Of Course 'Free' Services Sell Your Data

Unroll.Me is facing a backlash for selling user data to Uber, but people should know better by now about this industry-wide practice.

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By Stephen J. Bronner

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Among the revelations in an April 23 story in The New York Times about Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick was a single paragraph which revealed that the ride-hailing company had purchased data that included anonymized Lyft receipts.

This is behavior we expect from Uber, which over the years has introduced numerous programs to track users, drivers, its competition and even law enforcement.

Related: Why Apple's Tim Cook Once Threatened to Remove Uber From the App Store

But this detail has caused backlash against the company that sold the data: Slice Intelligence, which owns an email service called Unroll.Me. The free service rolls up subscription and marketing emails that litter inboxes into a single, convenient digest.

I use Unroll.Me on all my inboxes, and it saves me the frustration of dealing with scores of individual messages each day. And guess what? I plan to continue using the service.

It didn't surprise me one bit that the company was selling my data. Unroll.Me is a "free" service, and people should be savvy enough by now to know that there is no such thing as free. The engineers, marketers, executives and other employees of Slice Intelligence need their paychecks, and I need a less cluttered inbox. I'd expect a service I grant permission to go through my emails to get something in return. In fact, it says as much in Unroll.Me's privacy policy, if users take a minute to look through it:

Related: How to Protect Your Internet Browsing Data (Since It's for Sale Now)

"We also collect non-personal information -- data in a form that does not permit direct association with any specific individual. We may collect, use, transfer, sell and disclose non-personal information for any purpose. For example, when you use our services, we may collect data from and about the 'commercial electronic mail messages' and 'transactional or relationship messages' (as such terms are defined in the CAN-SPAM Act (15 U.S.C. 7702 et. seq.)) that are sent to your email accounts."

Both the words "sell" and "transactional" are in that section. Essentially, users gave permission to Slice to sell their Lyft receipts.

Of course, after every "scandal" comes the "apology," and Unroll.Me's CEO and co-founder Jojo Hedaya hit the right notes with his.

"Our users are the heart of our company and service. So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service," he wrote in a blog post. "And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren't explicit enough. Sure we have a Terms of Service Agreement and a plain-English Privacy Policy that our users agree they have read and understand before they even sign up, but the reality is most of us -- myself included -- don't take the time to thoroughly review them."

Related: 'Downright Creepy': Internet Entrepreneurs Weigh in on Repeal of Internet Privacy Rules

Yes, he acknowledges that people are upset, but he also correctly points the finger at all of our lazy behavior, with our inclination to click "I agree" as quickly as possible.

If people are upset that their data is being sold by Unroll.Me or any other company they signed an agreement with, they should know who to blame: themselves.

Stephen J. Bronner

Entrepreneur Staff

News Director

Stephen J. Bronner writes mostly about packaged foods. His weekly column is The Digest. He is very much on top of his email.

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