companies with which they do business. Whether it is data breaches, identity theft, confusing or inadequate privacy policies, or simply managing one’s website passwords and cryptocurrency keys, end users perceive that they have little to no recourse to address their negative Web experiences. Even many reputable online companies fail voluntarily to take responsibility for their practices, or demonstrate accountability to provide users with actual solutions.
On paper at least, this profound erosion of human trust, personal agency, and meaningful support strongly indicates, at the very least, a persistent market failure. In turn, this failing suggests significant market opportunity. Entities can position themselves to challenge, and eventually replace, the underlying SEAMs paradigm itself, with a far more human-centric one. Taking on the role of a for-profit digital fiduciary, bound to its patrons by duties of care and loyalty, can be one core element.
While this paper addresses the potential for market-based opportunities to take on the SEAMs paradigm, another worthy approach is to promulgate and enforce basic human rights, grounded in ensuring human autonomy and agency in the digital age. These human rights and marketplace approaches need not conflict; they instead represent parallel paths to optimizing the heightened role of the connected human.
II. Why a Digital Fiduciary? Missing Human Links
Since early 2019, the GLIA Foundation (www.glia.net) has been formulating various concepts for the GLIAnet project, to address the Web’s infirmities with a new kind of paradigm that puts the human being first. The proposed GLIAnet ecosystem combines three basic elements: (1) human governance based on common law duties of fiduciaries, (2) technologies utilizing client-side (“edgetech”) capabilities, and (3) commercial offerings centred on protecting, enhancing, and promoting actual human beings (the ‘PEP’ engagement model). Or, digital fiduciaries, employing edgetech capabilities, as part of PEP-informed service offerings.
The digital fiduciary is the heart of the GLIAnet ecosystem, and the common law of fiduciaries provides the guiding principles for the digital fiduciary. Fiduciary law is considered the doctrine of uneven human relationships, and exists primarily to counteract situations of entrusted power in society. Such entrustment comes about through a person’s dependency and vulnerability on certain entities, stemming from a relative disparity in knowledge or expertise, and the sharing of confidences. In exchange, the fiduciary is bound to act towards the entrusted party under formalized duties of care, loyalty, and confidentiality. Over centuries, fiduciary law principles have been applied to certain professions involved in the most sensitive human situations – health (doctors), legal jeopardy (lawyers), and money (financial advisers) – as a way of policing entrusted power relationships.
The digital fiduciary would be charged with safeguarding and promoting the data-based interests of its clients on the Web. Potentially any entity could play this role – from an individual, to a for-profit company, to a non-profit organization, even a government agency. According to one conception, the digital fiduciary is a form of a data steward, giving voice and enabling participation to those otherwise left without adequate recourse in the digital world. In some sense the digital fiduciary mirrors the activities of one’s personal physician, in this case caring for the client’s ‘digital health’. As with its analog versions, the digital fiduciary would develop trust with its clients, through giving them more control and support over their online experiences.
As much as society relies on various types of fiduciaries in the analog, offline world, currently there exists scant evidence of their digital, online counterparts. It remains unclear why digital fiduciaries are not a common element of today’s Web. Is it due to a lack of sufficient demand from end users? Inadequate pecuniary or other incentives from potential fiduciaries? Or, is the Web somehow overlooking more ethical market-making opportunities?
III. Why Deeper Edge? Market Validation
Deeper Edge LLC was unveiled in mid-March 2021. The company’s chief mission is to serve the marketplace as a digital fiduciary, providing trustworthy, agential, and supportive technology tools to Web users.
Deeper Edge is a somewhat different kind of Web start-up, however. It does not seek immediate revenue or profit but, rather, market validation of well-founded, though as yet untested, conceptual frameworks. For that reason, the company is deploying in two discrete stages. In Stage One, Deeper Edge is operating as a ‘PoC’ (proof of concept) company, soliciting resources to help demonstrate the overall viability, sustainability, and scalability of specified aspects of the GLIAnet ecosystem. In Stage Two, Deeper Edge will shift to operating as a ‘PtM’ (pivot to market) company, applying its learnings to serve actual customers with market-leading Web offerings.
