As Tech Industry Pulls Back From Creepy Data Collection, Yahoo Moves Toward It

Despite a huge dip in consumer trust in the wake of the 2017 data breaches, Yahoo has doubled down on collecting data from its users’ emails. The company claims to only mine data from commercial-type, mass-mailed emails, but scanning email content for information to sell to advertisers, even if those emails aren’t personal, stills feels creepy.
 
Users can opt out of data mining, but they won’t know to do so unless they’re paying attention to Yahoo’s data collection policies.
 
This practice goes against a major trend in the U.S. tech industry. Google, for example, ceased this kind of data collection in 2017, while Microsoft says that it has never collected data in this way.
 
In addition, Facebook has eliminated an advertising tool called Partner Categories, which enabled advertisers to target people based on third-party data on their offline purchase history, in several European countries.
 
The company has discontinued use of this tool to comply with GDPR, so it isn’t as if Facebook is a model of ethical practices, but at least they’re pulling back from, rather than moving toward, data mining that feels like being watched by Sauron’s eye.
 
Yahoo hasn’t made the same choice. In an effort to compete with Google, which has seen a 63-percent increase in active email account users since 2012, Yahoo has expanded its email data collection practices to over 200 million inboxes across its brand name and its subsidiary AOL Mail. Given that active Yahoo mail users have decreased by 17 percent in the same period, the company feels that it must garner revenue in whatever way it can.    
 
Doug Sharp, Vice President of Data, Measurements, and Insights at Oath, the unit of Verizon Communications that owns Yahoo, says, “Email is an expensive system. I think it’s reasonable and ethical to expect the value exchange, if you’ve got this mail service and there is advertising going on.”
 
He also indicates that users can purchase an ad-free email service from Yahoo for $3.49 a month, though they have to opt out of data collection with that service as well.
 
Since Google stopped collecting data from emails last year, Sharp’s “reasonable” objection feels a little hollow. Granted, Google has access to a near-infinite amount of data through its search engine, so it doesn’t need email data to stay solvent, but perhaps this gives Yahoo an opportunity to reimagine itself. If it can’t compete with Google except by collecting data in a way that consumers probably won’t tolerate anymore, then it may need to come up with new models for revenue generation.
 
In any case, Yahoo did change its privacy policy to comply with GDPR. In April of this year, the company sent out an email to its users with an update to its service terms. The email asked users to respond with either “I Accept” or “I’ll do this later.”
 
One wonders why users weren’t given the option, right in the email, to opt out of data collection. Instead, they need to visit Yahoo’s ad interest manager page to do so. This feels like one of those creepy practices consumers just aren’t comfortable with anymore.
  
All of this editorializing aside, Yahoo may simply need to catch up with the times. If Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are all moving toward data collection practices that are less unsettling, then Yahoo might jump on when it realizes it’s the odd man out.
 
We’ll have to see how data regulations develop, but provided the popular consciousness continues to desire more brand transparency and more brand responsibility, Yahoo will likely need to reconsider how it collects the information required for individualized marketing.
 

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