Have you heard of Unroll.me? I hadn't until they suddenly popped up in my Twitter feed because everyone was telling me to uninstall their app and never do business with them again. It turns out that Unroll.me is a company that scans your email and unsubscribes you from all your spam. Useful! And free! So how do they make money? By selling data to folks who will pay them for it.
In particular, it turns out that one of their clients is Uber, which was interested in keeping tabs on its biggest competitor, Lyft. Unroll.me helps by scanning email for Lyft receipts and telling Uber whether Lyft's business is up or down. This is what caused the commotion.
My initial reaction was: Duh. What did you think Unroll.me was doing to make money? I didn't bother writing anything about it because I didn't really care that much, but today co-founder Perri Chase (who's no longer with the company) comes to the defense of her friend and Unroll.me CEO Jojo Hedaya:
Anonymized and at scale why do people care? Do you really care? Are you really surprised? How exactly is this shocking?
Or maybe you just hate yourselves because you think Uber is gross but you use them anyway and “why are these tech founders such assholes” that they have to ruin your experience where you need to delete your apps? And you love Unroll.me and you feel righteous and you have to delete that now too because you need to take a stand against these plain-as-day-in-the-terms-of-service practices.
....Let’s look at why we are really in this situation. [Uber CEO] Travis Kalanick is out of control and no one can stop him. No one except a board who refuses to hold him accountable for his disgusting behavior. Yeah. As a woman I think he is disgusting. As a founder, the truth is I’m like DAMN. That guy is willing to do whatever it takes and I have a mild amount of envy that I’m not a shittier human willing to go to those lengths to be successful. See, Silicon Valley rewards it. He is setting the example for the future founders who want to “crush it” and be unstoppable. It’s gross. You don’t hate that Unroll.me sells your data. You hate that Unroll.me sells your data to Uber.
I still don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, I'm distinctly unthrilled with the fact that that we all give companies access to so much personal information about ourselves—and we do it for a pittance. On the other hand, it's pretty clear that I'm in a tiny minority. Even when people know precisely what's going on, they mostly shrug and sign up anyway. That's the world we live in.
Chase's "plain-as-day-in-the-terms-of-service" defense is pretty disingenuous since she knows perfectly well that nobody reads the terms of service for the apps they use. But even if they did I doubt that Unroll.me would lose more than a few percent of their customers. Most of them probably wouldn't care if Unroll.me sold their names and email addresses to Uber, let alone a harmless bit of aggregate data.
For what it's worth, what I'd like to see from companies like Unroll.me is a really clear explanation on their websites of what they do. Maybe just a short, punchy bullet list: Examples of what we will do and examples of what we won't do. That's what I'd like. And a pony.