The Data-Collection Backlash

Collecting data about members through websites and other technical means is a fact of life for many associations. But can you go too far? Let's ask a few difficult questions.

Does being transparent about your technology strategy automatically mean you’re in the right?

Antivirus maker AVG learned the lesson over the weekend: maybe not. The Czech company announced that it would begin anonymously tracking user browsing habits, collecting data that it could then sell to third parties as a way to monetize its free software. That sounds creepy, but it’s a lot better than many other software-makers do these days. Tracking is incredibly common on the web, so with AVG at least you know what they’re up to.

“We provide products and services to help you secure your data, devices, and personal privacy. We use data to improve those products and services; provide support; send notifications, offers, and promotions; and to make money from our free offerings so that we can continue to offer them for free,” the company said in its privacy statement.

The announcement prompted some people to wonder whether AVG is just as much a piece of spyware as the rogue apps it’s meant to protect your computer from. (Hey, on the other hand, maybe this strategy will get people to pay for something that’s considered a commodity despite its importance.)

Data Discomfort

But you know, data-collection practices are something that we should talk about here. Associations are major data collectors: They have profiles, basic information, and, potentially, interactions with each member or nonmember who has signed up for a newsletter, gone to a conference, or paid for a membership. And slowly, the tide of discomfort about data collection is rising.

In particular, this trend can be seen in the media space, where “heavy” pages that take too long to load are increasingly annoying users. Savvy users are becoming aware of just what’s causing the drag on those pages : the wide array of data trackers throughout the online sphere.

Last week, famed developer Marco Arment accidentally made himself the face of privacy-at-all-costs when he developed Peace, one of the first ad blockers available for the latest version of Apple’s iOS. (Apple announced it would allow ad blockers in June, at a time when it was already becoming mainstream.)

Arment’s product was powerful—it relied on the existing software platform Ghostery to block questionable data collection tactics—but perhaps too effective. Much like with AVG’s recent controversy, backlash arose. Journalists and website owners who rely on ad revenue started questioning why Arment was charging money for an application that took revenue out of their pockets—and pondered whether a working business model was about to break.

Within two days, after tens of thousands of copies of Peace had been sold, Arment had a change of heart and removed the product from the App Store.

“Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: While they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit,” he wrote in a post titled “Just Doesn’t Feel Good.”

Does This Feel Right?

It’s worth asking this question: For folks on the ad-collection and data-tracking side of the equation, how often do “just doesn’t feel good” moments arise? Likewise, where do  users come into the equation?

Associations and other nonprofits live and die by their data. It tells them where to go next for a donation, or whom to target in an advocacy push. It offers leads for answering questions that may have previously proved impenetrable. And it gives them an important edge on their competition.

But where do you draw the line in how your data is used—and how do you explain that to your audience? What sort of clarity should your users expect, and what are you comfortable with?

At what point do members quit because they don’t trust how you use their personal data? Do people who might otherwise be interested in your newsletter get the willies the second they read your privacy policy?

When Transparency Goes Wrong

The answers to these questions are difficult. AVG’s move toward honest transparency isn’t a new strategy, and it’s actually worked pretty well elsewhere—just ask the social media team at Buffer, which goes so far as to publish its salaries publicly.

But something about AVG’s approach feels a bit too blunt and poorly executed. It’s transparent, yes, but the strategy is akin to a homeowner who’s decided to show you how effective their mousetraps are: It’s sort of impressive, but you’d rather not see the dead rodents.

“AVG’s new policy illustrates exactly why companies tend to drown their data collection practices in legalese,” PCWorld‘s Jared Newman aptly put it last week. “There’s no penalty for doing so, and being transparent only invites more outrage.”

Perhaps the challenge is to take an approach that doesn’t involve legalese in the first place.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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