Will the Respect Network enable us to take back control of our data and our lives?


Yesterday I attended the Sydney launch event of the Respect Network, an initiative designed to allow individuals to own and take control of their data.

They played this video, narrated by John Hurt, who starred in the film 1984. Apparently American audiences have thought this clip to be highly controversial, however it seems to provide a reasonable view of how things are.

Take Back Control from Respect Network on Vimeo.

The real drawcard for me and many others was that Doc Searls, co-author of the seminal book The Cluetrain Manifesto and originator of the concept of Vendor Relationship Management (VRM), has been deeply involved in the project and is speaking at each of the 4 global launch events for Respect Network.

The vision of individuals controlling their own data was clearly articulated by John Hagel and Jeffrey Rayport in a 1997 Harvard Business Review article The Coming Battle for Customer Information. Yet despite many initiatives since then seeking to bring this to life, none has achieved widespread success.

The Respect Network seems to have a very solid foundation. Founder Drummond Reed has co-chaired the committees for the OASIS XDI protocol that underlies the protected sharing of identity and relationship data, though he emphasizes that the legal infrastructure of agreements is in fact an even more important enabler.

The focus of the Respect Network global launch has been the “Login with Respect” button, which seeks to provide an alternative to the Facebook and other social network logins which enables users to have complete control of their data.

There is a one-time fee to join the Respect Network of US$25. My initial response to this was that this will inevitably limit the uptake of the network. Today’s major social networks have memberships in the hundreds of millions or beyond. To provide an alternative where individuals can expect to find their family and friends means there should be no barriers to entry.

As a counterpoint, Drummond noted that for many, paying for a social network gives people confidence that they are not “the product” that pays for the business. Drummond also changed his language to describe the upfront payment as a ‘crowdfunding’ mechanism, suggesting that at a certain point the network may become free to join. This would be particularly important in allowing the network to reach beyond the developed world.

One of the initiative’s great strengths is its partner network of over 60 organizations, including two very interesting Australian-based platforms, Meeco, an app-based life management dashboard, and Flamingo, which “goes beyond crowd-sourcing and ideation by enabling customers to design the experience they want, beyond product and price, within parameters that the business can deliver”.

At this point it seems that the Respect Network has a better chance of succeeding in empowering individuals with their own data than any other initiative to date.

However one of the real questions is the proportion of people who care enough about their privacy to do something about it. The last couple of years, including not least Snowden’s revelations, have primed us to be far more receptive to the idea of protecting personal data than ever before. Yet it will require a significant critical mass of people to shift from their current online behaviors to help a broader group to follow suit.

I have signed up for my Respect name and I look forward to seeing what it will enable.

Perhaps we are ripe to turn the tables on the companies who are making us the subjects of their big data compilation, and take back control. If so that would be a critical juncture not just in the Internet, but in the relationship between companies and individuals. However it plays out, this space will be very important to follow in coming months and years.