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Why digital privacy matters even more in 2021

news  Paul Jarvis · Dec 30, 2020

New Year's resolutions don’t always stick. Your local gyms are packed in January but back to normal in February. You throw out all of the chocolate in January, but you’re in a sugar coma at month-end.

In business, the same can happen - we have good intentions to change or do something for the better, but then we get caught up in the day-to-day of running our businesses. Sometimes though, it’s important to take a step back and work ON our company to align our values with our actions, instead of just working IN it. The start of a new year is the perfect time to re-evaluate the data coming into and going out of your company.

So let’s think about: what we are tracking/collecting, why it’s important (or not important), who’s collecting it for us (and what their business model is), and finally how that tracking/collecting of data impacts our audience, website visitors and our customers. This last point is important. Data privacy may not be your number one priority but a growing percentage of people are now actively looking into (and calling out) companies that do invade their privacy.

Why should we care about digital privacy, and audit what we track?

A lot of people assume that since they have nothing to hide, they don’t need to care about digital privacy. We’re all internet-law abiding citizens, after all.

And while that reasoning on the surface may make a bit of sense, it can be uninformed and dangerous. In a nutshell, here’s why:

  1. Our behaviour changes for the worse when we know we are being watched.
  2. Anything collected about us has the potential to be leaked, breached, or hacked (including credit card info and passwords).
  3. Even if we are doing nothing wrong, we should all care about how big tech companies are making billions of dollars off the data they collect about us.

To that final point above, according to ProtonMail, Facebook saw the biggest revenue increase of any social media company in 2019, making $27 per user that year (up 3,600% since 2010). Google, an advertising company, made $67 per user that year (up 380% since 2010). This is why these companies give us “free” software because they are making so much money off of us.

Unless we start caring about protecting our digital privacy, these big tech companies like those will continue to profit immensely when we trade our data for free access, without giving us any choice around what’s collected about us or how it’s then used.

Luckily the tide is turning, and people all over the internet are starting to consider alternatives to Google products (like our own alternative to Google Analytics) and are deleting their Facebook accounts in droves.

What data are we tracking and why?

The last few years have provided business owners with access to gobs (a technical term) of data about everything. Who visits our website, who signs up for lists, who buys from us, and so, so much more.

But just because we can collect data and information about people, doesn’t mean we should. This is important to consider both from a “what actually matters” perspective, as well as from a privacy perspective.

As an example of this, for years I had tracking turned on in my newsletter. I could see who opened which emails, where they were when they opened them, what they clicked on, and much more. Then I realized, because my list was simply full articles sent as text, that none of those metrics I was collecting even mattered. None affected my ability to generate revenue, none changed what I wrote about, and none helped me connect and build relationships with those folks on my list. So I removed the tracking pixels, and nothing bad happened. I didn’t go out of business or lose money. All that happened was I collected less data about my list subscribers.

It’s an important and useful thought experiment as a business owner: what data are we collecting (across our sites, sales, lists, etc), why are we collecting it, and how does it matter (or does it matter at all). From there, we can pair down if needed, and only collect the data that helps our companies.

Why pair down at all? Data collected is like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (stick with me on this). It’s not a matter of whether that data (or those dinosaurs) will get out, it’s a matter of when. We’re told that data collected about us is for quality assurance, safe-keeping or to better personalize our experiences, but the problem is that data tends to be leaked (over, and over, and over again).

And, just like dinosaurs in that movie, just because we can collect data about people, doesn’t mean we should:

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

What companies are collecting data for us?

Business models are important when we are considering the companies we use to run our own companies. For example, if we don’t pay for software we use with money, we are paying for it with something else. Typically data. That’s why it’s important for us, as business owners, to consider the business models of the companies we use. And, if it’s not clear how a company makes money, that should raise a red flag.

That’s why Fathom charges money for our software - because our business model is selling software, not selling data (those two models are very different). So for every company you use to run your own business, consider their revenue model, because they may not be charging you money, but they are profiting off you giving them access to some sort of data.

How does collecting data impact our business?

