Inbox: zero. To many this may seem like a dream. I certainly know that with the volume of emails I receive every day, getting my inbox down to zero seems impossible. However, a Silicon Valley start-up is aiming to achieve that.
For a monthly fee, Superhuman offers "the fastest email experience ever made", complete with intuitive keyboard shortcuts and productivity-enhancing tools. However, Superhuman has one big problem: privacy. Critics have been pointing out that one of Superhuman's unique selling points, its advanced form of read-receipts, pose a huge privacy problem. Since email clients cannot offer a "WhatsApp-style" read-receipt which is highly visible to both sender and recipient, instead email clients rely on embedded, invisible pixels sent in every email which can be used to tell the sender when the recipient has opened the email.
However, the difference between the standard Outlook-style read-receipts that we are probably all familiar with, and those offered by Superhuman, is the level of information. The pixel sent in every email via Superhuman could distinguish different recipients opening the same email, differentiate mobile and desktop openings, and even report the approximate (state or country-level) location. Superhuman argued that this was extremely valuable information for corporate email users; it could tell you if the recipient was abroad when they opened the email, for example. However, it caused a lot of concern and accusations of spying were levied at Superhuman. Although Superhuman has now turned off the read-receipt function by default and no longer collects location data, it has not stopped collecting more detailed data on email recipients without their knowledge, in the name of providing better user service.
This is not the first time that privacy and the use of user data by tech companies and start-ups has been in the public eye. Similar concerns have been raised recently about fintech companies, including Facebook's new cryptocurrency, Libra, and the potential issues of Facebook users sharing and Facebook collecting and maintaining financial data on its platform.
Privacy in the big data era is also a very hot topic for competition law globally. Companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple have come under even more recent scrutiny from EU competition authorities for their collection and processing of personal data, especially in light of GDPR and the recent German competition authority's finding in February that Facebook had abused its dominance by making the use of the social network conditional on collecting user data from multiple sources. Next week, executives from Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple will appear before the US House of Representatives antitrust subcommittee to face questions about antitrust, big data and privacy.
All of these concerns come amidst other calls to break up big tech using antitrust laws (see our previous posts on this topic here). But the debate about whether antitrust laws are the appropriate tool to challenge privacy concerns still rages. Competition authorities, particularly in the EU, and other critics of big data consider that it is important for competition law to take into account data privacy, particularly when assessing mergers, as merging companies could leverage market power using combined data sources and how data affects innovation. However, others argue that privacy should be kept separate from antitrust and protected through separate privacy laws related to consumer welfare.
There is no doubt that these debates will continue, especially as competition law comes under increasing scrutiny as technology develops. In the meantime, it will be important for companies to prioritise their considerations of privacy, and even consider privacy in the context of potential mergers. We must also go on in the knowledge that our digital footprints and the information collected about us is only likely to increase, and some of us may never achieve inbox zero.
They’ve identified a feature that provides value to some of their customers (ie, seeing if someone has opened your email yet) and they’ve trampled the privacy of every single person they send email to in order to achieve that,”