Social Protocols: Enabling Sophisticated Commerce on the Web

Audience: Students of HLS and MIT 6.805: Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier

Goal: Present ideas about social protocols, abstract on technical and legal design principules and rules of thumb, frame analaytical questions for student projects.


5 Key Points

  1. web interactions can be as sophisticated as those found in the  real world
  2. but the web requires mechanisms of trusted abstraction, assurance, redirection, and visual cues
  3. the key components of this are meta-data, negotiation, and signatures.
  4. social cues are meta-data! <exclaim>
  5. meta-data is RDF, based on XML

Abstract:  Social Protocols: Meta-data and Negotiation in Digital Commerce
On the foundations of basic network, meta-data, and negotiation protocols, a "new" set of protocols, "social protocols," are being built. They are in fact applications of meta-data and negotiation in order to mimic the social capabilities people have in the real world: capabilities to create rich content, make verifiable assertions, create agreements, and to develop and manage trust relationships.


  1. Introduction, what is a social protocol
    1. Methods of exchanging social cues, and negotiation: Anecdote about interacting with others (talking to Richard at CFP)
    2. Real world examples
    3. Definition
    4. <smile> (emoticons) XML markup that is a social cues, so is CSS (visual cues)
  2. Generations of Protocols
  3. Meta-Data and Negotiation
  4. Example of a Social Protocol, P3P


  1. Social Protocols Introduction
  2. 3 Generations of Protocols
  3. Metadata
  4. Negotiation and DSig
  5. P3P and PICS as Social Protocols


Social Protocols

Real World Examples

In today's world we use a number of "tools" to create and maintain relationships:

Three Generations of Protocols

Web protocols can be broadly classified into three "layers":

  1. architectural protocols: HTML and HTTP
  2. meta-data, negotiation, and signature protocols: annotations, PICS (as spec'd), XML/CSS/RDF and JEPI/PEP
  3. social protocols: PICS (as applied), P3P

2nd Generation: Meta-Data Protocols

Meta-data: "data about data" (Web resources).

All of these systems provide some "data about data."

(Any data that has a referent is meta-data. The definition of meta-data and semantics are dependent on the application and respective position of other layers.)

Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS)


XML is document structure/syntax

<Author>John Smith</Author>


RDF is meta-data about Web resources (anything referable by a URI)

<RDF:Description ID="John_Smith">
    <BIB:Phone>+1 (555) 123-4567</BIB:Phone>   

2nd Generation: Negotiation & DSig Protocols

Negotiation protocols allow two agents to flexibly communicate about how they wish to interact.

Joint Electronic Payment Initiative (JEPI)
negotiate which payment system to use between a client and server
Protocol Extension Protocol (PEP)
allow client and server to negotiate about how to use HTTP extensions.


Third Generation: Social Protocols

Social protocols are the application of second generation protocols towards problems of social relevance like content regulation, IPR, and privacy.

These tools enable others to create new applications, offer sophisticated services and to build Web markets.

No complete list of applications, but the determining factor for analysis is the degree to which the semantics and operation of social behavior/structure are captured within the data structures and protocol of the application.

It is at this point that social/legal concerns and methods have a critical relationship to technical design.

Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P)

Sites make assertions about their privacy practices.

Users express their privacy preferences over those practices.

Negotiation between the site's supported and user's desired practices results in an agreement.

The interaction between the site and user is flexible. Users can find the level of privacy most appropriate for their sense of privacy and the type of interaction they wish to have with that site.

P3P Scenario

  1. A user sets generic preferences, upon which her agent (browser) automatically acts.
    She can now browse the Web seamlessly.
  2. She encounters a site with "exceptional" practices outside her generic preferences.
    Perhaps a sports news site wants to collect her favorite teams for a customized news page.
  3. The user is prompted if she wishes to consider other alternatives, consent to the exceptional practice, or to go elsewhere.
    She can develop a one-to-one relationship with a site she trusts.

To simplify the experience, users also have the option to download recommended settings from a trusted source.
The users could go to a trusted organization that present practices they feel, if followed, will keep users safe.

Conclusion: Social Protocols