Image of the Pocantico Conference Center, courtesy of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
A quietly organized meeting last week at one of the most historic venues in America may be instrumental in deciding the future of the beleaguered local news industry.
The place was the Pocantico Conference Center, former estate of the Rockefeller family, which sits on a hill in Tarrytown, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson River. On Thursday and Friday, April 19–20, 30 major thinkers and doers from the digital world of the news media—especially local—gathered at Pocantico in a grand attempt to put together the basics of a new system to govern the way news organizations handle such issues as Web identity and privacy.
The system, called ITEGA (Information Trust Exchange Governing Association), seeks to replace the current “Wild West” Web system typified by the harvesting of user profiles and behaviors to be leveraged for targeted programmatic advertising. Much of the revenue from this harvest goes to the chief plucker, the global social platform Facebook, with crumbs going to the publishers whose sites feature the ads.
In this Q & A, longtime journalist Bill Densmore, co-founder and executive director of ITEGA, explains how this proposed nonprofit system of Web governance would aim to protect user privacy and also compensate publishers fairly while at the same time connecting advertisers with customers they want to reach — but as whole human beings, not just targets.
Who came to the Pocantico Center meeting?
We had people from legacy news organizations as well as public broadcasting, whose stations want to “share and showcase” more quality content. We had a bunch of technical folks to help us understand major new tools for restoring identity privacy of Web users.
We had a couple of people from digital news services, a couple of people from trade associations, and a couple of people who are legal experts in the privacy space. We also had some funders.
This is the full list of 30 participants.
The two days of meetings were held under the “Chatham House Rule.” What’s that and why?
Under the rule, all participants are bound not to attribute any words to a specific person or affiliated organization. Ideas and unattributed quotes are perfectly OK.
The purpose of such a rule is so that people will be freer to speak candidly without having to feel they are spokesperson for their employer.
You started the ITEGA process in 2015. What has happened between then and now?
The inspiration and initial funding came from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, where I have been a research fellow.
We had a set of task force meetings in 2015—here and here—that included experts from news publishing, advertising, and the Web-browser world. They concluded that a new system of Web governance that protected user identity, gave advertisers access to audiences they wanted to reach, and compensated publishers fairly was feasible operationally.
We spent 2016 digesting what we learned from the meetings in 2015 and continued to stay in touch with participants. The next step, in early 2017, was applying to the Internal Revenue Service for a 501 (c 3) nonprofit status, and we received that in July 2017. Our nonprofit status means ITEGA’s mission is unambiguously about public, not private or industry, benefit.
Next was developing a rationale for the prototype we wanted and assembling the experts to support it. That’s what we were working on through the fall of 2017 and early 2018, culminating in convening our meeting at Pocantico Hills.
What’s new today compared to when you went through your task force meetings in 2015?
A lot has changed. At the “Mega-Conference” in San Diego in late February of this year, which involved hundreds of people from legacy news organizations, it became completely clear that they recognized that their business could not be primarily sustained by advertising as we know it anymore. Advertising on the Web has been brilliantly mopped up by Google and Facebook.
The news industry, especially locally, is now turning to how are we going to improve our ability to get revenue directly from the user, probably in the main from digital subscriptions, memberships, or donations.
The minute you say user revenue you realize you need to know more about your users in order to make any kind of persuasive offer to them. And that requires an identity ecosystem. The leaders in the legacy news system are starting to realize that, “Gee, we really need to register all our users and learn stuff about them, and we can’t do that by having them sign up through Facebook because then Facebook hoards information about them.”
The news industry now has to be very much focused on understanding users and delivering to them a very powerful, useful experience so they will be happy to pay for it.
But at the same time, anyone dealing with internet users, because of new European regulations and the disclosures about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, has to be able to promise a high level of privacy choice. Those two values—personalization and privacy—are difficult but not impossible to reconcile.
What was especially important about the meeting at Pocantico?
It was the first formal meeting of ITEGA. It was also our first opportunity talk with funders and potential founding members and for all of them to interact in one candid setting.
It helped them to understand, first, the opportunity to support prototyping and other work around transferring user data; second, the business rules for how organizations should conduct themselves in managing user data and content on the Web; and, finally, the technical protocols for that stuff.
