How are the business models of the web broken for content creators?

Since Grant for the Web was announced, we’ve been talking with all kinds of creators – including many from this forum – about how broken the web is when it comes to monetization, and how Grant for the Web can provide opportunities to improve it. We want to continue these conversations, and invite more of you to join in. So, here are two questions for you…

  1. Do current business models on the web support surveillance capitalism?

  2. How can the Grant for the Web program – including the community growing around the grant, how we design the initial Call for Proposals, and the grants themselves – counter the worst effects of surveillance capitalism?

Note: Grant for the Web drawing by Scriberia is licensed under CC BY 4.0 and developed at our community workshop at MozFest.

  1. I have reason to believe they do but cannot provide specific cases at this time besides the larger, well-known corporations.

  2. You can design the proposal to include questions such as:

Q: Do you have any plans to manage users’ data in an unethical manner?
Q: In what ways will your project or your work fend off misuse of data collection and predictions of user behavior?

In the grant itself, you could include special conditions that the recipient must follow or else funding will be pulled / denied. Funding can be distributed in increments as to make sure the recipient is keeping in compliance with the fund’s terms.

  1. here it might be useful to have a list of the various models, as without one it is hard to say whether or not they are surveillance based. What is however almost certain, is that they distribute benefits unequally and likely unjustly (not necessarily unlawfully).

  2. History suggests (most visibly the more recent one), that fighting surveillance is hopeless. On the other hand, doing so might not be desirable either - if the visibility is symmetrical (no person or a group of persons has privileged access to the data). Interestingly, this perspective seems to be confirmed by behavior of most people, as it is evident for example from how freely we post such info publicly on social networks. The behavior might actually be an evolutionary adaptation, because for about two million years humans lived in an environment, where behavior and economic situation of others was completely transparent to all. This regime resulted in a lack of status hierarchy and economic equality. So the human instincts might be actually self-preserving and maybe we are converging to that model, albeit on a (technologically) different level.
    When it comes to capitalism, then we need to separate the good from the bad, when judging its impact on welfare. The good is apparently the autonomy available to people to make economic decisions as they please (relatively to - say - socialism) and the bad would be that the mechanism of economic distribution is such, that it naturally leads to (deeply) unequal distribution of economic benefits.
    In my opinion, none of the models I have seen so far mentioned on this forum or whenever the Grant for the Web initiative is discussed, can address the problem of surveillance capitalism, which I consider to be the asymmetry of access to information and unequal (unjust) distribution of economic benefits. I believe the key to solving the problem is to look at the over a billion-strong army of volunteers (this includes FOSS developers) and seriously study what motivates them to work without economic reward, even though they generate an estimated over a trillion USD in economic value in a year. We will find out that they care about addressing their high-level psychological needs, like the need for competence and relatedness and any reward mechanism not built on this observation will fail. Please note that a mechanism built on the assumption of primacy of these psychological concerns in motivation can distribute the economic benefits in any way, including equally.
    Here is an article that seems to agree with this perspective from the pen of this year’s economic Nobel laureates.

  1. In short yes. Any business model that relies on 3rd party ‘sale’ of ‘your’ data for a purpose that you as the end user don’t know about or understand ends up contributing to surveillance capitalism either directly or indirectly. There is a reason in the EU the entire ad model for revenue is under 6 month notice to change or have change forced upon it. If I take your data and sell it to another party for any reason I am contributing to surveillance capitalism.

  2. Those of us that helped build the internet know that at it’s lowest level it was never designed to be secure, and network security engineers know if you don’t design for security anything added later is inherently insecure. So therefore any data exchange puts an end user at risk. There is only one other type of business model that you can layer onto the Internet - and it’s a service model. You can only monetise something (data) or a service. This is why we believe data minimisation has to be at the core of any safe/safer business model and that model should be service focussed. When you couple the two you reconnect back to the inherent capabilities (and understand the inherent incapabilities) of the internet and the web. Many services ‘need’ lots of data - but ‘need’ is subjective - we undertook to build a social platform that took no data - and we have got it down to 7 data sets - and because its so few we can be open and transparent with users and engage them in an informed fashion in consent for its use - thus empowering them. No privacy settings - everything is consented opt-in. Innovating around data minimisation coupled with a service focussed business model will change the current downwards trend in trust in digital services and empower the individual when engaging with internet service/application providers.

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Great ideas Ken. We definitely plan to link the requirements/policies to awards that keep the values of the program and a healthy internet in tact.


So much to chew on here and thanks for the article! How would you suggest we position the potential of web monetization as a salve to bad web business models. Surveillance or otherwise?

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Also welcome to the forum!

