Both The Markup and team Basecamp have taken a clear stance for privacy and against tracking in newsletters.
Atlantic Media has a good perspective on the choices by The Markup in this week’s issue
of their weekly newsletter The Idea:
The digital user data collected or used by news organizations fall into three general categories. The first is how users interact with content, like frequency of visits or articles clicked. The second is behavioral data tracked by advertisers related to ad performance. The final category is third-party data from “sources like privately owned databases and social media platforms.”
By not tracking user interactions, The Markup has less data with which to optimize its offerings and build new features. It also makes targeting users who would be the most likely to potentially donate more difficult. Finally, curtailing tracking makes selling ads difficult, which is why The Markup will not host any ads.
The Basecamp founders weighed in on the discussion as part of their quest to fix email. They have published a list of 25 fundamental issues with email
and will launch a new email service to compete with Gmail et al and address these.
The issues cover several areas that prevent users from “using email in peace”, and problem #8 is that “Companies track which emails you open, how often you open them, and even where you were when you opened them”.
David Heinemeier Hansson published an interesting essay
with more background. He is not against tracking in general but definitely against spying:
There’s a general understanding that if you take actions on the internet, like clicking a link or visiting a site, there’s some tracking associated with that. We might not like it, but at least we have a vague understanding of it. Not so with email spy pixels. Just about every normal person (i.e. someone not working in internet marketing) has been surprised, pissed, or at least dismayed when I tell them about spy pixels in emails. The idea that simply opening an email subjects you to tracking is a completely foreign one to most people.
His proposal is that tracking should become “opt-in” rather than default:
1. Mailing list software should not have spy pixels turned on by default.
2. Mailing list software can ask for explicit consent when the sender really does want to track open rates. Let the sender include a disclaimer at the bottom of their email: “[The sender] would like to know when you open this email to help improve their newsletter. If that’s OK with you, [please opt-in to providing read receipts]. Thanks!”.
The use of the term “spying” definitely reminds me of the current discussion around third-party cookies. The amount of data that companies like Facebook and Google are collecting is definitely creepy, and even though it’s all in their terms and conditions, most users were certainly not aware of what was collected and who it was shared with.
As a response law makers passed GDPR / CCPA and browser makers are cracking down on third-party cookies. And publishers need to think through their options.
The New York Times has decided to be a leader in this space, with its publisher A. G. Sulzberger setting the direction
The internet doesn’t have to be this way. But change needs to be driven at a societal level — by politicians, leaders of major technology companies and the public at large. While we’d welcome such change, we’re not waiting for it. The Times is committed to continuing to take steps to increase transparency and protections.
And they have taken steps already such as removing Facebook and Twitter cookies as reported
by Sara Fischer of Axios:
The New York Times will no longer use tracking pixels from Facebook and Twitter to track its users’ browser history, executives tell Axios. The company has created a marketing tool that will allow it to target potential subscribers on platforms like Facebook and Twitter without having to leverage its users’ general browsing history. The Times will still use trackers on a limited number of marketing pages, but it’s hoping to eliminate nearly all marketing trackers in the future. It’s working to make this tool work on other platforms, too.
So what should newsletter authors do? It’s time to think about how the situation can be improved.
Three options surfaced from the discussions last week:
- Completely remove trackers from newsletters like The Markup and also privacy focused search engine Startpage did.
- Making tracking “opt-in”, as suggested by David Heinemeier Hansson and not unlike how newsletter subscriptions work and also GDPR was designed.
- Make tracking anonymous, as information about *how many* people opened a newsletter is valuable for content decision and monetization, whereas *who exactly* opened a newsletter is less relevant.
The last was suggested by Kai Brach, who publishes Offscreen Magazine and the Dense Discovery newsletter and has been a trend setter in newsletters. The below Twitter thread with Kai and David is very much worth reading.