Pando

"We can do better"

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on April 24, 2017

From The Legal Affairs Desk

This past weekend, the New York Times’ Mike Isaac reported yet another ethical lapse by Uber: The company had bought data about Lyft customer ride receipts in order to better poach them away from the rival service.

The data came from a company called Unroll.me, a widely-used tool that automatically scans your Gmail inbox and makes it easier to unsubscribe from email newsletters. The irony is thick as treacle: A service that claims to help reduce spam is in fact helping morally bankrupt companies like Uber to spy on the activities of Lyft users.

In a post titled “We can do better”, Unroll.me’s CEO passive-aggressively blames users (“myself included”) for not reading the perfectly clear warnings in the company’s privacy policy that they are monitoring every purchase you make, and selling that data to monsters.

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.

There are a few points that begged to be made here, not least: Fuck you.

The phrase “we can do better” has become a public relations cancer. Whether at the top of statements by tech CEOs, or airline executives, or baby food manufacturers who accidentally mix up their spinach and arsenic jars, the subtext is the same: We’ve worked so hard -- so, so hard -- to be good little boys and girls. We’ve stayed up real late at night, and brushed our teeth and shined our shoes. But we guess that still isn’t enough. You guys are still mad at us (despite our plain-English Privacy Policy begged you to read before you even -- sniff sniff -- signed up in the stoopid first place). So we guess we just have to do better. Even if it means staying up even later, and being even more tired at school the next day. We just don’t want you guys to be mad any more.

We can do better.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If the New York Times reporting on what your business does -- not something bad it did, just the actual thing it does to make money -- triggers a wave of outrage from users, then your business is horrible.

And here’s a way to do better: Don’t start a company that reads users’ email and sells details of their private behavior to the highest bidder. That’s a horrible way to spend your short life on this earth. Stop doing it. Do something better.

Either find another way to monetize your auto-unsubscription service that doesn’t rely on knowing that users (“myself included”) won’t bother digging into your terms of service to understand how you’re exploiting them or… find another business. Do something better.

(Another good rule of thumb: If you run a data company, and Uber becomes a major customer, you might want to run a few ethical self-tests. There’s probably no bigger red flag that a New York Times expose is on the horizon.)

And yet.

The sad fact is that the Unroll.me founder has a point: The company can do better but they probably don’t have to. Most users don’t read terms of service, and mostly they don’t care how their data is being used -- at least until the rare occasion when a mainstream publication like the Times says wait a minute and they all pretend to care until they forget. See also Facebook, Google, every ISP, uh, Uber etc etc etc.

Unroll.me’s business is no worse than a thousand other companies who are right now extracting and sifting and chopping your data and serving it up to anyone who pays the price of admission. Every day you’re signing away the rights that are enshrined in the constitution to protect you from unlawful search and seizure simply by checking “I agree” below a huge box of text. Information about you that would require a FISA warrant for the NSA to obtain and read, I could get hold of in twenty minutes just by swiping my Mastercard.

(Sidenote: Let’s all be glad the Constitution was written long before the advent of the HTML checkbox. Today’s corporate sponsored, e-government version would certainly include just such a box: Click here to confirm you have read the above, and agree to waive all rights listed.)

That’s the bad news.

So what's the good news?

The good news is that, right now, the problem is as good as it’s ever going to be. In a few years, we’ll look back at Unroll.me (if we remember it at all) with nostalgia for the days when evil tech giants could only see the stuff we write, and things we buy (and where we go, and what we do…)

We should savor this moment. Because earlier this month, at F8, Mark Zuckerberg stood before a crowd of demented seals and described the exciting possibilities of Facebook’s new augmented reality tools...

Now, look, we all do things like this every day, like running — everyday things, running, cleaning our home, doing laundry, and changing diapers. And the reality is we’re proud of these things where we want to express them but we often don’t get a chance to do that because they feel mundane, and it doesn’t feel special enough to share it../ Even if we were a little slow to add cameras to all of our apps, I’m confident that now we’re going to push this augmented reality platform forward. And long term all the work that we’re doing here is going to go into glasses that we all want, it’s all the same technology and this is another step on the path there.

Yep, forget Unroll.me reading your gmails, or Amazon planting a bug in your hotel room, soon Facebook (and any other company whose “kappa sigma dick” founder wants to strap a camera to your kids face) will be able to capture video of what you see, all the time. Even when you’re changing a baby’s diaper. Nothing at all disturbing about that! Not as long as we’re able to “augment” that footage with an animated fucking shark.

Clap clap clap arf arf arf.

Then comes the kicker. Tucked right at the end of the speech. The coolest part of all!

And you’re also going to hear from Regina Dugan about some of the work that we’re doing in building even further out beyond augmented reality, and that includes work around direct brain interfaces that are going to eventually one day let you communicate using only your mind. Now that stuff is really far out, but share some pretty interesting stuff as we’re going to talk about tomorrow.

All right. So that’s what we’re working on.

Yep! Cameras are for losers. The real money is in reading your brainwaves to understand, and record, what you’re thinking. That’s what Facebook -- a giant, free, ad-supported service -- is really excited about.

And I suspect not just Facebook: Just think what Uber could do if it were able to identify when you were merely thinking about ridesharing (while changing your child’s diaper)? Just think what a new breed of companies like Unroll.me could do by sitting on top of that attention stream?

Click. I agree to the terms of service. Ooh, a shark!

All right. So that’s what we’re working on.

We can do better.