At Fathom Analytics, we’ve thought about this a lot. As a privacy-first company, we’ve had to say “no” to lots of ways we could grow our company that would invade the privacy of others. But that doesn’t mean we’re anti-revenue, it just means we’ve had to consider alternatives to the typical or traditional routes that others use to grow their businesses.

We were able to grow by almost 600% in 2020 without buying and selling the data of anyone. How? Here are a few of the ways we generate brand recognition, new customers, and awareness for our analytics product:

  1. Our blog. What you’re reading right now :) Not to toot our own horns, but we spend a lot of time producing quality and engaging content. With the content we produce, we also think about SEO for it, and how it’ll be shared/promoted by others. This helps us get the word out about our product and it’s features.
  2. Our Twitter account. We're active on Twitter daily. Not just pitching Fathom, but engaging with our community and customers all the time. Yes, Twitter is a social platform and doesn’t charge for use, but since this is where our target audience is, we engage on that platform. We also don’t ever use share buttons or Twitter code on our website.
  3. Our podcast, Above Board. We produce a fun/engaging show that shares the details of running an indie software company that competes with giants. We get into the nitty-gritty of both the good and the ugly bits of our business and share openly/honestly about wins and losses.
  4. Our features. By releasing updates and new features to Fathom, it gives us and our customers something to talk about often.
  5. Our customers. Too often software companies and startups focus on the acquisition of new customers over retaining existing customers. We do the opposite: we spend more time and energy ensuring the folks who are paying us want to keep doing that in the future. So our support is fast and empathetic (and done by Jack and myself, the cofounders), our software is built on enterprise-level architecture, and we go out of our way to make sure folks are pleased with their purchase. This in turn drives a lot of word of mouth (and very little churn).
  6. Our affiliate program. Finally, we pay 25% commissions for life. So if you refer a customer and they stick around for 5 years, we pay you 25% of their bill for 5 years. This is a great incentive for folks to talk about our software and promote it to their audiences too. We built our own privacy-first affiliate program for this.

So it’s very possible (and profitable) to run a growing business without invading the privacy of others. We’ve done it ourselves, and many other companies have done the same as well.

How to get started

Like anything, it’s best to start small and simple, build momentum, and iterate. So with digital privacy, it doesn’t have to be an overwhelmingly huge task - we can start small and with a few modest goals, and go from there. There are three main buckets, and it’s ok to tackle them one at a time if you’re just getting started.

As a consumer

The main focus here, as a human who uses the internet, should be how can you stop having your personal and personally-identifying data collected when you use the web.

Using a VPN, a privacy-focused browser, an email service that charges money (instead of profiting off your data), and de-googling your digital life are all great starts.

Here are my favourite digital privacy tools (the list was for 2020, but I just re-read them, and they’re all still what I recommend).

As a business

Businesses collect and analyze data, as we talked about, but considering what we need to collect and analyze is important as well.

So the first step is to scale down what you collect to just the essentials, and then to consider if the data you do need can be in aggregate (devoid of personal information) or not.

A huge initial consideration may be to simply remove all social sharing buttons that have javascript code from your site (i.e. not giving big tech access to track people on your website). And then, hosting your fonts locally, and then, considering software like Fathom Analytics (which is privacy-first analytics, in aggregate) or any other software that focuses on digital privacy and that charges a reasonable fee instead of profiting off of data.

There are many other resources for “DeGoogling” your business, like this thread or this one.

As a law-abiding citizen

Luckily, laws are catching up to how internet citizens have felt for a while now: that our digital privacy is valuable and important enough to be protected by law.

GDPR, CCPA, PECR, and ePrivacy laws matter globally, and not knowing the laws is no excuse for not following them. Because Fathom doesn’t hoard personal data or use cookies, our analytics software is fully compliant, which means our customers can ditch those annoying cookie notices. We also utilize EU Isolation, making certain our analytics are not illegal.

Let’s all make digital privacy a focus for 2021

With more and more of us working from home now, protecting digital privacy for everyone matters even more. Now, when our digital privacy is invaded, it’s not just on our work computers at public office buildings, it’s happening on our “everything” computers from our homes. That’s why it’s more important than ever to think about how we can protect both ourselves and our customers.

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Paul Jarvis

Paul Jarvis, author + designer

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