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Payments Giants and the Big Brother Effect: Witstock MD Talks Customer Relations and Personal Data

Witstock Limited
(Adrian Cannon, MD Witstock Limited)

Adrian Cannon, MD Witstock Limited debates the need for a new payments model for retailers that can bind and grow quality customer relationships without the reliance on using personal customer data to grow their revenues.

Reading the history of the rise of the internet giants there is a common thread that binds them. They have all come to expound a business model that provides a product or service for free and then over time, found ways to monetise the relationships they form with their customers.

The virtue they claim is that the service is available to all and easily adopted and stratospheric rates of uptake can be achieved. However hiding behind this virtue is the reliance it creates on the use of personal data to generate revenues. The use of this data takes many forms but ultimately it leads to the same place.

Personal and often private data is filtered, cross-referenced and further information inferred and then sold to companies that wish to sell things to us.

The internet giants have also made a virtue of the “freemium” model, where a very large number of users that pay nothing, are actively “farmed” to become super-users or “fans”, willing to pay for
exceptional or privileged access to services.

Privilege in this instance may merely mean not being exposed to endless adverts but it rarely means that personal data will not be sold on. The necessity that both these models have turned into a virtue is the absence of a viable means of taking very small or micro-payments that is available to all and affordable to both buyer and seller. Had there been such a service would we have the business models we have today?

Could Facebook and Google have achieved a better social outcome by charging very small amounts for each interaction with their service? Could they have created a world in which people are paid for providing data that is sold to third parties?

The dominant retail payment systems of today evolved over many years to support payments for relatively large value items at physical locations such as stores. The systems, processes and economic model that they rely on could not serve the emerging internet giants. Importantly they have struggled to overcome their inherent limitations and are still unsuited to support such business needs.

One way to avoid the data driven, privacy breaching business model of today would have been to build an effective payment method. That would have required collaboration between market entrants
because a fundamental requirement of successful payment services is ubiquity. Even very large ring-fenced payment services fail because they cause the payer to place funds in multiple payment silos
and this reduces their ability to manage their wealth.

If we imagine a micro-payment solution that could have addressed this need and avoided today’s business model what characteristics would it have had? It would have been similar to cash in many
ways; available for use by all and not dependent on credit-worthiness. No account would have been necessary and value would pass from participant to participant seamlessly without centralised clearing and settlement processes. It would allow in-flight conversion from one store of value to another. For example from Sterling to Bitcoin. It would provide the basis for identifying the individuals involved in the transaction and leave an audit trail for customer service and regulatory purposes. It would be usable in the physical and virtual worlds and it would have costs for payer and payee that were low and proportional to the value of the transaction. Finally, it would treat payer and payee as equals with the ability to send value in either direction.

In the presence of such a service the internet would have been a boon to many businesses not just the tech start-ups. It would have allowed newspapers to charge for news items delivered through digital channels. The ability to charge small amounts and receive payment for an article would have supported the growth of proper journalism in the internet age instead of crowd driven fake news.

Advertisers could have paid a small fee to those interested in watching their ads or even a fee proportional to the viewers’ net worth. The payment schemes have tried to deliver a solution with schemes such as Mondex and VisaCash. However, these were built on yesterday’s infrastructure and failed for that and other reasons. Until a payment service is developed that meets this need, the internet giants must continue to generate revenues by selling personal information. How long this model can last in the face of regulatory pressure and rising consumer concerns is open to debate. If such a payment service does not exist when today’s data driven business model comes to an end it is interesting to ponder the future of the internet giants.

Fortunately technologies are emerging that would enable this new payment model and provided these are made available to all, in a universal model for payment services that mirrors the openness of the internet, the future looks different.

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