Deeper Edge exists because, simply put, too few for-profit entities seem to be doing all that is necessary to radically change the Web’s paradigm to a more trustworthy, agential, and supportive one. Only a truly disruptive ethos, releasing ordinary people from exploitative data broker silos, can lead to real and lasting change. Deeper Edge aims to engender just that kind of disruption, in two distinct but inter-related stages: first by learning, then by doing. In brief, Deeper Edge seeks to create a new trust industry for the Web.
Importantly, Deeper Edge does not look to supplant those many entities operating under the SEAMs paradigm, or ask users to do so. Both tasks would only draw companies into fruitless market battles with dominant players. Instead, in keeping with ‘blue ocean’ strategies, Deeper Edge seeks to create new markets, focused not on replacing what exists now but on introducing novel ways for Web users to interact with the current Web where individuals have newfound power to leverage more respectful commercial dialogue and connections.
IV. Proving the Concepts
While the concept of a digital fiduciary is relatively promising, there remains little to show for it in the online world. Additional research is necessary to demonstrate whether and how a digital fiduciary specifically, and data stewardship more generally, can serve as a vehicle for fundamentally reorganizing persistent power imbalances in the digital economy. Such research can entail developing action plans for initiatives to create a new agential Web ecosystem, consisting of real-world investigations of trusted entities. Activities can include exploring potential digital fiduciary roles, developing prototypes, establishing use cases, experimenting with different trust elements, and demonstrating market opportunities for investment.
Ultimately, however, concepts need validation, and a real-world place to live, grow and succeed – or not – based on merit. Placing conceptual frameworks within the daily workings of an actual company, operating in the real world, offers an opportunity to explore what likely will or will not be viable.
- Query Planks
Deeper Edge is exploring a number of fundamental questions to help validate its operation as a digital fiduciary. The intention is to approach these questions in the ‘lean start-up’ mode of constant defining, experimenting, testing, and – if necessary – pivoting. These initial questions can be categorized into six separate buckets, or ‘query planks’, namely: (1) supply and demand, (2) business models, (3) B2C and B2B service offerings, (4) underlying edgetech capabilities, (5) governance mechanisms, and (6) public policy agenda.
The conceptual underpinnings for each of these planks are derived from plausible but untested frameworks found in the GLIAnet ecosystem. The query plank is proposed as one means of validating many of these conceptual underpinnings – including the digital fiduciary itself. The thesis is that embedding these query planks within an operating company, compelled to confront practical challenges such as creating an ethical business model and defining customer-facing services, makes the exercise more realistic. Or, put differently, becoming the change agent may facilitate actual change.
- Barriers to Entry
The product development and technology entry barriers themselves are relatively low. The chief barrier to entry, it appears, is mindset. Most entities currently operating from within the vast SEAMs ecosystem – and even those seeking to challenge it – harbour certain suppositions about the inevitability of market structures and user behaviour. These suppositions include in particular the desirability of maximum data extraction from unaware or unwilling end users, reliance on online advertising based on such extractions, and the apparent unwillingness of Web users to modify their behaviour to embrace change. Without questioning and abandoning these assumptions, few entities will choose to enter new markets for trustworthy, supportive, and agential tech.
Another significant barrier to entry may well be the novelty of actually adopting a fiduciary governance regime. Duties of care and loyalty are new, even radical-seeming, concepts. The many unknowns, including concerns about assuming a stringent set of obligations regarding their users, may well cause companies to shy away from considering the options.
V. Core Value Propositions
If markets are conversations, Deeper Edge is founding a new market space where individuals have the tools to converse, on their own terms, with Web companies. This means meaningful dialogue, rather than a one-sided monologue. With more symmetrical commercial conversations, countless mutually-beneficial market opportunities can be born, for Deeper Edge and many others. Such an alternative ecosystem would be founded on actual trust, agential technologies, and tangible support.
The company’s long-term goal (five-plus years) is to facilitate a marketplace where Deeper Edge leads a group of multiple competing digital fiduciaries, serving a sizeable subset of end user customers. The stretch goal is to anchor a thriving GLIAnet ecosystem of partners, suppliers, civil society, vendors, investors, developers – and ordinary human beings.
