Cornell Professor Challenges ChangeTip

Emin Gün Sirer, the Cornell professor who recently said that ChangeTip needed to die a quick death has returned to the offensive on the issue of privacy. ChangeTip CEO Nick Sullivan recently criticized Sirer´s statements saying that it felt “like a charity being yelled at”. What Sullivan did not do though was to explain how ChangeTip could even remotely be considered a “charity”.

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Cornell Professor Challenges ChangeTip

Emin Gün Sirer, the Cornell professor who recently said that ChangeTip needed to die a quick death has returned to the offensive on the issue of privacy. ChangeTip CEO Nick Sullivan recently criticized Sirer´s statements saying that it felt “like a charity being yelled at”. What Sullivan did not do though was to explain how ChangeTip could even remotely be considered a “charity”.

Sirer points out that not only is ChangeTip a for profit corporation but its direct links to social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit almost guarantee that at some point user data will be shared for profit.  According to Sullivan, ChangeTip has a policy written in bold letters that states that ChangeTip will not sell user data without user permission. But after review of ChangeTip´s Terms and Conditions the only reference to privacy seems to apply to the Children´s Online Privacy Protection Act:

“The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) requires that online service providers obtain parental consent before they knowingly collect personally identifiable information online from children who are under 13. We do not knowingly collect or solicit personally identifiable information from children under 13; if you are a child under 13, please do not attempt to register for the Services or send any personal information about yourself to us. If we learn we have collected personal information from a child under 13, we will delete that information as quickly as possible. If you believe that a child under 13 may have provided us personal information”.

We could find no statements in the Terms and Conditions that promise that user data will be kept safe and not be sold. The company´s “privacy policy”, which unlike its Terms and conditions, is not legally binding and it does say (although not  in “big, bold letters as claimed by Sullivan) that:

Does ChangeTip sell my data to advertisers?

No. ChangeTip does not sell your data to advertisers. Furthermore, we will not do so in the future without your permission.

Above that statement is another statement that says that the privacy policy is subject to change.

Professor Sirer makes the case that despite its recently raised $3.5 million in seed funding the company’s business model will only allow ChangeTip to bring in a maximum of $600 in revenue and if the company wants to retain its liquidity it will have to eventually begin to sell the incredibly valuable data that it is holding. He said that Sullivan´s response was weak at best:

“ChangeTip should outline a response that goes beyond ‘but we’re good people and can do no wrong. […] Mark Karpeles, Danny Brewster and Alex (Ryan Kennedy) Green were all good people once. Everyone who violates social norms has some story that starts out with them being good people. The ChangeTip ToS [terms of service] needs to be so good that it stands on its own, without reference to the personal history of the company officers.”

 The problem according to Sirer is that ChangTip does not explicitly promise, in a legal and binding fashion. He also points out that notification of changes in policy do not amount to informed consent:

“The current ToS says that the terms can be changed at will in the future, with some lip service to user notification. But notification is not equal to informed consent on the Internet, and the latter is often not real consent at all. This is true especially for ChangeTip, because their users rarely interact through their website.”

Sirer might, or might not, be correct about Changtip´s business model, but he is certainly correct that ChangTip should make changes to its ToS that reflect the public statements that they value user´s privacy and have no plans, either now or in the future, to sell user information. Sirer said that he had full faith and credit in the ChangeTip team and felt that they indeed would make the necessary changes to protect user information.


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