Avast’s Shutdown of Jumpshot Will Harm the Web and the World

Last night, I got an email from Deren Baker, Jumpshot’s CEO, informing me that the business would be winding down at the behest of their parent company, Avast. If you support more competition on the web, greater transparency about what the tech giants are doing, and opportunity to hold the powerful to account, this is a dark day.

Jumpshot provided invaluable data like this; data that the US Congress used to hold Google’s feet to the fire about their anti-competitive practices.

Jumpshot was one of the best and only sources for collecting high quality, aggregated, fully anonymized data about how people use the web. It’s loss will be felt keenly across numerous industries, including the web marketing world. But, in my opinion, the greatest loss is for those who seek to hold powerful tech companies to account for their lies and anti-competitive behavior.

Jumpshot’s data helped:

  • Hundreds of small, medium, and even large businesses better compete against Amazon’s march to own all of e-commerce
  • Millions of small and medium businesses who use and rely on keyword research and traffic estimation tools from providers like Moz, Ahrefs, SEMRush, and more who re-package Jumpshot’s data
  • Illuminate Facebook’s shift from traffic provider to traffic hoarder
  • Contradict Google’s claims about where and why it was changing SERPs and how that impacted click-through traffic, Google’s Ads, and the traffic they send back to their own properties.

And, much to the chagrin of reporters who tried to find any real privacy violations, it did this without ever exposing or identifying even a single user.

Let’s back up for a minute.

Why are you defending Jumpshot, Rand? Do you have a conflict of interest?

These seem to be the first questions folks ask, so I’ll be as clear as I can. I really enjoyed working with the Jumpshot team publishing some recent blog posts and presentations about the state of the web, Google’s shifting tactics, and received some nice press and praise for those pieces. I also am still a shareholder in my old company, Moz, which buys data from Jumpshot (among others) to provide keyword volume estimates (just like SEMRush and Ahrefs and many other SEO tools do). I’m also a huge supporter of anyone who can credibly verify or disprove false claims by the tech giants, as Jumpshot’s data did in congressional testimony last year.

I do not hold any Jumpshot stock. No close friends or family members of mine work there. Jumpshot has never paid me anything. In fact, I’ve paid them! SparkToro’s been a customer of Jumpshot for the last year and we hoped to use their data in our soon-to-launch product (but our beta testers didn’t actually find the traffic estimates super-useful in the context of SparkToro, so it’s non-material for us).

I defend Jumpshot because I believe they and Avast did nothing wrong, and were merely the target of fear-mongering and poorly misplaced concerns about “privacy.” I defend them also because I worked with their data teams, sales folks, and execs on many occasions and found them to be among the best, most honorable, thoughtful, kind, and intelligent people in the tech world. And I’m really picky about people! Comparing my experiences with Jumpshot’s team vs. say Google’s, Facebook’s, Amazon’s… Anyone with my exposure would be inclined to trust and believe in Jumpshot far more than the others.

How did Jumpshot get its data?

The company was always very clear about that — it was created as a subsidiary of Avast, the popular antivirus tool. Avast bought the Jumpshot startup and its anonymizing and aggregation technology almost a decade ago, kept the brand name, and spun up a business. Avast is anti-virus software installed on hundreds of millions of internet-connected devices around the world. In order to effectively do its job, Avast has to see every URL the machines visit. They stored that data for analysis and threat-protection, then realized how valuable it could be, and started Jumpshot as a data-provider arm.

How did Jumpshot work?

The Jumpshot database aggregated and anonymized all the URLs visited by all the devices that opted into Avast’s data-sharing request. Avast asked for consent at signup with a super-clear opt-in screen:

Consent doesn’t get clearer than this.

Not only that, they followed up with an email opt-in! And an easy, one-click opt-out for anyone who didn’t want their anonymized data shared.