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  1. The model was taken directly from the FCC that commodified what should be a public resource. The current web will exist until people wakeup to how they are being exploited. Unfortunately the culture gap is sufficient that whistkebkowers are barely understood if they are not simply bought off.

  2. I solved this whole thing by putting user in absolute control of their data of all kinds. User chooses what to share and why. Every request is traded for value that is enshrined in a personal Blockchain. The PID must always be accompanied by a token that references the immutable contract. The rest of my system was originally built for post disaster but the premise scales across social experiences. It boils down to a Has (what you have to offer from water to well wishes) and a Need (of every kind). You can join into communities of geographic proximity that gets boosted relevance for every Need, and communities of coworkers comprising an organization or mission purpose, this is boosted relevance for Has’ or resources. Using unlimited classifies, has and needs are matched, mutual anonymous consensus permits the exchange. Every user builds an organic self pruning network of high relevance matches. This can be transferred, added to a community list, and broadcast. Each transaction builds a reputation (high relevance for accomplishing transactions) and any bad actions reduce x10. Every input is responsive to the original poster providing updates with every action taken. At the community level natural organizers are emergent as highest relevance for happy transactions and community trusted leadership. Aid and Governance benefit because highest possible quality data is being provided in exchange for distribution of resources. Win win win. In the marketplace, products are offered (Has) and browsed anonymously. Business can offer incentive to obtain certain user data and influences (high social relevance) would get free stuff probably.

Lots more to say, but total sovereign control (like a wallet) is the only possible path forward.

tl; dr read the last paragraph.

I will try to focus on what seems to be the subject of this thread - that there are negative consequences to surveillance capitalism.

I believe there are two of them:

  • economic (growing inequality)
  • political (asymmetry of power)

1. tackling the economic consequences

The situation

Technological advances => our behavior is becoming more transparent => ability to build accurate personal profiles is increased => products and services can be more accurately tailored to the needs of particular individuals => increased ability to extract economic value from the profiles

What is old: the described scenario has been playing in the biological evolution since its onset. Example: an animal with a suddenly acquired (mutation?) superior ability to see, gains advantage in gathering information about potential prey. It can then create a more accurate mental representation of its behavior. Consequently the prey is easier to catch and other predators outcompeted.

What is new(ish): the ability for “human animals” to follow/take advantage of the individual steps in the above chain of events is unequal, because not all people have the same access to resources (capital, social connections…) to:

  • acquire the necessary technology
  • collect data
  • process the data into realistic representations of individual behavior
  • monetize the behavioral profiles

What can be done?

The asymmetry in human or economic capital endowment is real and to change it is impossible, or extremely difficult. I see the most effective way in minimizing the negative economic consequence of surveillance capitalism by changing the way the benefits gained from economic activities are distributed. The goal is equal economic distribution that would not negatively affect the economic efficiency.

The solution

Taxes? A look around us suggests that this is not a very successful approach. The likely main reson is that addressing income inequality by taking away earned resources from the producers lowers their willingness to supply labor. Efficient distribution of those resources is also challenging.

A better way might exist in a novel approach. It builds on a notion that work reward has two different functions. It provides economic value (one that the rent can be paid with), but directly or indirectly, it also serves as a powerful psychological signal about the recipient’s competence. There are many reasons to believe that this psychological signal is the salient factor in motivation to supply labor. A bunch of research supports this idea, but a more palpable evidence is at hand. I already mentioned the by-the-economists mostly ignored massive volunteer economy. It’s very existence should be sufficient to prove the point that people are willing to work even if they receive no economic reward, if they feel their higher level psychological needs are addressed.

Awareness of existence of the “merit signal” - as I call the salient psychological motivation factor - allows us to imagine a new reward mechanism, with two separate components. One is a non-trade-able “merit” reward that reflects the market value of one’s effort (granted according to merit), while the “economic” reward that can be exchanged for goods and services reflects the actual effort as measured in labor time.

A careful reader who made it all the way here will notice, that if the merit reward is granted according to desert (actual skills, or value for the society), the rewarded workers’ motivation to supply labor should not be negatively affected, even if the economic reward they receive is commensurate with the number of hours worked (proof? the volunteers work for equal pay, which is “nothing”). Instituting this reward mechanism should therefore be a Pareto improvement vis a vis to what we have today. Consequently, such mechanism leads to a situation, where everybody earns more-less the same and the negative economic impact factor of surveillance capitalism is thus eliminated.

2. tackling the political consequences

The above outlined remuneration mechanism establishes a virtual economic equality. Over time therefore, individuals loose the ability to dictate public policy from the position of economic power, resulting in stronger democracy. Moreover, if a provision was added to our new system that any actually performed work must be rewarded regardless of their immediate value (artists, scientists and teachers would welcome this), then economic concerns would stop becoming a constrain in an individual’s deliberations about public policy, further strengthening democracy.