The inter-related value propositions for the B2C and B2B business models, as derived from the ‘value proposition design’ school, can be described briefly below.
A. B2C Advocate, Guardian, Mediator, and Empowerer
- The PEP Model: Cycling Engagement Value
In forging B2C relationships, Deeper Edge seeks to act as the consumer’s advocate, guardian, mediator, and empowerer. These different but related roles play out in the proposed PEP engagement model. This framework translates the tiers of duties from the common law of fiduciaries into obligations and services that digital fiduciaries can provide to their clients. These duties play out as:
- Protection (guardian): Combines the general and fiduciary duties of care (do no harm, and act prudently). This tier corresponds to securing the client’s data from external harms.
- Enhancing (mediator): Have no conflicts in duties and clients; this can be seen as a form of consultation and partnership, such as improving the client’s online profile.
- Promoting (advocate): Advance the entrustor’s best interests; this can amount to delegation and ultimate citizen control over her digital self. An example could be arming the citizen with a Personal AI to help represent her interests vis-a-vis corporate or governmental Institutional AIs (such as Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa), occupying her online and physical environments. This role need not be limited to technical interfaces, but could span the many ways that humans interact with other connected entities.
In theory, as individuals engage with digital fiduciaries that are pairing higher degrees of duties with more service offerings, trust levels between the parties consequently should rise. With greater trust come greater opportunities for the digital fiduciary to provide agential services to the client – and so on.
The resulting value proposition is wholly unique among would-be competitors. For B2C consumers in particular, no other marketplace entity currently offers the unique combination of those tangible benefits: the loyal support of a true fiduciary, the vigilant defence of a Web guardian, the mediating function of a data ‘lifestreams’ manager, and the empowering cool technologies that enable true human agency. The fiduciary element in particular appears to be entirely unprecedented in the online space. The feedback cycle between the elements of trust, agency, and support also seems to be a novel market proposition.
A significant portion of the PoC exercise seeks to determine why this seemingly substantial market opportunity remains untapped. In particular, the company will explore whether/how the duty-bound and ecosystem-spanning approach embedded in the value proposition presents a viable marketplace option for consumers and suppliers alike.
- Value Proposition Design
The initial addressable B2C market for Deeper Edge is the individual Web user, based in the United States. Using more traditional ‘psychodemographic’ profiles, the Company aims to target B2C customer segments drawn to four discrete but overlapping value propositions: the loyal advocate, the Web guardian, the data mediator, and the cool tech enabler. Part of the Stage One PoC process entails generating deeper insights about potential customers, based on recognizing and addressing their “pains, gains, and jobs”.
The company will employ various value proposition design-based measures to glean customer insights. For example, contextual exercises could include the data detective (research reports), journalist (interviews), anthropologist (observations), impersonator (becoming the customer), co-creator (direct design), and scientist (experimentation). The potential ‘fit’ between value proposition and customer segments extends from the paper match of problem to solution, to the market match of actual sales evidence, and the financial match of revenues exceeding costs.
The overarching B2C questions to be addressed as part of this PoC exercise are threefold. First, is the proposed value proposition viable as a matter of market supply, attracting sufficient resources and stakeholders willing to participate? Second, is the value proposition viable as a matter of consumer demand – including awareness, acceptance, and adoption – and scalability? Third, does the (presumably evolving) bundle of products and services actually satisfy that consumer demand, sufficient to warrant its introduction in the US market?
B. B2B Customer Enhancements
While the list of potential B2C offerings for customers in the digital marketplace is extensive, an equally promising near-term role for Deeper Edge is in the B2B space. Many of the retail side services described above can be provided to the general public via third parties other than Deeper Edge – whether for-profit companies, non-profit entities, or even government agencies.
Deeper Edge can provide in particular the wholesale operational, governance, and related underpinnings for these retail offerings, via partnerships and other collaborations. Deeper Edge can also offer a way for consumer-facing companies to reduce their regulatory compliance risks, safeguard their brands and reputation, and open up new market opportunities.
