While tech giants like Google and Facebook make billions from speculating over your data and your online habits, the normal internet user never makes a cent off the data they provide. However, one company in the D.C. region is hoping to change that. To learn more, we spoke with Erik Rind, founder and CEO of ImagineBC.
ABERMAN: Well it’s been said more than once to me that it used to be that Silicon Valley made technology products, but these days, we are the product. What does that mean to you, when you hear people say things like that?
RIND: Well, I absolutely agree with it. We’re the raw material of their factories, and I like to put it in those terms, because we think at ImagineBC, we see we’re doing something very similar to what occurred back at the turn of the 20th century. Back then you had Carnegie and Vanderbilt, the robber barons in their factories, and the people were just essentially indentured servants to those factories. And along came labor unions and organized them. What was the key there? It was the power of numbers, right? No single individual could take on Vanderbilt or Carnegie, but a thousand people, a million people? Wow. They can.
So, here we are now in this century. And how do we take on Zuckerberg and Brin and Bezos? Well, not individually. That’s not gonna happen. But it is still we the people, and we can band together. That’s what ImagineBC is trying to do. We’re trying to make it easy for all of us to take back control of our data, and most importantly, get fair value for it.
ABERMAN: Now, you’re a tech guy Where do you think that the whole sort of hacker culture went wrong? I mean, you think back to when we were younger. I don’t know when you got your first PC. I was pretty early on, I was geeking out and stuff. It was a really positive idealistic thing. When did it jump the shark, do you think?
RIND: It’s a good question. I got my first PC in 1982. I was using the Internet before there was a thing called the Internet in college. I was playing chess with a guy in Sweden at George Washington University. And you’re right. The culture back then was, wow, this is world changing stuff. It’s public companies. You know, you need the money to fuel the growth. The economy went to quarterly returns. I have to have the bottom line, that will kill idealism in a heartbeat, when you have billions of shareholders saying hey, what’s up. So you know, that gets in the way of innovation.
ABERMAN: When I think about the hacker culture or homebrew culture, I think of the old genus of the term, which was, I want to figure out how to make the soldering iron do something cool? It seems to me that you’re trying to hearken back to that.
RIND: Yes. In fact I remember where I was when I first got my hand on a computer. You know, it’s with great power comes responsibility. Well, when you’re 19 years old, you don’t realize that. And of course, I wrote a program that just whacked out the whole mainframe system at GW, and I was pulled aside, and a fellow said: Erik, responsibility and maturity is when you stop trying to bring the computer down, and focus on trying to keep it up. I’ve lived by that rule my whole life. And really that’s how I look at technology. We have to be doing things that are responsible.
And that’s not to say that the tech giants have started off thinking that would get this way. It was just inevitable that I’m providing you a free service, but there is no such thing as free. So what is the cost? The cost is our data. Google’s motto is: we want to organize the information of the world. That sounds wonderful, but you’re going to read all my emails? You didn’t tell me that. And now you’re trying to finish my sentences? Now, that’s really scary.
ABERMAN: You’re absolutely right. I haven’t had that feature on in my existing Gmail, but I just started working over at American University, and it’s on my Gmail there. And it finishes my sentences, and the scary thing is, it seems to learn! And I’m now seeing my colloquialisms. It’s really jarring, and they think it’s a service. It can be very invasive. Tell me a bit about what you’re doing at ImagineBC to act out on this frankly meaningful feeling, about trying to take back the Internet for individuals.
RIND: I think of the Internet as a delivery vehicle. And it’s an incredible one. And of course it’s gone south from what the original was, and what people thought it would do. So, where I got started with this is when block chain technology came along. Here’s a whole new technology that at first, I didn’t understand it. Therefore being old, I hated it. Didn’t understand it, must be stupid, righ? But I did my own research, did a lot of reading on it, and realized, it is truly game changing technology. Because block chain, if you think that protocol, sitting on top of the Internet Protocol, says, I can now control and own my own data, because I have the key to it. But I can still conduct business in peer to peer commerce over 25,000 miles.
ABERMAN: Explain that a little bit for the layman. You know, block chain is, as I think about it, it’s a way for somebody to participate in sort of a permanent data store of my information, or the things I’ve done, that ultimately exists everywhere. So, nobody can steal it. Nobody can corrupt it. It’s always self referencing. But ultimately, because it’s permanent, I can get at it and I can see what’s there.
