Stephen Logan

Yahoo and Groupon Harvesting User Data Following Ts & Cs Update?

11th Jul 2011 News, Industry News 3 minutes to read

Whenever a major online company changes its terms and conditions, people tend to take note. This is particularly true when the update includes elements that may impact user-data.

Over the course of the weekend there have been two such updates, one at Yahoo and the other involving social coupon site, Groupon.  In the case of the former, the Ts & Cs adjustment was required for a new anti-spam system within email. With the latter, it simply appears to suggest that they want to use customer information to improve targeting.

So should users be overly concerned? Whilst we all want Internet companies to respect our privacy and not sell on or utilise personal data themselves, many begrudgingly accept it as a by-product of operating online. After all, both Groupon and Yahoo Mail are free services, both of which provide users with numerous benefits.

With updates to Terms & Conditions users always have the opportunity to close their account and move away; however, in both cases it is highly unlikely that there will be any form of mass exodus. In fact, most users will probably never notice. User data is such big business that most companies use it in some regard. That’s why you get personalised adverts on Facebook and unique search results on Google.

Enabling your data to be skimmed does lead to privacy issues inevitably, but it also allows for better targeting. Critics will suggest that the invasion of privacy is too higher price to pay; however, as yet there has been no form of huge outcry, certainly not to the extent where a major company has been significantly damaged.

Google and Facebook have both endured highly publicised privacy issues, but yet these are still the top two websites in the world. Question marks over how data is used and how accessible it is have done little to dent their universal appeal – although many ‘indutry’ folk are certainly warier for the changes.

For Groupon, there is clear value in using customer data to create a better targeted service. Tesco use their Clubcard to work out what people are buying, why shouldn’t they. With a $30 billion IPO potentially on the horizon, they need to be harvesting data and improving services or risk getting left behind by the influx of new coupon sites – including offerings from Facebook and Google of course.

For Yahoo, the accusation of snooping on private emails is a little more serious. However, it is one that they have quickly moved to rebuff, allaying any potential customer fears. Here’s what they had to say on the issue:

“We think transparency is key because our business depends almost entirely on the trust of our users.  We therefore ask users (via a pop-up notice) for consent to the extension of machine-scanning inbound and outbound emails to look for keywords and links to further protect you from spam, surface photos and in time, serve users with interest-based advertising”

Again, it’s all about targeting and providing users with the option to opt out. Some might still see this as malicious or underhanded behaviour, others simply may not care. However, it does highlight the need for vigilance when it comes to changing Terms and Conditions. Whilst some will offer you the chance to accept through a pop-up, others might sneak out an email (which is very easy to ignore), giving you the option to opt-out.

Your data is valuable and should be treated as such. It provides Internet companies with great power and is very much seen as a commodity for advertisers and service providers. Yahoo and Groupon may be the latest culprits, but they are by no means the only ones out there doing this and will not be the last to incorporate data siphoning policies – sneakily or otherwise.

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