From the Deeper Edge perspective, serving primarily as a B2B provider would also bring several advantages. Deeper Edge could focus on its existing expertise in areas such as fiduciary governance and public policy advocacy. Moreover, rather than investing substantially in retail-side sales and marketing capabilities, Deeper Edge can work with entities which already have such in-market operations. Deeper Edge can also take advantage of its wholesale customers’ extensive numbers of clients, obviating the need to generate its own network effects.
VI. Service and Product Offerings
1. B2C Services
For purposes of Stage One, Deeper Edge is developing a comprehensive suite of B2C products and services intended to serve the needs of Web users. Significant elements of these products and services are derived from the PEP engagement model (protect, enhance, and promote) that has been articulated for the GLIAnet ecosystem.
These customer offerings would be further developed and subject to extensive viability and demand testing. In brief: do real people actually find these services useful, and even instrumental, in improving their lives?
According to the PEP engagement model, an initial focus of the PoC activities will be on Phase One (Protect). This phase combines a fiduciary duty of care (do no harm), with a bundle of service and product offerings designed to build defensible virtual walls around the client. Examples of such offerings include Web Guardian, Identity Shield, and Data Obfuscator.
Later development of Phase Two (Enhance) will focus on redefining data as manageable lifestreams, subject to full client access and control. Examples include intentional advertising, news feed curator, WebScreeners, OneWallet, and universal shopping cart.
The final Promote phase will focus on agential tech tools such as WebCasters, home data pods, modular connected devices, and Personal AIs. As mentioned above, these types of edgetech tools are designed from the ground up to represent the human being, rather than the cloud-based platforms and their extractive SEAMs-based ecosystems. This phase, as with the Enhance phase, will operate under a strong fiduciary duty of loyalty to clients.
2. B2B Offerings
Deeper Edge also has the opportunity to offer businesses a number of different services – all founded on its role as a digital fiduciary.
First, Deeper Edge can provide its B2C capabilities on a wholesale, ‘white label’ basis, to other retail companies and entities. Target entities could include news organizations, retailers, ISPs, and membership organizations. Under one set of approaches, Deeper Edge can first educate and create the need for B2C offerings, and then act as a multisided platform to open up new trust markets for B2B clients or partners.
Second, Deeper Edge could craft and implement a trust layer consisting of the core elements of the personal digital fiduciary. Many entities may be interested in outsourcing these capabilities to an outfit such as Deeper Edge which possesses the necessary expertise. Specified third party segments could be targeted, such as health care, finance (including cryptocurrency custodians), retail, and telecom. This “trust as a service” (TaaS) package then could be woven into those companies’ existing B2C offerings.
In each of these cases, the company would benefit from mitigating its risk and liability overhead in involvement in all aspects of the customer’s data lifecycle. For example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance could be satisfied to some degree by utilizing a digital fiduciary employing “hands-off” data localization techniques. Additional “TaaS” layer services provided to other companies could include regulatory risk abeyance, data trusts mediation service, a professional fiduciary certification programme, and IPR licensing.
Third, Deeper Edge could serve as a middleware provider/enabler. This service works with companies and developers to create a ‘middleware’ layer to support a new ecosystem of inter-connected software products. According to a recent Stanford University report, this new layer would be suitable for supporting a host of competitive online offerings, such as political content curation sites. Deeper Edge could build the middleware itself, or offer its platform for independent third parties to develop their own.
Fourth, Deeper Edge can help create a new advertising marketplace that places the individual at the edge in control of her Web experiences. With the individual employing a variety of edge-push and edge-pull services and technologies, the advertising space will shift to more contextual, mutually beneficial arrangements. As individuals willingly share more relevant data about themselves via the digital fiduciary, advertising can become a more welcome component of the typical Web experience. The advertising field itself could even morph over time into alternative interactive channels for willing buyers and sellers.
Fifth, Deeper Edge can help found a new form of data marketplace access and exchange, where individuals and institutions can share, trade, and barter certain types of data. In such a market, personal data can become a form of currency of exchange. Secure data tokenization could be one means of protecting the data and making it more fungible.
