From doctors to lawyers to librarians, the longstanding concept of fiduciaries obligates professionals to act in their customers’ best interests. Mozilla Fellow Richard Whitt says it’s time for Web companies to do the same, and his new startup Deeper Edge plans to provide a host of fiduciary-based services across the digital spectrum.
Since the Middle Ages, the common-law doctrine of fiduciaries has ensured that when a professional’s expertise or access to sensitive information gives them an advantage over their clientele, they are obligated to adhere to the role of fiduciary -- someone who puts their clients' interests ahead of their own, acting on behalf of each client with a duty to preserve trust and good faith.
Today the concept is so deeply ingrained in our society that most people aren’t even aware of its existence; we take it as a given that everyone from doctors and lawyers to librarians and certain financial advisers act in ways that serve our best interests. These entities are obliged to protect our physical well-being, our legal status, our privacy, our money. Even dry cleaners and parking valets abide by a related code of conduct that protects physical assets like our clothes and vehicles.
Unfortunately, this centuries-old concept of fiduciaries has yet to make the leap to the digital world.
Enter Mozilla Fellow and former Google executive Richard Whitt. With most Web companies ignoring even the pretense of adopting fiduciary obligations and treating their users like clients, Whitt is working to fill that virtual hole. His new company, Deeper Edge, will provide intermediary fiduciary services -- such as protecting data, thwarting manipulative algorithms, and promoting consumers’ best interests -- across the entire digital spectrum.
Most of us, knowingly or otherwise, give our most intimate data directly to powerful tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, or Spotify, clicking the “accept” button on long, arcane user agreements without any expectation that our data will only be used for our direct benefit. The online industry’s business model of basically surveilling us, and then using our data to influence and even manipulate us for their financial gain, has become the Web’s unfortunate status quo. We accept that merely looking up a product on one website means we will be bombarded with ads for it on entirely different sites, with no regard for our privacy or legitimate interests.
Deeper Edge has big plans. For now, its first prototype is focused on helping people discover local events -- restaurant openings, concerts, sporting events, art shows, and other happenings -- without having to give away all of their personal data first. It’s called LEVIT (Local Events and Venues Interactive Tracker), and it’s the first-ever app that combines an online fiduciary and a convenient software package designed to enhance our digital lives. Users share relevant interests and preferences such as favorite musicians, sports teams, restaurants, actors, social issues, etc.; but unlike most apps and websites, which would seek to use that data to compile hidden profiles in order to sell their products or those of other companies, LEVIT safeguards it so that only the bare minimum need be revealed, with the sole purpose of serving the client’s needs. Clients wind up with genuinely useful information without sacrificing their privacy.
Whitt’s GLIAnet project, first introduced in 2019 under the GLIA Foundation, developed the research and conceptual frameworks for bringing greater trustworthiness and agency to Web users’ online interactions. With the launch of Deeper Edge, the GLIAnet project now will benefit from having a for-profit company specially designed to provide the proof of concept for GLIAnet project elements -- including ecosystems based on personal digital fiduciaries.
“There’s a deeply tilted distribution of power online. Internet companies and their ecosystems use cutting-edge algorithms, sophisticated tracking technologies, and reams of our personal data to make unilateral decisions about what we see and don’t see online. Meanwhile, individual Web users are compelled to fend for themselves. On our own, we simply don’t have the expertise — or the time — to successfully stand up for ourselves and our legitimate interests. Each of us needs a new kind of trustworthy support system, one that fully represents us.”
He continues: “The need for a personal digital fiduciary has never been greater — a way for Web users to be able to protect themselves and their families, enhance their control over their personal data, and promote their well-being online.”
How the LEVIT prototype is designed to work
Prototyping in real time. Deeper Edge is a California-based LLC, and the LEVIT app will be its initial product offering. Right now, the latter is in the “proof of concept” phase. In the months ahead, Deeper Edge plans to move LEVIT I rapidly from R&D to prototype to a fully-functioning app. Follow along with developments at www.deeperedge.net.
Complete agency. Deeper Edge clients share their personal interests and preferences with the LEVIT platform, like favorite actors, authors, sports teams, restaurants, and social issues. With LEVIT, all such data will stay on the client side of the app — meaning that Deeper Edge does not directly access, or seek to share, the clients’ information. LEVIT then ventures out into the digital wilds in anonymous mode, seeking out news, media, and other content of interest. Crucially, the app resists the forms of online surveillance that otherwise is part of the common Web user experience.
A seamless UX. Users peruse LEVIT’s findings via the accessible web app. Information — from news articles to restaurant openings to upcoming concerts — is organized in a single, easy-to-use calendar format, and easily merged with the client’s other calendar apps.
Better advertising. Based on the initial prototyping, LEVIT will be available to clients for a modest monthly fee. But under another configuration, clients would have the option of using an advertising-supported version. Unlike the invasive ads that pepper the Web, however, any advertising that is used to support LEVIT will be contextual-only — meaning, in first person only mode, with no invasive marketing.