Privacy on the desktop

As I mentioned a few months back, I frequently receive offers from companies wanting to pay to have their feeds included in FeedDemon. These offers are often very tempting, but when it comes to choosing which feeds to include in FeedDemon by default, I’ve always considered my role as more of an editor than a salesperson, so paid feed placement just didn’t sit well with me.

Beyond this, though, there’s another big problem with paid placement: those asking to have their feeds included usually want usage information in return. In other words, they want to know how many people are subscribing to their feed in FeedDemon, which articles they’re reading, what other feeds they’re subscribed to, etc. And of course this only makes sense – if they’re paying to have their feed included, they deserve to know what they’re getting for their money.

The thing is, if I collected usage information you can pretty much guarantee that FeedDemon would be labeled as “spyware” and die an ugly death. I could make usage collection opt-in, of course, but this would mean that the data would be inaccurate – the numbers would be lower than reality, since many (most?) people would choose not to share this information even if it was anonymous.

Now, here’s what I find interesting: if FeedDemon were a web-based aggregator, I believe (and recent history has confirmed) that this usage information could be collected without the same backlash from privacy advocates.

So why is this? It’s the exact same information, so why is it acceptable to collect it on the web but not from a desktop application?

I believe a big part of the reason is trust. On the web, information is collected from the site itself, so nothing is sent from your computer. But with a desktop application like FeedDemon, information would have to be sent from your computer to the site collecting the usage data, and there’s a huge element of trust here. After all, a desktop application potentially has access to everything on your computer, so you’d have to trust that it would send only the information it says it will. I suspect that quite a few of us are unwilling to grant that level of trust.

In FeedDemon’s case, I’m sure another reason is the fact that it’s not free, whereas most web-based aggregators are. When software or a web service is free, you often pay with your privacy, and the developer earns a living (either directly or indirectly) from the usage information they’ve collected. When you pay for something, should you be able to assume that you won’t continue to make payments by giving up your attention data?

For the record, this post is just me thinking out loud – none of my software collects usage data, and I have no plans to do so. But I am curious to hear your opinions on this, since I believe privacy concerns are becoming increasingly important to the world of RSS and to software in general.

20 thoughts on “Privacy on the desktop

  1. One of the reasons I switched from Bloglines to a desktop aggregator (went from Feedreader to NewsGator to FeedDemon) was that although I appreciated being able to access my feeds from everywhere, I didn’t like the fact that “someone else” had my data – my subscriptions and such. What if that company went belly-up? I’d be SOL. At least I know that you stop making FeedDemon (please don’t), I have my data and can at least continue to use it until it proves to be too old.
    As to the privacy aspect, I don’t normally agree to such things. If it’s a free product, I’ll agree to reasonable advertising, but not in a product I’ve paid for.

  2. I think users recognize the fact that a web-based doesn’t just *want* your data, it *needs* it in order to function. In the case of a web aggregator, you don’t want to have to type in all your favorite RSS URLs every time you visit. Users offer up that data because they have to. When a desktop app wants data it doesn’t need, i’ve got to wonder what’s in it for me. I’ve already paid for it and i’m using my own computing cycles to run it and my own hard drive to store it. It just doesn’t feel right to have my behaviors harvested when there is seemingly no benefit to be gained. I think it is about trust, but perhaps more so it’s about relationships. If you’re in a relationship and you do all the giving while they do all the taking, it’s time to end it.

  3. From a content perspective, this reminds me of the recent and meaningful backlash of librarians not wishing to report what books people are borrowing.
    It is a little scary in the 1984/Big Brother way that someone would have data about what I read on a daily basis.
    What may be even scarier is that someone might actually spend money to act on that dubious information.
    I don’t hesitate to say that the RSS feeds really only evidence about 10% of the things I am interested and anyone acting on that information to advertise to me or even do something on my behalf would be making some big mistakes.

  4. For me, the distinguishing characteristic is that I’m getting to use free news reader software (bloglines) along with the other fact that I’m not installing anything on the computer. It’s a trade off for free service and the privacy concerns are minimal at best.
    Now if Feedemon had a second version (Feedemon light) that had this paid tracking service included and it was plainly known that stats would be collected, I would consider downloading and using it.

  5. I very much agree with the comments by, although personally I am prepared to pay the premium for FD not only for the privacy but for its features and after-sale support and service.
    From those for whom price is (at least initially) the only differentiator, a ‘FeedDemon lite’ alternative would provide an additional revenue stream via sponsors, bring FeedDeemon to the attention of a lot more people, and help ensure the product’s long-term financial health for us all.
    For those like me who like a fully-featured version of their software (including support), and like to feel they are party to the development process at whatever level, a paid-for, sponsor-free version is the way forward.

