October 18, 2018

Gmail’s new data policy spells trouble for panel data.


Last Monday, Google announced plans to tighten its grip on third-party developers (by Q1 2019) who are violating its policies and cashing in on scraping Gmail mailboxes. This is a big deal because it’s another step in the right direction for a company increasingly focused on protecting its customers. This move comes as no surprise, given Google itself announced in mid-2017 it would no longer scan Gmail users’ inboxes for ad targeting purposes.

What was the impetus for this change? Earlier this summer, on the heels of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying in front of the US Congress, the Wall Street Journal ran a pretty scathing article about the hundreds of mailbox apps and their developers who are cashing in on inbox scraping, and the significant privacy (and terms of service, mind you) violations involved in doing so.

Companies like Edison Software and Return Path came under scrutiny for harvesting mailboxes, citing one instance where Return Path employees were directed to personally read thousands of unredacted emails of Gmail users for the betterment of their algorithms.

In a follow-up piece on October 10, the WSJ seems pretty certain the new Google privacy changes are targeted at stopping this very behavior. The article goes on to state:

“…that activity appears to be expressly prohibited under Google’s new rules, which state that Gmail apps ‘must use the data to provide user-facing features and may not transfer or sell the data for other purposes such as targeting ads, market research, email campaign tracking, and other unrelated purposes.’”

It is unclear how the other major mailbox providers (i.e., Microsoft and Oath), will respond to Google’s move, but one thing is certain: The regulatory pressure on these companies to protect user privacy is at a fever pitch.

Will panel data offerings, like Return Path’s Consumer Data Network, cease to exist? It’s uncertain, but if you read the articles or talk to privacy experts, the consensus is it’s not looking good. At the time we published this blog, Return Path executives have yet to officially comment on the Google changes and its potential impact on their future.

So, if you’re a current consumer of a panel data product or are thinking about licensing one, what should you do? It’s all about your comfort with risk. For those with a low tolerance for any potential service disruptions, the safest bet would likely be to shift away from reliance on panel data. Even if these policy changes don’t result in the demise of panel products in early 2019, let’s be real, pressure on these providers is only going to increase.

As for us, I’m not here to sell you products; I’m just reporting the news. But it’s worth mentioning our customers, some of the biggest brands on Earth, effectively maximize their email performance without the use or uncertainty of panel data. If you want to explore a worry-free alternative to panel, let’s talk.

Author: Alex Griffis

Alex Griffis is the VP of Product (a product geek) at 250ok, where he focuses on product design and improving our customer experiences.

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