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Russell Wangersky: Read the fine print before taking this Oath

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Hello, lawmakers.

The ball is in your court.

Over the past week or so, email users with the Rogers network have been getting an interesting message, asking them to agree to new terms of service for their email accounts. These are email accounts that customers pay for, and are often repositories of years of personal data.

Well, Rogers subcontracted their email service to Yahoo, and Yahoo was bought out by the merged Verizon and AOL assets in the U.S. — and the new company that arose from all that, Oath, is now telling customers what its rules of engagement will be.

One of them is simple: nothing in your email is private.

Oath makes it clear that, by agreeing to their terms, “We may collect the information that you provide to us, such as … when you use our services to communicate with others or post, upload or store content (such as comments, photos, voice inputs, videos, emails, messaging services and attachments). 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.”

To be clear, here, it’s a little like sending a letter or a paying a bill, and having Canada Post tell you that, as part of using their service, you have to allow them to open any piece of your mail and read the contents to see if they can harvest commercial opportunities from the brownie recipe Aunt Madge sent you.

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But not only read the contents — Oath actually wants to use the contents to mine your friends, and have you be the fall guy if there are complaints.

Here’s what you are agreeing to in their terms of service: “Personal Data of Friends and Contacts. By using the services you agree that you have obtained the consent of your friends and contacts to provide their personal information (for example: their email address or telephone number) to Oath or a third party, as applicable, and that Oath or a third party may use your name to send messages on your behalf to make the services available to your friends and contacts. The services are not to be used for any form of spam.”

Interestingly, the section gives examples of the type of personal information to be shared, but not an exhaustive list — and “personal information” is a pretty broad bailiwick to not have any kind of definition.

Now, to be clear, Oath isn’t forcing you to agree to the new terms. But what they are doing is holding your archive emails up for ransom: either you agree, or run the risk of having them delete any and all of your material, for things as simple as “inactivity.”

It’s funny, there’s been a whole host of complaints about Facebook mining its accounts for data about its users — all of which was spelled out in its data policy, which most people haven’t even read. Facebook used the information to help it sell ads; being their corporate asset was the price you paid for their free service.

Now, with Rogers/Yahoo/Oath/Verizon/etc., it’s an email company where customers pay for a service, and now are supposed to agree have their data stripped for sale as well. How long until phone companies want permission to eavesdrop on all calls for sales leads and other commercial opportunities?

It’s quite simple: individual consumers don’t have the power or resources to fight global conglomerates to protect their privacy. The answer for the ordinary consumer is “sign or lose your data and email address.”

But governments do have that power — the power to broadly limit the types of information that can be harvested, and that bans companies from imposing predatory terms of service.

And in this case, they clearly should use it.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.

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