  6. There have been lots of rumours of a Google Browser. This would obviously collect web statistics to attempt to match advertising more closely to your profile and produce higher quality, more targetted adverts.
    In fact, Eric Schmidt said as much on the recent Analyst WebCast.
    So, if and when Google do produce something like this, the debate will re-open.

  7. I’ll happily pay the going price for a high quality, spyware-free, non-selling-my-data-to-the-whole-world desktop app, rather than some lesser price (or even free) for a site or app that sells data about me.

  8. What I don’t get is why someone pays for you to have them place feeds in the default but isn’t smart enough to check the statistics of what aggregators are hitting them in their logs or with 3rd party software that parses logs. To me this is just a redundant check and doesn’t confirm much anyway. Sure, log stats are slightly innacurate, but there’s nothing preventing you from putting some ‘FeedDemonID’ in the user agent that makes your users unique as well, which would offer a similar opportunity for those who are stat nuts.

  9. Nick, dunno if you’d already seen this, but I was wondering if you had an opinion on this post:
    I don’t know if he’s right about Ask Jeeves making a mistake, but I do think he’s wrong about this:
    “95-99% of the RSS reader market will be consolidated into three of the following players: My Yahoo, Microsoft Outlook/Outlook Express, Google’s RSS reader (if and when it comes out… I have no inside information here), and maybe an Open Source version integrated into Firefox and/or Thunderbird.”

  10. You’ve described a strength of locally-installed apps. My PC is my turf and I should control what happens here. A web server is someone else’s turf, and I’m just a visitor (or a renter). I have fewer rights there.

  11. Hi Nick,
    I’ve thought about this alot lately especially considering the research for the last SMR article (about DR), I digress though ;-)
    I think the attraction of RSS is that users can anonymously opt in and opt out, selecting any content they want. I think that if information was gathered about usage, it would significantly hamper the growth and acceptance of RSS.
    I think privacy is something that most people are willing to pay for even those that have nothing to hide ;-)
    Sharon Housley

  12. Hi Nick,
    Thank you for your stand and your willingness to make a program that stops the spying and tracking. I’m here to read what people are thinking and don’t want people to start wondering what and why they are saying so to appease certain audiences. I love the program and certainly think it is well worth its cost. In fact, Feeddemon and TopStyle are two of my most used programs. Thanks for the good work you do. I appreciate it very much.

  13. I was having the same thought that Randy mentioned above… Can these feed providers not just examine their logfiles and extract this information based upon user agents?

  14. Personally I don’t mind web applications collecting data in exchange for their services. I don’t like it but I live with it. I expect websites to collect basic usage data (stats logging for example).
    The main difference between that and desktop apps collecting information is the degree of separation and perceived trust.
    Most people will trust a website to collect only the data it says it is collecting because it has no direct access to anything else – it is a remote service. On the other hand desktop apps could (theoretically) access anything on your hard drive and no amount of protestations to the contrary are going to convince users the desktop data collection is secure and private.

  15. Desktop Privacy and News Aggregator

    Read an interesting post and join the discussion regarding privacy on the desktop.
    In the post, Nick touched a bit about collecting usage information from web based vs. desktop application.
    Web applications collect data in exchange for their serv…

  16. I think you’re spot on here, Nick. As well, another thing I was feeling when I was reading this is that when I purchase software, I feel like it’s mine. FeedDemon is mine. I own it. I love it. It’s mine. Once you start letting people collect information off of feeds that are forced on me, I lose interest in the package because it’s no longer mine. It’s ours. Or even sometimes it can feel like it’s theirs. By then the software has lost its sparkle of specialness, and I’ll go look for freeware or webware at that point.

  17. Randy, as far as relying on server logs goes, let’s just say that marketing departments and IT departments don’t always speak to each other :)

  18. Count me as one of those that would rather pay for an application than use an ad-supported or other indirect-income tool that will give away information about me.
    As others have mentioned, my PC is my “turf”, and I don’t like the idea of anything installed locally that gives out my info whether I want it to or not. I expect it from web applications hosted somewhere else, but not from anything on my machine.

  19. I agree with your statements.
    When I pay for my desktop application (FeedDemon) I expect and trust that no usuage or other data is or going to be collected.

  20. I do agree with one of the posters above that a paid application shouldn’t include these things. But on the other hand RSS feeds can already be tracked via webserver logs and user agents. It would be trivial to have the feeds in question go through a website which redirects them via 301 to the real thing OR have the advertisers themselves detect this. For example, FeedBurner is already capable of detecting FeedDemon and it would be trivial for the advertisers in question to use something similar.

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