Sunday, September 30, 2012

CC BY and the Truth-Printing Business

Why are dollars worth anything? Why are digits on a bank statement worth anything? When my server tells our payments provider to move bits from your credit card, why does it matter to you?

In practical terms, dollars are valuable because other people will give you stuff or do things for you in exchange. Or at least they will if you can convince their bank to change the digits in their bank account. Their bank has to trust your bank which has to trust you. It all works because we all trust it will work. And why do we trust that it will work?

There are governments and laws to back them up. Why do we trust the government and laws? In practical terms we trust the government and laws because... well... they have ballot boxes. And judges and police forces. But mostly we trust the government and legal system because it sort of works and is often not abusive. At the bottom, it's because there's this web of trust which collectively holds everything together. Until of course, it doesn't. Because there isn't a bottom, it's turtles all the way down.

If you haven't heard of Bitcoin, let me give you this non-technical summary. Bitcoin is a recent implementation of the idea that money based on a web of cryptographically secured assertions is sounder than money based on a web of governmentally secured assertions. If as many people believed in cryptography as believe in astrology, we'd be using Bitcoin today.

The magic result is that an entity that gets society to trust its currency can then print money.

When the currency is truth rather than coin, judges and guns don't work so well. Traditional hierarchical authority systems are breaking down. What's replacing them is open authority systems. Systems such as wikipedia which allow everyone to participate in the construction of truth, not by being correct, but by being fixable. And to the frustration of many, Wikipedia delegates all its authority to things that are "citeable".

So how do you get to be an authority that Wikipedia believes? The two criteria that seem to matter most are
  1. Openness. If wikipedians can't read you, you don't exist. 
  2. Authority. People need to believe you. 
If you notice the circularity here, you'll see that printing truth and printing money are not so different.

As usual, I take a long time getting around to my point. Which is this: If you want to be in the business of printing truth, the best license to choose for your business is the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). For now. And if you're printing science, medicine, technology or even philosophy, I really hope you want to print truth.

The Creative Commons part speaks to the need to be open. In the age of the internet, you can't print truth and keep it secret. No one will believe you.

The Attribution part builds your most valuable asset, your reputation. No one believes anonymous assertions.

You might ask about other options, for example, Non-Commercial (NC), No Derivatives(ND), Share-Alike (SA).

I've written about reasons to use NC and ND. Those reasons don't apply to the truth-printing business.

Can you imagine if your dollar bill said "This note is legal tender for all non-commercial debts public or private". That would be silly. The whole point of money is that it doesn't change depending on its use. And its the same with truth. There ain't no such thing as non-commercial truth. You can't control the uses of the truth you print. You can't even demand that people who consume your truth share that truth the same as you do..

A lot of people get confused about using no-derivative licenses. They think that if you print that the sky is blue, your credibility will be hurt if someone reprints a derivative of your truth and says the sky is black. But that's exactly what the attribution requirements prevent. But more than that, if you print your truth as chiseled in stone, then no one will believe it in a few years or so, because we all know that the truth hasn't been chiseled in stone for at least two thousand years. Nowadays we can make cryptographically strong proofs that assertions aren't being fiddled with and were made by the entities they're attributed. We can track the trail of assertions through history. And the provider of that chain of provenance is you, the truth printing proprietor. The longer the trail of conflicting assertions, the more crucial your authority as a truth printer becomes.

The problem of turning the currency of truth into harder currency is left as an exercise for the reader.
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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Stripe, Balanced, WePay for Payments: Not big enough to #fail

When Amazon Payments first told us they wouldn't allow our crowd-funding business to continue using their system, we thought it was a phishing attack. That's because a robot sent it, and what does a robot know? But it turned out they were serious, they had to cut us off, because what if we destroyed civilization as we know it? Would they be on the hook for it?

Having dealt with Amazon Payments and Paypal, I dreaded what we'd have to go through. But now, after learning more than I ever wanted to know about the online payments industry, I feel that getting booted by Amazon was the best thing that could have happened to There's a new generation of payments companies out there, and when the big payments companies have their Lehmann-Bear-Stearns-Brothers moment, you'll be happy if you escaped in time.

To understand what makes payments companies tick, you have to understand something about the risks they take on, and the ways they try to mitigate risk. For a merchant, taking a credit card means you don't have to worry about whether someone's credit is good. For a consumer, paying with a credit card means you have some recourse if a merchant tries to cheat you. Credit card fraud is probably older than credit cards, and credit card companies have decades of experience detecting fraud and reducing its cost.

Internet commerce introduced entirely new categories of risks, and conventional payments providers were not eager to change. To address the needs of a new era, a number of payments companies came into existence, most notably, Paypal. As Paypal took off, companies like Amazon, Apple, Ebay and Google did not stand idly by.

