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Can Trademarks and Brands Help Save the Internet From Itself?

Trademarks and brands are often among a company’s most valued assets. Customers associate trademarks and brands with producer integrity. They engender consumer trust. Without TMs and Brands, companies struggle for attention and find it more difficult to link the company’s integrity and trustworthiness in the marketing of its goods and services. Representing company promise and customer expectations, they are uniquely positioned to symbolize common values and aspirations. For these reasons, there is a common interest to preserve the integrity of their intellectual property.

Why is it then, that any of the companies that are most protective toward their intellectual property are the same companies that are most aggressive in, and most vocal and active in defending their predatory and manipulative data mining practices? Why is it then, that today companies with a significant Internet presence, and strong digital TMs and Brands, are increasingly identified with a blatant disregard for the privacy, security and integrity of the data of their customers? They are increasingly invested in the engagement of subject-experts, opinion leaders and lawyers in their pursuit of minimally constrained access to consumer/user data. As a result, these trademarks and branded companies are perceived as an overly aggressive, self-serving and damaging element in the health and wellbeing of the digital ecosystem in general, and for Internet Governance in particular.

The key to understanding companies in the digital age is to understand their heavy dependence on digital data. A company’s digital presence places the collection and processing of data at the center of its activities. For social media, service is the bait, the hook, the net that catches user data as their main produce and primary source of revenue. For providers of goods and services user data, and insights derived from its analysis, are not only used for product and marketing improvement but as with social media it can also be sold to third parties for commercial, political or in some cases even illegal or criminal purposes. Much of the design and function of many of today’s digital products and services is driven not by innovative products and services, but by innovative methods to collect data. While products and services must minimally connect with uses needs or wants, their main goal is innovative means for data harvesting.

Even more harmful than the abuse of, and lack of respect for, the privacy and security of user data for product or service marketing purposes, is its use but to influence the behavior of persons, entities and even governments. The manipulated digital reality, populated by truths or falsehoods, as seen by the digital user can manipulate and influence behavior. This is occurring not just in product and service markets, but more widely and dangerously in social and political arenas, in particular in the democratic processes of open society nations.

As the strategy of a company shifts from a relationship of integrity with its consumers, one aimed at enhancing customer engagement with products and services, to one of promoting unregulated access to and use of user data, satisfied consumers are no longer the end game. Access to and the use of user data become central to the business. The integrity of the relationship (the Brand and TMs) is compromised, integrity is lost, and trust is violated.

While one may admire social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) for their service innovations, and online “stores” such as Amazon and Alibaba for their marketing savvy, they have developed in a regulatory void when it comes to private/personal data privacy and security. They have also exploited that regulatory void in ways that will likely be seen to be both anti-competitive unacceptable to what should be the protected rights and obligations of persons, entities and even governments in the Internet ecosystem.

Does this user data mining business model have a future as the Internet ecosystem gradually evolves appropriate models of governance? Initially, digital companies projected significant brand images (FaceBook, Amazon, Instagram, Netflix Google) while obscuring predatory practices behind service innovations. However, widespread awareness of such predatory practices is growing. Companies are drawing on the goodwill associated with their brands counter the potential for loss of trust. More and more people are asking fundamental questions about their digital privacy, their digital identity, and the uncontrolled use of their data. A Brand’s offer of cheap prices, convenient ordering and fast delivery is no longer enough.

Distractive ads, serious data breaches, and political manipulation of exponential magnitude are where we are today. Where we are is not good. Digital users feel as disenfranchised “subjects” within the Internet ecosystem, and not as engaged and empowered digital citizens. People, entities, and governments need respect from one and other for their digital integrity. The integrity of digital brands is eroding, goodwill being replaced by suspicion and even disgust. Promoting Brand altruism engenders suspicion of doing harm. There is growing evidence that the public reception of digital Brands is increasingly diminishing. (This example shall serve as one of many instances of trust erosion.)

Despite many public “mea culpas”, apologies, and highly publicized damage limitation initiatives designed to save Brands and their businesses, companies have continued with predatory data practices. These are central to their core business strategy, and the future revenue from such practices are baked into their current market valuations. In the absence of a governance process, it is impossible to determine if there is anything inherently wrong, unfair or unethical with the “data for services” terms of service consumers are pressed to agree to and with other practices within the Internet ecosystem.

As legislators slowly grasp the nature, if not the scope, of the problems, there are moves to force companies to change through legislation. The European GDPR data protection regulations are a leading example of this. The effect is very limited as it only addresses one small part of the exploited data and does not address the fundamental causes embedded in business practices within the Internet ecosystem.

To explore solutions to the challenge facing digital brands and their waning goodwill we need to recognize that, with its rush to innovation and growth, cyberspace development has run roughshod over integrity, security and trust. We have failed to adequately define and establish the rights and duties of digital users as residents of the Internet ecosystem and failed to attend to its governance needs. Efforts to date have been piecemeal and failed to recognize the global aspects of the Internet ecosystem.