RIND: That’s correct. Most importantly, you have the key to it. It’s actually more secure than your home. Somebody can break into your home, and if you happen to have your Social Security number somewhere on a piece of paper in your home, your social security number is gone. But think of block chain now as your house, with all your private data in it, and you have the only key to it. But nobody can come through a window to get there. Literally nobody can get into it. Only you can sell it.
ABERMAN: So essentially block chain, which a lot of people think about it as the backbone of cryptocurrency, which relies upon anonymity. What you’re saying in effect is that block chain now would allow us to, instead of using as a way to transact a financial transaction, we can now use it as a way to protect our information, and control who has access to it? Well, I think that’s a pretty important thing.
RIND: Yes. So in fact, ImagineBC as a concept would have never existed if it wasn’t for block chain technology. Because although it’s still the right idea, hey, get control of your data, monetize it. But without block chain, we would just have your data in a centralized database, and we would be no better than Equifax or Capital One. A sitting duck. You put a lot of data into one centralized data store, and you’re going to attract a lot of bad company. Don’t even bother right now.
With the data dispersed through a distributed network like block chain, and we’re doing it as a private sitting underneath a cloud service provider like Microsoft. Good luck trying to get to any one person’s data, let alone millions and millions. So, that’s what made it a reality. Holy cow. People can really be the only ones to have access to and control their data to make decisions about it.
ABERMAN: Other than the fact that what you’re describing would basically blow up the business model of a lot of really big companies, there’s nothing threatening about your business to the status quo.
RIND: In fact, blowing up the big guys is exactly what we want to do. Believe it or not, I have this absolute belief that we need to re-establish Main Street. I don’t mean 1950s Main Street, because that has a lot of bad connotations with it. I don’t mean white male American Main Street, but Main Street is critical to our republic. It’s the backbone of it, and it’s getting walloped, every decade it gets worse, and it’s almost disappearing because of these tech giants. Wal-Mart took out all these mom and pop businesses.
I believe that giving people back the rights to their data, and even more importantly, their intellectual property, right, which is my creativity and my time, and paying them fair value for it, is an essential ingredient to bringing back what we call at ImagineBC a virtual main street. And I don’t know who it is, because we keep anonymity within it. It’s just, I can trust you because I have a trust and reputation score. And then I can do business with you anywhere on this globe, because within this community, we know we can trust one another.
ABERMAN: I’ve got a feeling you’re pretty sympathetic to the politicians that are talking about regulating large tech companies.
RIND: It’s a love hate relationship. I absolutely love that they’re making the discourse public. I love the fact that they’re creating awareness. I’m a little concerned when they try to put a value to our data, and what really concerns me is, they’re talking about privacy where we talk about control. The truth of the matter is, nobody on the Hill is ever going to get us our data back.
ABERMAN: So, I really love your philosophy. You’ve got this company going. How are you growing it, how are you scaling it here?
RIND: The biggest way to scale it though is through partnerships. So, we’re working with staffing companies, we’re working with labor unions, as I said. We’re partnering with specific social media people who get what we’re trying to do. And they’ll be introducing us to their already existing communities to join our larger community. And then, that’s when we go to work. We put those numbers to work for you, the individual, and find opportunities for you to make money from your information.
ABERMAN: So for example, getting it to a point of scale where you can go to a merchant and say, we’ll provide you with people who will tell you something about their demographics, or their net worth and so forth, for targeted opportunities, provided that you use our platform.
RIND: Yes. Not even provided, because our platform is free. It’s free to both sides, it’s free to the individual, and it’s free to the third party. ImagineBC only makes money when we’ve delivered on our promise, which is, we worked for you. When you’ve made money, that’s when we make money. After you made money, we make money. It’s clear. We never have to sell your data.
Our job is to make opportunities for your data, so it’s free on both sides. You’re right, the individual can put as much information they want about themselves out there. We use the same technologies that Facebook and Google do with artificial intelligence and machine learning. Except, rather than using it to the benefit of ourselves and our shareholders, we like to say we’ve democratized the use of it. We’re putting it to work for you, the members of our community.
ABERMAN: Well I love that you shared your story with us. I wish you the best with ImagineBC. It’s a really big and important thing.