It was our first chance to talk about our vision for what are the first steps for putting together a shared user network for trust identity, privacy, and information commerce.
These were the major topics for action in ITEGA’s next steps.
Millions of users have lost their privacy of identity on Facebook and many millions more face the threat. Would ITEGA prevent that specter from happening with its new system of Web governance?
The goal of ITEGA is to champion a system that puts the public in control of how individual data and identity is handled in the digital world—when it can be obtained and what can be done with it by whom. That’s not how things work today, and it is something that should not be controlled by governments or by companies or individuals with private gain or purpose in mind.
Under current practice, one global social platform—Facebook—is the de facto identity base for all of us. Under ITEGA, your identity attributes may be under your control in a “digital wallet” on your smartphone or perhaps stored with your permission by a publisher or service provider you trust. You will control who may have access to your identity attributes.
We’re confident that ITEGA members, using approved technology and standards, can join together to offer better protection of user identity than exists on the Web today.
The problem with paywalled subscriptions is that they are silos. If I have an account at the Washington Post, it works there but nowhere else. The same with the Wall Street Journal or any other news provider. It’s like it was 50 years and more ago when you had to have a credit account with multiple retailers—before VISA and MasterCard came along.
If your publisher or service provider is a member of ITEGA, they will be able to offer you a fast pass to information from multiple information providers. Publishers will offer you one ID and one password that is good in other places in the ITEGA system.
It’s true you can use a Facebook account to log into many Web services, but that means Facebook learns about everything you are doing and looking at. With an ITEGA system, you get to choose from among publishers by using your common ID—just as you can choose among banks which issue VISA cards.
What will you offer advertisers that will be better than what they think (or hope) they get on Facebook (i.e. well-targeted ads)?
Advertisers don’t have accountability on Facebook because there’s no independent third-party verification for ensuring that what Facebook promises, they’re actually delivering.
One possibility is that ITEGA could support and champion one or more neutral third parties that can govern, audit, and sanction the advertising products and services offered by ITEGA members.
The current Web landscape and what will happen on May 25 when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes into effect are radically different. Today, you can target users through third-party “cookies” that work in a clandestine way in the background. You can assemble an unverified profile of who you think is the same user across multiple Websites. That presumptively accurate profile can be sold and resold and sliced and diced across the network and shared with Facebook for ad targeting.
That will shortly be illegal when it involves European Union citizens. With GDPR, publishers’ ability to use data that they didn’t acquire in a first-person relationship with the user will be very limited within EU countries. But those restrictions will spread and soon to the U.S. market.
Beyond their identity being fully protected, how would Web users benefit from an ITEGA system?
Users would be able to join in a network subscription or membership and receive news customized to their interests. Publisher members could have the option to exchange payments from sharing users and also content.
So, to sum up, ITEGA proposes to replace the Web’s present “Wild West” system where users, publishers, and advertisers don’t know whom to trust as programmatic bullets fly from every direction?
Right. For the first time, the Web will have a user identity system that is transparent, competitive and open to all—not controlled by one or two private platforms motivated to make money or by government. ITEGA is a nonprofit governance system that will not be controlled by any for-profit companies.
If your Pocantico meeting hits its goals, when might ITEGA become operational?
I would say in the 2019-2020 time frame.
You’ve worked on the idea of sustaining journalism on the Web through a privacy-protecting payment system for more than 20 years, with many disappointments. How do you feel today, post-Pocantico, about the prospect for success?
I’m vastly more optimistic because of the trust crisis represented by Facebook’s predicament, because of the coming implementation of GDPR and everyone realizing those rules will have major impact in the U.S. All these things have thrown a bright new light on what we’re trying to do. There’s the broad realization that news organizations have to be thinking much more about their user relationships and that advertising relationships are secondary.
What made Pocantico the right place for this first formal meeting of ITEGA, with all its high expectations?
There’s a message about being at Pocantico. It’s a special place for a special gathering with a special intention. Multiple moving parts of ITEGA came together at Pocantico. Now we can really take off.
The Pocantico Conference Center, which is managed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, hosts a variety of nonprofit and public-sector meetings that seek to shape public policy on a variety of socially oriented “critical issues.”