Finally, Deeper Edge could explore other potential B2B services, including programmable platforms, AI as Platform Layer, Reality Search, Tiered App Store, Virtual Finder’s Fee, and agential smart city interfaces.
VII. Supply and Demand
Perhaps the most important component of the Deeper Edge PoC is exploration of the efficacy of the proposed value propositions to both sellers (digital fiduciaries) and buyers (their potential clients). In general:
- Supply: Will a suitable number of for-profit companies voluntarily assume the mantle of trustworthy agents operating under common law-type fiduciary obligations?
- Demand: Can and will some subset of consumers appreciate the Web’s systemic infirmities, and be willing accordingly to change their marketplace activities?
A. Initial Supply-Side Explorations
There are legitimate open questions about whether the voluntary assumption of fiduciary duties – on top of the cost of creating and delivering services and products to end users – is attractive enough to lure for-profit companies. Indeed, it is far from obvious that the existence of a fiduciary duty of loyalty is even compatible with modern capitalism. On the other hand, existing fiduciaries-based professions such as physicians and attorneys have grown up relatively successfully within modern capitalist systems.
Traditional American for-profit corporations typically operate under what some have perceived as the “shareholder” form of modern capitalism. Put simply, can the new role of the digital fiduciary successfully fit within this corporate model? It remains unclear whether even newer “stakeholder” versions of corporations, taken seriously, could entail fiduciary-type duties.
Interestingly, enhancing trust with clients can foster its own attractive incentives. The corporate world is beginning to take notice of the financial value to companies of generating “trust-as-a-service” in the deployment of digital services. In Accenture’s recent 2020 Vision report, the intended audience of global corporate leaders reads:
“In the future, people don’t just want more technology in our products and services; we want technology that is more human… Trust and accountability are the new litmus tests for businesses in a world where digital is everywhere.”
Those same questions apply to relying on online advertising and marketing, in part or in whole, to sustain a fiduciary relationship of loyalty to the “edge” client.
There are no companies at present seeking to provide a comprehensive suite of trust-based Web services. Instead, in each instance, the proffered technology application is a one-off that lacks a holistic approach to protecting, enhancing, and/or promoting the user’s interests. Each example also lacks the fiduciary trust element. Key questions include: Why have these and other companies not gained more traction with consumers? Is their value proposition not compelling enough? Do they face scaling challenges?
If the for-profit model is not the right fit for a digital fiduciary, exploring a “public option” could also be a useful exercise. Public libraries, for example, offer a perhaps unique proving ground for such explorations, given their ubiquity, roots in the information space, and pre-existing obligation of confidentiality towards their patrons. Alternatives include not-for-profit membership organizations, such as AARP and Consumer Reports.
B. Initial Demand-Side Explorations
On the client side, there are similar viability questions. Do consumers recognize the risks of the Web? Do they perceive the potential significant upside of adopting new offerings and technologies that advance their autonomy and agency? If so, are they concerned enough to seek out and willingly shift to such alternatives, even if only as overlays to their current Web interactions? The current evidence is mixed. In polls, Web users express a growing lack of trust in the Web, and deepening concerns about their privacy and security online. As of 2020, some 26 percent of users have advertising blockers on their browsers. And yet, even in the face of at least some resistance, the large platform providers and their SEAMs-based ecosystem continue to dominate the Web.
If there is impetus for a shift away from today’s Web, who will pay for it? There are a number of potential B2C business models worth exploring. They include:
- Long Tail – selling less of more, as niche offerings suitable to a more personalized approach to customers.
- Multi-Sided Platforms – intermediaries facilitating interactions between groups of customers, generating network effects, typically via subsidy.
- Free – variations include: (1) free-of-charge services subsidized by advertising; (2) freemium model of free basic and paid premium services (typically 90/10 percentage split); and (3) bait and hook, with free initial services paid for with higher margin follow-up products.
- Open – Opening up the company’s research and development processes to outside parties. Two general options are (1) outside in – exploiting external ideas within the company, and (2) inside out – providing external parties with internal ideas or assets.
