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.