Amanda Hess was in for a disappointment. Recently, like many other consumers, she signed up for Unroll.me’s email unsubscribe service, thinking that her inbox would soon be free of clutter.
Then, as she writes in today’s New York Times, “the true cost of Unroll.me was revealed: The service is owned by the market-research firm Slice Intelligence, and according to a report in The Times, while Unroll.me is cleaning up users’ inboxes, it’s also rifling through their trash. When Slice found digital ride receipts from Lyft in some users’ accounts, it sold the anonymized data off to Lyft’s ride-hailing rival, Uber.”
Oh, how ignominious — one more piece of proof that digital marketers can’t be trusted.
The revelation is bad enough, The justifications are even worse. Unroll.me’s chief executive Jojo Hedaya calls it “heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service,” according to Hess. Worse, the co-founder and former executive named Perri Chase, asks: “Do you really care? How exactly is this shocking?”
Well, we’ll tell you: It’s shocking because Unroll.me claims that it protects peoples’ privacy, or at least reduces the aggravation from overstuffed inboxes. Instead, it has this furtive side practice that does the exact opposite.
The list rental business is often unjustly pilloried, but it has a set of time-honored rules, one of which is that a customer list can only be used with the permission of the owner. It doesn’t seem that Lyft gave any such permission in this case.
And please stop whining that you have to do this to offer this free unsubscribe service. Unroll.me’s business model is your problem, not the consumer’s.
Hess argues that privacy has become a commodity of the rich and powerful, and she serves up some history. “In an 1890 paper called “The Right to Privacy,” Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis cited “recent inventions and business methods” — including instant photography and tabloid gossip — that they claimed had “invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life,” Hess writes.
It’s strange that they didn’t mention junk mail, although it was already a national phenomenon. In an 1875 article titled, "Fancy Advertising," The New York Times reported on a man whose letter and Post Office boxes were “daily 'made the recipients'… of a lot of envelopes, which he is put to the trouble of opening, and which he finds contain only advertisements of articles that he does not want to buy, or of companies or professional persons that he does not wish to employ.”
That piece didn’t mention mailing lists, but the vice crusader Anthony Comstock touched on the subject in 1880: “Any person who ever wrote a letter to a lottery, or other advertised scheme, is liable to have a large circle of correspondents,” he wrote in his book Frauds Exposed.
But let’s not get stuck in the history, or in the meaning of it all. Unroll.me is like the fox that was put in charge of the henhouse. And after all the blather and apologies, this looks just a little sneaky.