6 Dec 2022

Zero Party Data and How Sir Tim Berners-Lee is ‘Course-Correcting’ the Internet

The internet’s creator has founded a new company focused on ‘zero party data’. What is it? It’s time you knew…

John Bruce, co-founder and CEO of technology company Inrupt, has a controversial opinion. Companies, he argues, don’t actually want to have all your data. While conventional wisdom has it that many brands would do almost anything to relieve you of information about yourself, Bruce disagrees.

“The overwhelming majority of companies would rather not have your data! What they want to do is have access to it when they feel it’s appropriate”.

A subtle nuance – and an important one. But what, I wonder, does that actually look like in reality? Speaking from the States over Zoom, Bruce launches into an analogy about a fictional shoe manufacturer.

“Ideally they’d like to know your shoe size; they would like to know when they have a propensity to purchase shoes” he explains.

“But to do that today they need your name your address, your credit card details, your card’s security number… a lot of this stuff is toxic to them!”.

It’s the storing and keeping of data, he explains, that becomes a headache.

“Corporations are having to become experts in things that are not their core competencies. A lot of businesses don’t necessarily want to be experts in law and regulation and how to build security infrastructures. They just want to sell you shoes!”.

Yet, with the best intentions, this is the world that e-commerce and regulation have created. Bruce, however, finds it curious that this has become the norm.

“It’s come about somehow that it’s deemed appropriate to service your customers by gathering as much data about them as possible – then trying to figure out what they’re likely to be interested in. Marketing departments are conditioned by this notion of ‘how are we going to get more data? How are we going to tease it out of people?’”

This, he muses, is neither terribly efficient nor particularly satisfying for either companies or consumers. And the result is the building of more and more siloed databases that do not, in fact, give an accurate picture of most people. Yet it’s a mode of operating that’s entrenched.

‘It’s not the way the web should work’

It is not, he says the way the web should work – and in saying this,s Bruce speaks from a place of authority. Bruce co-founded Inrupt with Sir Tim Berners-Lee – the inventor of the internet. The fact that its creator is thinking he needs to intervene in the internet’s future is quite a statement.

“The web he originally invented is not the web that we’ve got today”, expands Bruce. “He saw how he could give it a mid-course correction to take it back to become the vibrant, innovative and valuable he originally imagined”.

What’s the alternative? What is this brave new world Bruce and Berners-Lee are setting out to create?

The answer, it transpires, is impressive in its simplicity. Instead of gathering data from any means possible, what if you… just asked for it?

Zero party data

“The Holy Grail for organisations at the moment is a thing called zero party data”, explains Bruce.

“We all know third party data – which is gathered from cookies and the like as you browse the web – and first party data – which is when you go to a particular website and provide your details by making a purchase or signing up to receive something.”

“Zero party data is where you offer up more detailed information to brands you trust, voluntarily. And marketing departments the world over are beginning to appreciate that this kind of information is much more valuable than anything else”.

But aren’t we doing that anyway? Surely we’re ticking boxes constantly to give consent to our data being used?

Zero party data is much more specific. It’s information you would only share with companies that you have a relationship with – and want to buy from. To return to the shoemaker analogy, you might want to share personal information with your favourite shoe brand. If you pro-actively tell them your shoe size, what you like and when you tend to buy, in theory they would no longer spam you with endless marketing emails – but rather present you with something you may wish to buy at a time that suits you.

“To do that” explains Bruce, “every user will have their own personal data area – we call it a ‘pod’. Your data lives there and you control it. Organisations that want to serve you can come to you and say ‘hey, we think we have something that might be of use to you – do you mind if we look at this piece of data for the following purpose?’”.

The crucial point is they don’t need to take your data away and store it – companies would just look at it and deem whether their product or service would be of use/interest to you. And your information would be held in one place and give an accurate picture of who you are.

“You exist online today in hundreds of different places and fragments” says Bruce, “We’re trying to put it back together in a way where everybody gets the benefit”.

Broaden this out and the way you purchase online could start to look very different. No more junkmail folders bursting at the seams with offers from that online garden centre you once bought a hose from – but targeted marketing from a small selection of brands you actively wish to buy from and have chosen.

Go broader still and companies that really matter to you – like healthcare – can provide a much more tailored service to you based on the accurate information you allow them to access.

“It’s the way the web should work, and it’s the way corporations really want it to work too”, says Bruce.

A matter of trust

For this to work well, brands need to develop deep trusted relationships with customers – in many cases much deeper than they have now. By giving the user total control over who they trust to access their personal data, brands will need to work harder to prove their worthiness and privacy credentials.

Privacy and data ethics, in this world, will become paramount – the make or break of company reputation. And there’s a real opportunity here for brands who do this well to turn that into commercial success.

From there it becomes a virtuous circle. Companies gain access to much more valuable insights and consumers are only engaged by companies they actively choose to interact with and put trust in.

At this point Bruce becomes philosophical.

“Privacy”, he muses “is an essential way that we form relationships. You allow people you know well and trust more with more intimate and private information about your life. It’s information you would never share with a casual acquaintance or someone you meet on the street!”.

“What’s most fascinating to me is the acceptance, the comfort factor, people generally are having about giving up their privacy. I think candidly it’s because they don’t appreciate the implications of it”.

But, Bruce argues, the new world of Inrupt and data pods could flip all this around – meaning everyone wins.

“My mother is 80 and this product could deliver way better healthcare to her than she currently gets. I find that really motivating” he enthuses – before correcting himself. “Actually she’s 90 – shame on me! She’s 90!”.

A data pod would never make that error…