These ideas exist not only in the “noosphere,” but were implemented in code. Some promising real-world tests were also performed. A pilot implementation of the proposed economic engine is at An example how a web site could implement monetization using that engine can be seen at - an outdoor portal for sharing info about bike trips. Posts are in Slovak, but the interface is in English, which should suffice for testing the functionality. I can write more about how the practical implementation works if there is interest, but this article could be a good intro into the idea.

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I think the question itself has a problem, being that it implies there’s some sort of difference between surveillance capitalism and some other type of capitalism, which is entirely false … the fact the capitalism now exploits surveillance is just another part of the evolution of capitalism as a consequence of the fundamental flaws of capitalism, and the fact that it hasn’t happened yet using information technology is just because we weren’t there yet scientifically … but if you want to go back to feudal times, how is it any different from a king having a network of spies? People invent terms like ‘crony capitalism’ to pretend it’s some kind of corruption of capitalism, and I get the same vibe from this term also.

THEREFORE — if you hadn’t figured it out yet — I’m saying there’s not much you can do to prevent or reverse it ( now the cat’s out of the bag ), because the reality is that extremely powerful people with hired thugs armed to the teeth, have an incentive to spy on you, because they’re sociopaths and megalomaniacs … so while you should definitely do things to minimise it and it’s consequences, and give people a pathway out of being spied on, I seriously doubt you’ll get rid of it entirely unless you’re actually willing to pick up a weapon and kill them … because the police are corrupt, the courts are corrupt, the politicians are corrupt, and the stated aims of the pentagon are “full spectrum global dominance” << you think this means they’ll stop spying if you ask them nicely, make a law, or whatever else? No matter what you do, they’ll try to break it and/or outlaw it, and so technology is only one part in winning that battle.

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On the subject of merit world, this won’t work any more than any other cryptocurrency model, it’s not even slightly original, it falls well short of better things I’ve seen, and none of which even begin to approach my own work.

ALL models based on any kind of currency / commodity trade — which is exactly what that is, whether they want to believe it or not — are doomed to failure for the simple reason that only humans are capable of using such a currency, all ‘value’ is based on largely arbitrary human emotion beliefs values and opinions, and there’s nothing whatsoever in the model which 100% guarantees a reduction in ecological or social harm being done as people try to gain what you call ‘merit’.

I’ve had a 30 year obsession with this topic, and that’s just another plain vanilla version of everything else I’ve seen, it isn’t even innovative compared to things that were done in the 1970s

@GalacticPrez, I broadly agree with your assessment of the “surveillance capitalism” problem. When it comes to your response to Neo, I thank you for the opinion. If you care, I can send you* a paper recently presented at RAMICS, where the idea is described in more detail. Most people fail to see where the difference from other currencies and systems lies, but it does not really matter, because in the social sciences field, innovations must be proven in reality. A five month experiment I did two years ago with about thousand participants suggests, that people do not have to consciously accept its ideological foundations to use and like it. A new version of the economic engine will be put to a time unconstrained “experiment” in the following months.

*needs some editing before I can post it to ssrn or other similar site and submission deadline for publishing it in IJCCR is the last day of December, so I have been taking my sweet time to complete it.

Thanks but no thanks, I can prove quite conclusively and irrefutably that no currency of any type will ever be the solution, because currency is simply an expression of a far deeper and more fundamental flaw, and which currency has no possibility of escaping, as in order to escape, it has to not be a currency in the first place << that’s the extremely short and massively over simplified version, but this is a text box, and I have no intention of writing an essay here.

I don’t expect you to believe it just because I tell you, but I have no interest in wasting any time reading anything which cannot escape the flaws that I know it has without even reading it … and yes I’m claiming to understand this topic that well.

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Having identified the unequal exploitation of what should be a common resource by opportunistic individuals as the cause of surveillance capitalism, the Elinor Ostrom’s design principles of managing the commons might come handy for evaluating the various GftW proposals. See for example this article by D.S. Wilson to judge applicability of that framework to this use case.

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My proposal actually does support surveillance capitalism. I monitor all judicial and government databases for current updates on all acts , amendments, laws , etc…this is for my business which is Insurance for incarcerated individuals.