But anyone who's used Paypal, Amazon Payments, or Google Wallet recently can't help but notice that these services have calcified. Even worse is that they've metastasized as impersonal, unresponsive machines. In the payments biz, calcification has advantages. Consumers have learned to trust these companies and their brands, and the companies have in turn done their best to turn into rocks of calcite stability.

But if you want to change the world with your fantastic start-up, you're screwed. If you're doing something new, the big guys can't evaluate your risk profile. Because they're machines. For changing the world, you need people, or at least cyborgs. You need high-powered big-data risk analysis supplementing the judgments of seriously smart people. And over the last month, I've found some of this at three different companies.

First, let me tell you about some companies we didn't pursue. Dwolla is really interesting, but we thought it would be hard to sell Dwolla and its requirement for direct bank account access to our core demographic. If our users were high-involvement, high frequency users, we might feel differently. Similarly, the marketing barriers to using things like bitcoin are prohibitive at this time. Mobile payments solutions such as Square aren't so relevant for our application.

Another company we were interested in was Braintree Payments. We reached out to them, but they told us that three weeks prior to our request, their banking networks had told them to stop supporting crowdfunding businesses.

So we looked at WePay, Balanced, and Stripe. Three breaths of fresh air.

Of these three the company that most closely replicates the Amazon/Paypal model is WePay. Like Amazon/Paypal, WePay allows users to create a WePay account. As WePay becomes more and more accepted, consumers who might be hesitant to give credit card info to an unfamiliar service like will recognize the WePay brand and grant access to their WePay account, if they already have one, via OAuth. If the user doesn't have a WePay account, the the marketplace can create one on their behalf. When everything works, friction in the transaction drops dramatically.

Wepay's API (which was not available when we were looking for a payments provider a year ago) allows all the key functions Gluejar would need to build a crowdfunding application. These include conditional and delayed payments. For example, WePay is the payments provider for GoFundMe. The biggest downside for us is that Wepay is quite specific about only allowing payees who are US citizens. Still, we were able to identify a work-around for our non-US rights-holders. Balanced and Stripe had similar issues and work arounds.

Balanced, the smallest of the three companies we talked to, is in many ways the most exciting. They're focused on providing solutions specifically tailored to markets. They've baked the concepts of multiple buyers and multiple sellers into their well-documented API, and offer features such as the ability to escrow payments into the marketplace account. If you so much as browse their website you'll be given an API key and be offered the chance to do a test transaction.

Markets present rather different risk profiles to a payment provider than do simple merchants. The diversity of participants and flow of payments makes it harder to detect fraud. But if you have smart, experienced people involved, the risks can be assessed and mitigated. Fraud detection algorithms can be optimized for markets. The possibilities of markets enabled by the internet are unfathomable. For example, last week I learned of a company, VoiceBunny, that has built a marketplace for voice talents. Crowdvoicing! You feed some text into an API and soon, someone with a great voice will speak it for you. They're using Paypal now, but they would be smart to look at Balanced.

GitTip IS using balanced, after a fiasco with FeeFighters and finding their business model incompatible with Stripe's underwriters. Gittip's founder, Chad Whitacre, had to "understand and mitigate the risks of running a marketplace", and Balanced is helping him do that.

Stripe was the most "boring" payments company we looked at. I use the word "boring" with much admiration, because they're focusing on the relatively boring old problem of enabling internet merchants to take credit cards and just doing a better job of it. On the implementation side, they've succeeded brilliantly, with an API and developer support that just makes you want to throw your Paypal code into the trash and drink some good bubbly to celebrate its demise.

The folks at Stripe took the time to understand the issues of payment risk inherent in our business model, and what we're doing to address it. To be able to use Stripe for our marketplace, we would need to take some responsibility for delivering the Creative-Commons Licensed eBooks that our crowd is funding. It means that we can't work like Kickstarter, which disclaims any and all responsibility for completion and delivery of the projects on its website. Since that quality control and delivery assurance is a big part of the extra value we provide over Kickstarter, Stripe is a viable option for us. As are Balanced and WePay.

In deciding among these three great companies, the questions we asked ourselves were more about what we want to be than anything else. Do we require the scaling characteristics of a marketplace or are we just a merchant that wants to take creditcards? Do we want a payment network or can we stand on our own? As the world of internet payments develops, which company will develop solutions aligned with our particular needs?

I'm not going to say which company we've settled on until we make sure that everything works, but I've very sure that whether it's that one or one of the others, we'll be in a much happier space than we were with Amazon or Paypal. If you are considering a switch from a payments company that is too big to care about your success, or if you are deciding on a provider for a new application, you should really look at the new companies. A healthy internet economy needs a diversity of payments providers who employ more than just algorithms, who support businesses rather than accounts.