Let’s be real. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple — none of these companies’ data practices are nearly as transparent, as clear, as easy to turn on and off. As numerous publications have noted, when you “shut off” tracking or opt-ins by Facebook and Google (in particular), they still track and profit off your data in a dozens of ways. Any criticism of Avast that doesn’t include 100X more antagonism, calls for boycotting, and support for laws against Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others cannot be taken seriously. If you’re tweeting today about how Jumpshot/Avast violated user privacy somehow (IMO, they don’t), you better be railing every day against what Facebook, Google, and Amazon are doing.

Was Jumpshot violating user privacy?

When you drive on roads, governments and private companies of all kinds collect data about your car’s speed, where you stop, where traffic happens, etc. (never mind what Google Maps quietly collects). That data is packaged and used to do all sorts of things — city planning, roadwork, by Starbucks’ store development team (figuring out where to place new locations), and a thousand others.

One could argue that this violates privacy, but I don’t think it does. The data isn’t tied to you. It’s not even useful at the individual car level. The data gains value from its aggregation, and in that aggregation there’s anonymity because the traffic information (at least that available to private companies) doesn’t contain the license plates or drivers’ names, just the quantity of cars, their speed, and where they went.

Google Trends aggregates and anonymizes search data. Statcounter anonymizes and aggregates web analytics data. Ookla’s Speedtest aggregates and anonymizes browser speed test data. SEMRush aggregates and anonymizes search ad campaign data. Election polls aggregate and anonymize voter preference data. The United States Census aggregates and anonymizes hundreds of points of data about the people who live and work in the country.

I believe these and millions of other data aggregation systems provide fundamentally useful, valuable services to the world, to our economic system, to our citizenry, to news outlets, and to researchers of all stripes. Jumpshot was one of these. In my opinion, it was one of the best, most privacy-conscious,

In all the years of Jumpshot’s operation, in all the recent hit pieces, not a single person’s privacy was ever found to be violated. The data was so well anonymized that the best the critiquing journalists could come up with were lines like “Although the data does not include personal information such as users’ names, it still contains a wealth of specific browsing data, and experts say it could be possible to deanonymize certain users.”

Experts say it could be possible to deanonymize certain users?

Oy vey. That’s code for “there’s no actual scandal here, but we maybe talked to people we won’t name, who wouldn’t go on the record, who said there could be someone harmed by it… well, maybe… but they didn’t say how.”

If this is the standard of privacy protection you believe in, OK. But you’d better be applying that standard fairly across all the tech companies. And if you’re being honest in that application, Jumpshot should fall near the very bottom of your list.

Is it wrong to sell user data?

Avast provides a free product. It then asks if you are willing to share your data in a way that will be aggregated, anonymized, and sold. Many people said yes to this. I cannot find a way to think about that as ethically wrong.

I understand that other people believe this is unethical. Fine, we disagree. But to say that Jumpshot and Avast should be singled out over and above far more guilty, more egregious abuses of privacy is hypocrisy.

Selling data is, IMO, not fundamentally evil. The way the data is used can be the problem. Google does not sell its data to third parties — it does something I believe has a far worse net negative effect on the world — it enters into new fields, reducing competition, limiting opportunity, and deepening income inequality. I’d take a hundred more data re-sellers over one more Google (or Amazon or Facebook or Palantir).

What’s next?

My greatest fear is that this weaponization of “privacy rights” as a contentious issue will shut down more and more aggregators and providers of information that let small, medium, and large competitors to the big tech monopolies compete against them. It will shut down the abilities of the press, of the government, of big tech critics like me to call those firms out on their misleading, incomplete, or false claims. And ultimately, it will lead to more power and wealth concentrated in the hands of the few vs. the democratization of data we all should support.

I hope Avast will reconsider its stance. I hope other providers will step up to the challenge. And I hope that all of us who believe in the value of this information will fight hard against salacious, incomplete, unfair criticism from click-seeking outlets who aren’t telling the whole story. A few pieces of inaccurate journalism shouldn’t be able to shutter companies like Jumpshot, whose value and mission are so crucial to the future of a fair and equitable web.