If you’re a Yahoo or AOL email user, advertisers have a pretty good picture of exactly who you are because Yahoo and AOL are scanning your emails.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Oath, the Verizon subsidiary that owns both email providers, “has been pitching a service to advertisers that analyzes more than 200 million Yahoo Mail inboxes and the rich user data they contain.” This data is then used to figure out what products and services to target its users with. The pitch also broadens out to bring AOL users’ emails into the fold.
After Verizon acquired AOL in 2015 and then Yahoo in 2017, the telecommunications giant rolled the two companies under a subsidiary that houses its digital content properties called Oath. Properties such as Huffington Post, Engadget, Tumblr, and Techcrunch all operate under the Oath umbrella. Using this data obtained through users’ emails, Oath can offer its advertisers precision ad targeting across these digital media properties.
Using data obtained through users’ emails for advertising is not unheard of. Scanning emails was the regular practice at Google, where it would use the data obtained from its Gmail users for targeted ads right on the service. The search giant had been scanning user emails and mining them for ad data from the very inception of Gmail way back in 2004. Despite criticism, they continued doing this for 13 years. Yahoo too has been engaging in this practice for more than a decade, well before they were acquired by Verizon. The Silicon Valley mantra had long been that if you’re not a paying customer, then you are the product.
However, as privacy and security concerns have become more prevalent as the internet becomes a bigger part of our everyday lives, this practice has fallen out of favor. Google announced last year that they put a stop to the practice of scanning your emails to mine ad data, however, they still do scan your emails for product personalization and improvement. As the WSJ notes, Microsoft says they have never used emails for ad data.
For some, the interested news here is that Oath seems to be moving in the opposite direction of the other tech giants and doubling down on the email scanning for ad targeting practice. But, Yahoo and AOL’s parent company actually made this fairly clear earlier this year when they updated its terms of service. Upon logging into your email, users were prompted with only two options: to agree to the terms or decide later. A portion of Oath’s terms at the publishing of this article read as the following:
Oath analyzes and stores all communications content, including email content from incoming and outgoing mail. This allows us to deliver, personalize and develop relevant features, content, advertising and Services.
Still, though, there are very interesting tidbits throughout the WSJ piece that layout just how far Oath takes the email data mining practice.
Doug Sharp, Oath’s vice president of data, measurements, and insights told the WSJ that “email scanning has become one of the company’s most effective methods for improving ad targeting.” According to Sharp, the email scanning only extends to commercial and promotional emails.
Sharp also quotes that previously mentioned Silicon Valley mantra to point out that the ad service is “part of the trade-off users make” in order to receive free email from a service like Yahoo. However, he also points out that the company also scans the emails of Yahoo’s paying customers.
Another eye-opening piece of info is how Yahoo seems to have embraced how a number of people have come to use its email service. In its pitch to advertisers, the company acknowledges that many people have come to use a Yahoo email address specifically to send unwanted commercial email blasts and positions it as an advantage.
One way the company is taking this email mining practice further than even company’s like Google once did is with its grouping of similar users together based on the profile the company creates for them based on the data. For example, your email receipts for that Netflix or Hulu account you pay for may trigger Yahoo to place you in a group for movie studios to target.
Users can take the extra step to opt out of the default settings that allow for services like Yahoo and AOL to scan your emails for advertising data. But if you’re a Yahoo or AOL email user and haven’t turned the email scans off already, as even Sharp points out, then odds are you probably don’t really care.
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