The Internet ecosystem is here to stay. It is a virtually ungoverned part of our expanded reality. We’ve gone too long without tending to the need to begin to build an infrastructure for an Internet climate of trust and digital integrity. How can it be achieved? To restore goodwill and integrity the TM and Brand companies need to adopt, promote and help implement both legal and cultural practices suitable for the digital age, practices and regulations which define the relationship between engaged digital citizenship and responsible business practices. TM and Brand companies cannot achieve this in the absence of appropriate governance that helps develop the rules of the game and rules of engagement.

The integrity of a TM or Brand rests on how it treats user data and is an important determinant of TM and Brand value. A lack of digital integrity puts both user privacy and Brand and TM worth at risk. Respect for, and helping advance the values of, digital citizenship will help TM and Brand companies protect their integrity and goodwill. Digital integrity, as respect for the rights and obligations of data ownership and the limits of data access, must be understood as not only a new and important aspect of consumer protection, but essential for preserving the integrity, goodwill, and asset value of TMs and Brands.

Companies and the Internet ecosystem require an urgent reset of current business models. TM and Brand companies, of course along with others, should lead the way to build new behaviors and practices that establish positive and sustainable “trusted” Brand values. To preserve the value of their TMs and Brands digital companies need to strike a “new deal” not only with their customers but the whole internet ecosystem. TMs and Brands have the opportunity of being lead stakeholders in the pursuit of digital Integrity and trust or run the risks of being marginalized by a user/consumer revolt from below, or ill-designed regulations from above. The call is for engaged TM and Brand stakeholders, working in concert with other stakeholder contingents.

In so doing, TM and Brand companies can pull the Internet, and themselves, back from the edge of a worrisome precipice of Internet ecosystem distrust and damaging disruption. The following offers some suggestions for how TM and Brand companies could play an active stakeholder role:

  • Constructing new internal capacities. Individuals and organizations have been long concerned with aspects of empowered digital citizenship and have developed content on digital integrity and its application. Through collaboration, this knowledge can be adapted, transferred and spread.
  • Developing as digital integrity competence centers. Unlike companies, many of their customers and business partners are unable to address digital challenges alone. Companies can assist to create and offer solutions, as “thought leaders”, using their Brands goodwill. Awareness and capacity building around empowered digital citizenship and enhance corporate integrity will help build loyalty and create empathy and authenticity as a trusted partner in the digital age.
  • Strengthening the Brand promise. Just as Intel created the slogan “Intel Inside”, companies should make “Digital Integrity ” an integral part of its brand image. This includes their approach to the acquisition and use of domain names, an area of growing concern and waning integrity.
  • Application of digital integrity should be demonstrated by Brands in areas other beyond data integrity. Brands should reflect a lived entrepreneurial social responsibility by supporting not only a legal and social culture of digital integrity, but also integrity’s relevance to other areas of the Internet ecosystem as they impact on broader society and related challenges in art, culture, health, food security, and climate change, to name just some.

Active participation of Brands as a stakeholder in shaping governance institutions and policies for the Internet ecosystem. This would include moving away from their increasingly indefensible predatory data practices and the restoration of the value and promise of their TMs and Brands. TMs and Brands need an ethical framework and a structure of governance that is universal and defines the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders in the digital age.

Business models based on exploiting user data have a short future. Instead of investing in unfettered data mining, companies need to situate their TM and Brand worth in product and service innovation that itself rooted in integrity and trust. Both companies and Internet users will benefit from good Internet governance. The well-established legislative frameworks and organizational structures that TMs and Brands rely on may well contain elements for that task. The Internet is fueling increased transparency and companies will be pushed to execute corporate social responsibility. Appropriately done, the benefits to the integrity of their TMs and Brands, their goodwill, and the net worth will be measurably higher than it is possible through (currently short-lived) predatory data use business practices.

By Klaus Stoll, Digital Citizen

Klaus has over 30 years’ practical experience in Internet governance and implementing ICTs for development and capacity building globally. He is a regular organizer and speaker at events, advisor to private, governmental and civil society organizations, lecturer, blogger and author of publications centering empowered digital citizenship, digital dignity and integrity.

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the matter of internet privacy is huuuuuuge DJ Chuang  –  Mar 15, 2019 5:47 PM

What you’ve described here is so very important, and also very complicated. The laws that govern the physical world has not been able to keep up with the pace of change in the digital world.

IMHO, but I do think the cat is already out of the bag (or whatever is the saying or metaphor to use is,) because now that (some) brands and companies are exploiting user data, even if in an aggregated anonymous fashion, it’d be next to impossible to go back to a world where privacy can be respected and user data not be exploited.

And, perhaps, it is telling that since no comments were added here, might be a signal that brands and companies don’t want to let go of their business opportunities afforded by collecting and using user data as much as possible.


Going back to a world where privacy can be respected and user data not be exploited. Klaus Stoll  –  Mar 16, 2019 1:26 AM

Dear DJ Chuang
Thank you for your comment. I want to reply to your suggestion that"it’d be next to impossible to go back to a world where privacy can be respected and user data not be exploited.” My observation here is, that we might not have a choice if we want to enjoy our basic human rights, integrity and dignity online?. Businesses might not have a choice but to respect users data to stay in business in the medium and long terms. It might not happen tomorrow, but we can see the first signs that “minimal data business” will become the foundation of digital business of the future. There is much to do, but we have to do it and I hope that the contributions to CircleID might come in useful for he task.

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