A combination of the multisided platform model and the free model, as fuelled by SEAM cycles, has become the current go-to paradigm of the Web. It may well be that users have become too accustomed to the Web’s “free” (ad-subsidized) services. As it turns out, advertising can provide similar support to allow low-priced or “free” Deeper Edge services. Would, however, such an approach create inherent conflicts of interest, which would violate the fiduciary duty of loyalty and harm end users?
Or, conversely, will having greater consensual access to more contextual and relational customer data open up new ways for digital fiduciaries to work with advertising brands for improved interactions and experiences with customers? For example, via a combined identity layer and intent-casting browser, digital fiduciary customers can directly express their preferences for advertising and marketing that meet their needs. Such customers also should be more willing to engage with advertising from quality/trusted brands, perhaps via an alternative advertising marketplace.
If not advertising, what alternative B2C compensation arrangements are possible? Options include monthly subscription or membership fees, per-transaction fees, and blockchain data tokenization. How can these models be planned and provided in a more ethical manner? Would these not exacerbate the current Web of digital haves and have-nots?
Deeper Edge will create a fiduciaries-based structure, weaving elements of trustworthy design into the company’s governance fabric. This means voluntarily assuming a set of obligations of care and loyalty towards its patrons, derived from the common law of fiduciaries. This particular plank addresses, in brief, how the “rules of the road” should be established for a digital fiduciary.
A. Some Opening Considerations
Perhaps the most fundamental challenge to be confronted in devising a governance regime for Deeper Edge is the appropriate setting of checks and balances. At the outset, a number of questions present themselves:
- Does this exercise provide an opportunity to redefine the boundaries of the modern company as they otherwise would apply? Perhaps develop a new social contract for the digital world, one that entails data stewardship?
- Should Deeper Edge consider itself to be an “open” fiduciary? Should “open” be considered an invitation for third parties to test the usual boundaries that separate a company from its patrons?
- According to the pioneering work of Sylvie Delacroix and Neil Lawrence, should Deeper Edge aspire to be an inclusive, community-based “bottom-up” fiduciary? Or would the necessary careful coordination of the legitimate interests of participating groups and individuals make this approach too unwieldy as a matter of marketplace responsiveness?
- Operating within the prevailing entrepreneurial paradigm of Silicon Valley, should Deeper Edge fashion itself as a participatory incubator or accelerator?
- What possible external governance support vehicles, such as national or state laws or regulations, can Deeper Edge utilize? Alternatively, how does the company go about developing its own governing code of conduct and best practices?
- Looking ahead, how should Deeper Edge prepare itself for possible Stage Two market entry? Should it establish a traditional C-corp, suitable for outside funding? How can these governance plank lessons carry over into the rough-and-tumble of the world of investors?
- How were fiduciary duties originally adopted/applied/mandated by society for various fiduciaries, such as doctors, lawyers, financial advisers, and librarians? What enforcement mechanisms were created to provide adequate recourse for their clientele? In each instance, what arguments prevailed? What resistance was encountered? What political or social avenues were utilized to channel, and in turn to challenge, such resistance? What useful lessons can we learn, and perhaps adopt and apply to Deeper Edge?
B. An Evolving Governance Regime
In aspiring to define and then become a personal digital fiduciary, Deeper Edge necessarily encounters many of the mechanisms, content, and processes of governance. In each case, however, the ‘normal’ approaches to devising governance mechanisms can be challenged, and even subverted.
As one example, the process of creating the terms of service (ToS) for a website is typically handled within the confines of a company. Here, Deeper Edge can deliberately make this a more inclusive process, by inviting third parties to participate. An extension of this approach could be to offer patrons the opportunity to craft their own ToS, which would apply to Deeper Edge and to websites through intent-casting technologies. On the other hand, at what point do greater inclusion and participation tilt the operational checks-and-balances in ways that might impede the day-to-day efficiencies of running a company?
