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Groupon’s interesting approach to privacy

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it; let’s do it, let’s invade your privacy.

(With apologies to Cole Porter)

Facebook, Twitter, Google, Bing – pretty much all the big players online – have been hauled over the coals for violating some aspect of users’ privacy. They’ve all vehemently denied tramping over constitutional rights but still the complaints roll in and privacy groups and governments weigh in. Enter Groupon, the deal site that has people all over the world salivating at the prospect of saving money and scoring great bargains. Its latest announcement should have the privacy groups howling; instead it’s slipped largely under the radar, except for one small hiccup thanks to one Republican and one Democrat.

The co-chairman of the House Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, Joe Barton (the Republican in question) and Massachusetts Democrat representative Edward Markey have questioned Groupon’s plans to use mobile information acquired from users’ cell phones to offer location-based deals. Now, it may not seem that bad when you consider that Groupon has apps that users download specifically to provide the company with their geographic location. But, this time the company says that it intends tracking users even when the apps aren’t in use, or when users don’t have the apps at all.

David Schellhase, Groupon’s general counsel, has defended the plan, stating that customers have asked for this kind of functionality.

Reuters cites a letter addressing the privacy concerns in which Schellhase stated:

“A customer may wish to have a ‘push’ notification appear in her email around the noon hour to alert her that a lunch special is being offered at a nearby restaurant. In order to choose a relevant deal for the user at the correct time, location information would need to be collected about the user just before noon, even if the Groupon mobile application is not running on the device at that time. We are working to provide this type of functionality in the future.”

The other defence is that users will have to “explicitly consent” to the collection of data.

Cynthia Boris (Marketing Pilgrim) has no problem with the plan. She believes that Groupon is, indeed, giving people what they want – an opportunity to save more money. She says, “If people don’t read the fine print or simply think through how the information got to them, that’s not Groupon’s fault. I’m an intelligent human being and when I visit an online store and an hour later I see an ad for that same store on a different website, I know it’s no coincidence. I don’t need an act of Congress to save me from my obsessive shopping self. That’s a demon I must deal with on my own.”

This also sounds fair enough, but the question has to be one of consistency.

What makes Groupon’s opt in policies different from those of Google, Facebook and Twitter – the policies that have caused so much grief?

Does the crux of the matter really revolve around money? Does the fact that Groupon provides direct savings make it more acceptable to users than Google and Facebook and Twitter, which only provide indirect access to savings via more targeted ads?

Isn’t an invasion of privacy an invasion of privacy no matter what the outcome?

What do you think?

(Image by Groupon, CC by 2.0, via Flickr)

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