The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Privacy: That’s How We Unroll

Tim Green | Flickr

The entire digital economy is built on a simple transaction model in which users give companies access to their personal data and companies provide services cheap or free. It’s a convenient and successful scheme, but it has some ugly incentives built in. And every now and then, a news story that lifts the veil from its shadier corners causes the world to go “yuck.”

In the latest incident of this sort, readers of Mike Isaac’s in-depth New York Times profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick yesterday learned that an email inbox cleanup service called Unroll.me was selling anonymized data about its users’ behavior to third-party companies. In this case, Uber paid Unroll.me for reports on the volume of Lyft receipts in its users’ email so it could suss out the health of its rival’s business. Much online outcry ensued (here’s a good summary from CBS News).

Maybe, as an individual user of Unroll.me, you don’t care. No one’s getting your name; your info is just a tiny data point marshaled in a battle of billion-dollar startup titans. But a lot of people simply feel creeped out to discover that the details of their email account activity are being bought and sold. Also: It’s become easy for marketing firms (and governments) to pull together info from multiple services and figure out your identity, if they wish.

Unroll.me had been open about its data peddling in its privacy policy. But who reads that? Its CEO’s apology failed to stem a wave of outrage. (The Intercept: “Stop Using Unroll.Me, Right Now.”) This sort of story will keep cropping up until we get comfortable with having our personal data traded on the market — or users and investors begin to support other business models where users subscribe or buy products.

If you’re not paying for it in cash, they’re going to pay for it with your data. If you don’t like that transaction, stop making it.


Ups and Downs of the Affiliate Game

In media, one revenue alternative to privacy invasion with a long and interesting record is affiliate links. That’s when a website or app collects a referral fee from a vendor. Amazon pioneered this model on the Web nearly 20 years ago, and it has long provided some publishers with a small stream of non-ad revenue.

Some sites — like The Wirecutter, a tech product review site that The New York Times acquired last year — have built their whole business around these links. These days, Buzzfeed has a dedicated team of a dozen writers churning out ready-to-share listicle posts recommending stuff to buy (Jason Del Rey in Recode). The more you buy, the more Buzzfeed makes.

There’s one big flaw in the strategy. (Two, if you count the incentive to push expensive products; but sites like The Wirecutter have typically understood that credibility is their chief asset, and the best of the lot haven’t given in to hype.) If you live by affiliate links, you are totally at the mercy of the company that pays for them, and they can and do change their rates and terms all the time. Your revenue, in other words, is almost entirely out of your control.

Highlighting this problem right now, Apple just announced it’s cutting the affiliate commission for iOS apps and in-app purchases from 7 to 2.5 percent. This kind of thing happens without warning to participants in any affiliate ecosystem. When that’s your model, you’re like an ignorant plaything in the hands of a fickle god — not, maybe, how you want to run your business.


Big Companies Step Up to the Climate Plate

In electing Donald Trump as president last year, Americans made sure that the federal government would retreat from the previous administration’s efforts to slow or reverse climate change. Science deniers now run the Environmental Protection Agency, and the friends of fossil-fuel emissions are in power everywhere you look.

If we’re going to make any headway toward protecting our future selves and our descendants, the effort is going to have to come from the private sector. The good news is: It is, as Hiroko Tabuchi reports in The New York Times. A new report shows that nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies have now set emissions targets aimed at reducing how much carbon they release into the atmosphere — and, in many cases, eventually switching their operations to 100 percent renewable energy.

No shock: The biggest companies that aren’t participating in this push are the energy giants whose core business is digging carbon out of the earth so we can burn it. More surprising: Some giant companies with sterling reputations, like Costco and Berkshire Hathaway, have no plan in place for cutting their carbon output.

Overall, these companies’ commitments alone can’t save us from imminent global warming disaster. We need faster, broader action. But at least they set a public norm — and cast the Trump administration’s actions as those of an amoral global outlier.

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