- Front-end transparency and agency mechanisms
One preliminary question is whether these mechanisms constitute an evolving set of requirements, or a progression that seeks an optimal (if not dynamic) set of checks and balances. One possible progression would be something like:
- Deeper Edge’s Terms of Service (ToS) aimed at customers >>> Customer’s own ToS aimed at Deeper Edge and other entities.
- Binding legal contract >>> Model contract (with US states?) >>> Bilateral contracts with patrons.
- Voluntary code of conduct.
- Professional certification/code of practice (perhaps attached to a new profession of personal digital fiduciaries).
- D-corporation – a new type of corporate entity modelled on the benefits corporation (B-corp), but instead directed at the digital/data environment.
- Government legislative/regulatory code – adopted via democratic processes.
- Back-end accountability/enforceability mechanisms
Accountability is key to fostering and retaining human trust. One obvious challenge is ensuring that the company adopts a “mission lock” so that its upfront duties and obligations are not altered or eroded over time. Another challenge is enforcement. What is the basis of recourse for perceived wrongs by a personal digital fiduciary? Potential enforcement vehicles could include the courts, regulators, independent certification and sanctioning/enforcement bodies, and crowdsourced trust bodies.
- Substance of duties
The common law provides a ready guide for fashioning the actual content of the obligations. As embedded in the PEP engagement model, the potential duties include:
- Care (general): do no harm
- Care (fiduciary): prudent and reasonable conduct
- Good faith
- Confidentiality: do not betray confidences
- Loyalty (thin): no conflicts of interests or duties
- Loyalty (thick): promote best interests
This range of duties suggests the need to balance the interests of stakeholders – individual patrons, for example, versus patrons as a whole.
Relatedly, the digital fiduciary is presumed to be highly complementary with data trusts, data commons, data co-ops, and other data stewards. For example, the digital fiduciary can help individuals discover, decide, and then channel collective actions and the benefits of collective data pools. Would this premise of synergies actually play out in real life?
Larger societal and environmental concerns also play into the company’s governance, its duties, and other considerations. How should the company think about its social impact? Do its activities fall within the concept of “data stewardship” (Aapti Institute, Mozilla Foundation, Ada Lovelace Institute), which entails a broader social lens than the marketplace? Does its business model (to the extent it relies in part or whole on subscriber fees) only exacerbate the prevailing chasm between digital haves and have-nots? What about systemic racism and other biases?
Finally, where the marketplace fails to deliver optimal outcomes for the less privileged, perhaps there is a role for non-profit organizations, or even governments, to act as a “public option” digital fiduciary. If so, how would Deeper Edge engineer that “pivot” away from the market?
C. Public Policy
As part of establishing a robust governance regime, Deeper Edge will advocate a public policy agenda to support its mission. This entails taking steps to help shape the policy landscape in ways that facilitate the emergence of digital fiduciaries.
While the European Union has organized the regulation of digital services into a comprehensive model, including data protection under the GDPR, there is no such approach at present in the United States. Instead, individual states such as California have adopted their own online data protection and privacy regimes. These approaches tend to focus more on accountability and transparency measures, rather than creating actual user rights, such as data portability, interoperability, and delegation, that could jump-start new markets.
Opportunities abound, however, because of potential changes on the near horizon. As an example, in October 2019 US Senator Mark Warner and others introduced on a bipartisan basis the Access Act. The bill contains an end user’s “right to delegate” her data portability and interoperability rights vis-a-vis social media platforms to a trusted third party, operating under a general duty of care. As Senator Warner put it:
Empowering trusted custodial companies to step in on behalf of users to better manage their accounts across different platforms will help balance the playing field between consumers and companies. In other words – by enabling portability, interoperability, and delegability, this bill will help put consumers in the driver’s seat when it comes to how and where they use social media.
A companion House measure was introduced in late June 2021. If Web end users gain the ability to utilize trusted third party agents to connect directly with platforms and port their personal data, real market change is possible.
The overarching thesis of the Deeper Edge launch is that open sourcing the development of viable Web offerings provides a platform for real-world experimentation. B2C service offerings premised on the PEP engagement model, and B2B offerings centred on the “trust layer” model, offer two particularly attractive avenues to explore.