The wonderful thing about the Grant is this forum where we can easily embed Music player, to show the way
Music and art are the way for Internet
Monetization is one step to help creators, but is not the only one we need to curate them as well, curate their improvements in art, encourage them. For example you are listening Hope from Regata Collective and you can directly encourage them, join their project

We think one of the biggest problems for content creators is the feedback loops created by search engines. New content creators have a hard time breaking into the existing ecosystem and gaining a share of attention. We believe a new, open search engine could overcome this challenge and restore the vibrance of the indie web (as well as commercial interests). We’ve outlined our proposal at :slight_smile:

current business models

Let’s look at the 2 basic revenue models, ad vs patronage (subscription). In the former, content is subsidised through profits of secondary goods/services. In the latter, which could be a simple as a street performer tip to directly splurging on public gifts (cf Vatican funding Baroque arts as counter to Protestism austere churches) the choice of production depends on the taste of the patron (aka money talks). So in order for ads to be targetted, ie only spend on those who spend on you, the surveillance becomes a one-way channel to observe the response to stimulii. The slippery slope is that to attract the broadest range, the content typically aims for lowest common denominator which is usually emotional outrage, social envy or poor impulse control. So sexualisaton or controversy “sells”.

Patronage model might sound better (pay for all you can eat) but here you hit the marginal return for marginal spend. A content platform would rather rely on back-catalog than fund new (possibly risky) works and with the way autosuggestion algorithms “learn”, they recommend something similar so the long-term you stagnate and lack diversity. Surveillance is useful in designing the algorithms and figuring out what to do to stop you leaving the walled content garden.

counter the worst effects

So two issues (which may or may not be the “worst”) are works that are more than limbic reflexive stimulii (which devolves into which button to best push) and the silencing effect of cultural echo chamber. One way is to levy a time penalty on limbic stimulii (cf sin taxes), whilst not necessarily $$, it could be delay the action button to share until the brain dopamine or adrenal excitary response dies down. The goal here is to subside more rational thoughtful discourse and dampen down redneck responses (apologies to any Appalachian grads).

The diversity approach can be tackled by more nuanced tagging, or by a multi-vector currency … eg you can set up rules for say a red-green-blue currency for news so that ratio of red:blue consumption cannot be outside a certain ratio or a random green/neutral content is tossed into the choice to help balancing the audience viewpoint. The rational being that narrowcast audiences tend to polarise into fragmented niches which can be unhealthy. It is up to the platform to decide in a transparent manner the rules of engagement which may not be comfortable in supporting confirmation bias, but in the long-term allow more independent voices to penetrate the fog of outrage and disgust.

I encourage grant committee to consider the occassional odd-ball ideas if it can add diversity to the existing ad or patronage models.

I realize that this may seem extreme or provocative to some people, but seriously, surveillance capitalism is too generous a phrase. Surveillance is an non-democratic activity, whether performed by government or google, especially on the scale it is being practiced. If you generalize and say that advertising is a form of propaganda then we have an internet that provides an affordance (using Zeynep Tufekci’s meaning) for non-democratic societies. I think we can see the results of that already.

The business model is exactly the right leverage point for producing a better internet. I did some experiments with a cardkey based system to access the internet that provided privacy-by-default and it became clear immediately that there was no business model that is an alternative to surveillance.

The first CFP should be for an alternative business model to intrusive advertising. It should be a system that allows anyone who is currently using google adsense or equivalent to easily convert to the new business model with a payout that is as efficient (or better) than adsense.

In the interest of transparency and in case you have not guessed, I’m developing such a system.

@terrybraun … your assertion is valid if and only iff you assume a market-based economy where price is the mediating factor (ie comes out of future spend). I commend to you the book “Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner” (NYT review) which points out that the internal household doesn’t always participate … you don’t just go to school to pay for parents retirement but for familial love. If you go back to the days before public radio, we had extended families gathering around the house piano for a sing-along. Entertainment was a local/parish activity. Even the early printing press, you needed ~#500 pounds (equiv to $10k nowadays) to set up shop, and I think the figure was around $2M for amateur radio license/station. So with the costs of distribution coming down with digital media and global reach allow niche audiences to coalesce, you can have alternative business models which are mediated by something other than price, examples

  • fan-fic (assuming you are not stepping in someone else’s universe/franchise)
  • virtual worlds and digital assets (think collectable unique like CryptoKitty)
  • open source repositories (like Global Village Construction Kit where engineers donate time/talent)
  • patronage models for disadvantaged (eg braille material/collections)

So there are quite a few different business models, just that they are not as well publicised due to crowding out effect of the entertainment-FMCG-banking complex (pumping up the desire to consume on credit). As with any complex system, it ha evolved to the point where to profile who next to addict into debt, they need to know your habits and hence the overreach into intrusive (if passive) algorithmic monitoring.

I blogged a long time ago that it’s not #BIGbrother you should be worried about but #LittleSister who peeks inside what you’re doing in privacy of (metaphorically speaking) bedroom and tattles on you (to the #contentpushers). If you can come up with #BreadBits (whether micropayments or cryptocrumbs) as alternative to the current digital circuses out there, all doublegoodplus.