Newsgator: It's the Attention, Stupid

By now, pretty much everyone who cares already knows that Newsgator has decided to start giving away all of its client products. Much of the early discussion (including in the comments to our own coverage) has been about whether the software is compelling enough, even at a “free” price point, to take market share away from web-based readers. Newsgator points out in response that much of their business these days is in the enterprise, where firewalls make web-based readers an impossible option.

But there’s another issue here, and one that we ought not sweep under the rug. To their credit, Newsgator is very explicit about the forces driving this move. On the one hand, they get sales of their enterprise products (they make a behind-the-firewall enterprise RSS server) from people who first try the client applications. But on the other, and probably more important, hand, they’re giving away clients because Newsgator itself benefits from collecting massive amounts of data on the reading habits of the users of those clients – “attention data”, in the jargon of the RSS industry.

As the Newsgator press release puts it,

[W]e are rapidly growing our Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business by partnering with brands, agencies, and information service companies that can use attention and relevance metadata, provided by the NewsGator platform, to offer much richer and more relevant content solutions to their audiences. Look for more announcements about these efforts in the coming weeks.

In other words, an increasing part of their business is collecting and selling attention data – and apparently it’s an important enough of the business that it overshadows any revenue they could collect from continuing to sell the client products. Newsgator is not the only one collecting attention data, of course. Attensa, for example, also uses attention data for collaborative filtering in its enterprise products. And if you’re using an online aggregator such as Google Reader, it’s hard to tell just what is happening to your attention data – though Google’s privacy policy makes it clear that they feel free to share “aggregated, non-personal information” with third parties.

Newsgator is one of the members of the APML Workgroup, and so far they are doing an exemplary job of living up to the group’s principles that your attention data is your property, under your control, and you should know what is being done with it. For starters, every one of the client products lets you opt out of sending this data back to Newsgator (though you may lose features, such as their vaunted web sync, if you do so). They’ve announced (but not yet shipped) that they will provide APIs to let you retrieve your own attention data, enabling portability. They also have a strong privacy policy that addresses the use of this data explicitly:

We collect information on viewing and interacting with content to produce relevance ranking on articles. Personally identifiable information is not displayed or shared outside of NewsGator’s systems without your explicit permission (for example if you choose to make a clipping folder public).

Newsgator isn’t perfect, of course, but they’re closer to perfect on the privacy front than most other companies in this Web 2.0 age. I’d like to see some definition of the line between “personally identifiable information” and aggregate information (if they started selling statistics that allowed you to pinpoint the reading habits of software developers in zip code 47630, that would pinpoint me pretty well), as well as some assurance of the disposition of the data in case of the sale or shutdown of the company. And of course their privacy policy has the usual escape hatch about being updated from time to time.

In the end, there’s a trade here. Newsgator is being more explicit about this trade than many web sites: they’ll give you useful functionality for free, and in return, they collect data on your habits which they combine with similar data and then market. If you use an online aggregator, you may well be making a similar trade without knowing it. The question is whether you care about this – and whether the enhanced functionality you get from sharing attention data is worth whatever erosion of your privacy it might cause.


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