Ashoka Fellowship Application

In the spring of 2001, three years before Facebook was founded, I was nominated for an Ashoka Fellowship. Below is my application, which received the support of the United States staff.

Unfortunately, the International staff at Ashoka did not recognize the potential of my idea, not yet knowing in detail the nouns and verbs, and the fellowship was not funded. I understood that they made their decisions in a global context, and agreed with it. I still think it's a good idea. (Also, unfortunately, the images for this document have been lost).

The Problem

The internet is the fastest-growing communications medium in human history. Within a decade of the invention of the world wide web, 50% of American adults already use the internet daily. For better or worse, the American experience portends the experience of the rest of the world. We have choices about how the internet—and civilization—evolves.

In a study released March 2000 [1], the number of Americans on the internet who report giving time or money to social causes represents 25% of the adult population. Furthermore, 16% of the adult population, or 32 million people, are willing to take action online:


Yet 66% of "netizens" are unaware of opportunities to take action online:


Because of rapid internet growth, attention is quickly becoming the scarcest resource in the new economy. Direct email marketing by dot-coms will increase 40-fold in five years, at a time that web sites catering to social cause organizations are among the last that citizens visit.

Social cause organizations are having an increasingly difficult time translating public support for their issue into social change. Already, even though 75% of Americans describe themselves as environmentalists (Time, 1995), only a tiny minority (10%) are affiliated with any organization.

With the internet, every organization is forced to redefine its relationship to its audience. The balance of power in this relationship has shifted from the organization to the individual, who can now visit another organization's web site with the click of a mouse. That other organization is increasingly a dot-com, spending millions on cause-based marketing to attract attention to its e-commerce site, at the expense of a social cause. Its interruption marketing [2] as usual, but faster, better and cheaper. Well-financed internet marketing accelerates social disintermediation.

Dot-coms and dot-orgs are in a vicious cycle of interruption marketing, which explains why 71% of netizens are concerned about protecting their personal privacy on the internet:

The social backlash to an increasing interruption marketing assault—online marketers simply cannot restrain themselves when the cost of distributing messages is nothing—will be well deserved. It's a problem that social cause organizations on the internet could turn into an issue [3].

If the problem is not addressed, public interest access to online constituencies will be through expensive data profiling companies, far beyond the resources of social cause organizations.

The Idea [4] will be a new service, coalescing social cause organizations with dot-coms developing personal privacy tools and public interest organizations addressing privacy policy to reintermediate a critical mass of new social cause netizens that value personal privacy. needs to satisfy the value proposition of several internet-based constituencies in order to help social cause organizations be heard in the new economy:

  • The vast majority of internet users want the medium to work for them while maintaining their option of anonymity. Providing protection of personal and private data is paramount.
  • Far-sighted dot-coms recognize the rapidly growing privacy market but need to jump-start it with appropriate solutions to address the coming crisis in advance of government regulation.
  • Privacy policy advocates need a vocal constituency that can push businesses and governments to extend and institutionalize the social protection of individual privacy on the internet.

Through, a virtuous cycle can be initiated where the satisfaction of each value proposition reinforces the other. Thus, social cause organizations can identify and mobilize a growing constituency of netizens by embracing personal privacy protection as a key tenant of the public interest agenda in the next decade. To the extent that social cause organizations collaboratively engage in, they can become a strategic coalition for structural change to reintermediate an online public engaged in social causes. can become a trusted internet-based platform for effective civic engagement.

The Strategy is a new strategy designed to establish a trusted infomediary [5] that engages citizens on the internet in social causes by publishing information about actions that match an individual's social or community interests. enables netizens to own and control their own data by building profiles of their interests and actions so that they may be kept informed of news and events by organizations active in relevant social causes.

The two keys to will be the Privacy Portal and a Privacy Player:

  • The Privacy Portal will be a decentralized registration system on participating organizations web sites that allow individuals to indicate their civic engagement and privacy preferences via a web browser. Netizens, who need not be a member of any organization, will register to participate by indicating the standard action opportunities they want to be informed about.
  • The Privacy Player will be an application that is administered on a person's computer (or via a secure web connection to a remote server) to help individuals monitor and update their preferences, making it possible to refine their receipt of action opportunities.

Social cause organizations affiliated with will publish action opportunities, but only those opportunities that match the preference profiles of individuals will be delivered. The first filter will be applied by based on information attributes supplied by participating organizations, but the final filter will be at the individual's desktop based on attributes recorded in their Privacy Player. Of course, an individual can visit any Privacy Portal to view the full range of action opportunities, and thus adjust their Privacy Player by editing their own filters. will analyze the results of all outreach campaigns, and publish them to participating organizations and individuals. will not determine which online action campaigns are conducted, nor the content of any published messages. Nor will it broker emailing lists. Rather, will be the trusted infomediary managing data profiles representing relationships between individuals and the groups or campaigns that seek access to them for engagement. Only the individual has access to their own profile: dot-orgs or dot-coms never see this data unless permission is provided by the individual. will be a neutral place where any and all groups can build a trust relationship with the online public. The more social cause organizations proactively respect privacy needs, the more information netizens will provide about their interests. With greater understanding of these interests, targeted online campaigns will have much greater impact, starting a virtuous cycle as netizens recruit their family and friends to an increasingly effective service that they trust.

To establish, several initial strategies need to be pursued:

Develop the Social Cause Constituency for Privacy (6 months)

Education of social cause organizations will be key to They need education about the self-defeating nature of their current broadcast communications on the internet (which their constituents regard as spam, and tune out). will educate social cause organizations to develop data management policies that conform to the Code of Fair Information Practices [6]. Privacy policy organizations and technology assistance organizations will be engaged as partners to start marketing A governing board will be established for to oversee the operations of the infomediary.

Develop the Revenue Model (12 months) will be a free service to individuals and social cause organizations that want to connect with them. Businesses that want access to this constituency will be charged, with revenues in excess of direct operating expenses distributed to participating individuals and social cause organizations. Initial start-up funds will be secured from foundations and social venture philanthropists.

Build a Suite of Privacy Tools (18 months) will develop partnerships with dot-coms building privacy tools (such as Privada) to develop a suite of applications designed to anonymize web surfing (allowing users to shield their identity as they surf the web); suppress cookies (preventing web sites from tracking user behavior); and filter email (to screen out unwanted spam). The Privacy Portal could be developed with a company like Some tools will be bundled into the Privacy Player, others will be deployed on servers that users share. All tools will be developed based on XML standards facilitating the exchange of the data in the system based on privacy preferences.

An Ashoka Fellowship will enable me to devote all my creative energies toward realizing this idea. Not only will I be able to begin implementing the strategies outlined above, but I will also be able to access a network of other social entrepreneurs who can coach me to extend and adapt my idea.


[1] Socially Engaged Internet Users: Prospects for Online Philanthropy and Activism, prepared for Craver, Mathews, Smith Interactive by the Mellman Group. [back to text]

[2] See Permission Marketing by Seth Godin, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999, especially Chapter 1. [back to text]

[3] Only is addressing this issue, but its membership is comprised only of dot-coms that cannot compromise their business models by not compromising the personal data of their e-commerce customers. [back to text]

[4] is the code name for this service. The domain name is registered. A permanent name will be selected that is short, memorable, and available. [back to text]

[5] The term infomediary is used in the technical sense as first defined by John Hegel, III and Marc Singer in Net Worth, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999. [back to text]

[6] Developed by a commission headed by Elliot Richardson in the Nixon Administration. See Simson Garfinkel's Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, Boston: O'Reilly & Associates, 2000. [back to text]