It Happened to Me

Notes from Internet+Society 2004: The Business Panel

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More notes from the Berkman Center’s Internet+Society 2004 conference — these are from the “Business” panel.

Here’s the description of the panel:

The most promising Internet business

models have a great deal in common with the most promising political

movements.  They empower the grassroots and serve as platforms

upon which greatness can build.  What can the politician learn

from the businessperson, and vice-versa?


Tod Cohen

  • Talked about the eBay’s “values card”: a small card handed to all eBay employees, which states:
    • People are generally good
    • People usually treat others the way they want to be treated
    • eBay must strive to create an open, honest environment for its customers
  • Some eBay stats — in the 3rd quarter of 2004, eBay had
    • 125 million registered users
    • 348 million listings
    • $1060 per second in gross merchandise volume
    • 56 million PayPal users
    • 2.4 billion feedback comments to date
  • “It’s our job as stewards of the small business community to represent their interests.”

Esther Dyson

  • I’m on the board of
  • For two “interesting

    and educational” years, I was chair at ICANN. “One learns a lot from

    mistakes, and I learned a huge amount there.”

  • “A lot of the utopian stuff you hear about people coming together in the global village is…implausible, to be polite.”
  • In

    business, you have the luxury of getting rid of the customers you don’t

    like. You don’t have to follow due process, save for the laws governing

    business. Governments don’t have this luxury of saying “these people

    aren’t profitable enough to serve”.

  • Government can specify a

    “target market” — a particular demographic — but it can’t stop there;

    it must expand this target market. The Kerry and Dean campaigns failed

    to enlarge the target market. They also failed to listen.

  • The internet is better used as a listening tool.

Debora Spar

  • Never actually ran a business, just have the luxury of watching business
  • Will give the view from Harvard Business School
  • About

    10 years ago, people started changing what they wanted to be when they

    grew up. Nobody wanted to work for a Fortune 500 company, but wanted to

    go to Silicon Valley and work for a start-up. There was a migration

    from school and conventional business models. Students would come in

    and show her their business plans, to which she’d ask “How is this

    going to make money?”

  • The plans were not about making money, but raising

    money — that is, making money without selling anything. No wonder they

    failed. You have to have a business plan that actually has a business

    attached to it.

  • Even with this wonderful technology, we haven’t “turned the world upside down”.
  • What kinds of internet businesses make money?
    • Doing old things in a new way (
    • Way-new decentralized ways of doing things (eBay)
    • Facilitating transactions (PayPal)
  • Rules to follow:
    • Don’t forget the old stuff:: there are rules that have existed since the start of politics that need to be followed.
    • What are the eBays of the political world?
  • Does

    not agree with the fundamental hypothesis of this talk: business is

    about controlling information and revenue generation, which government

    is about disseminating information.


  • eBay is political. It changes how people see themsleves in relation to other institutions.

Jonathan Zuck

  • I’m going to be the odd man out: I don’t care about politics.
  • Most of things we’re talking about aren’t on the radar in the presidential elections.
  • If people feel empowered by the Internet but don’t see results, they may retreat.

Craig Newmark

  • I’m going to ignore talking about business plans and business

    models, because we don’t have one. Intuition and instinct will serve

    you better.

  • What makes sites like Craigslist work is that they’re “more like us“. Corporate sites are “more like them“.
  • What’s working for Craigslist:
    • Following the “moral compass” of the community
    • People actually want to follow the Golden Rule. People expect righteous behaviour from Craigslist.
  • We’re about customer service: genuinely engaging with people

“Why are there two cops in the room?”

Dyson, in response to Cohen’s mention of the eBay values card asked:

“If people are basically good, why are there two cops in the room?”.

She pointed to the two campus police officers stationed at the back.

Their presence was mandated by Harvard’s secuirty department after they

heard that Hoder, who was a guest of the conference, has received death

threats posted on a radical Islamic site.

Reputations online

  • Dyson: People think of reputation systems are about finding

    the bad apples so you can avoid them and encouraging the good apples to

    behave better.

  • Dyson: Internet’s biggest cultural impact: disempowers the powerful
  • Newmark: The openness of the internet is what distinguishes it
  • Spar:

    Although it’s an open medium, it can be closed — it’s possible. Some

    governments are in the business of keeping the internet closed.

  • Dyson: People are forming relationships without meeting face-to-face.


  • Zuck: What makes an application “spyware” is not technology, it’s conduct.

    Spyware and anti-virus software are essentially the same thing. eBay

    has a toolbar that indicates whether you’re on a real eBay site or not.

    Its underlying actions fall under a definition of spyware

  • Zuck: The spam law was not about regulating spam but keeping the states from implementing crazy spam laws.

Trust issues and eBay

  • Zuck: One of the biggest barriers to ecommerce is entrenched middlemen
  • Dyson:

    eBay’s anti-phishing and dispute resolution tools come from outside the

    company. Don’t rely on authorities — try and resolve

    your disputes

A nutty idea

Interesting anecdote: A congressman wrote a paper suggesting that

eBay could be made safe by having it open physical locations across the

country where items for sale would be shown for three days before being



An audience member asked a question about information overload and

privacy statements: “I’m getting swamped” trying to read and understand

these things!

  • [Unknown]: Privacy policies are hard to understand because they aren’t written for you; they’re written by lawyers for lawyers.
  • Dyson: There are distinctions in privacy. Consider the privacy issues around the purchase of a sweater online:
    • They know I bought a pink sweater
    • Why are they sending me ads for blue sweaters?
    • They know my credit card number
  • Mixing up these distinctions makes the debate of privacy

Related Reading

Is eBay the future of internet politics?

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