This week, the FTC entered into a proposed settlement with Unrollme Inc. (“Unrollme”), a free personal email management service that offers to assist consumers in managing the flood of subscription emails in their inboxes. The FTC alleged that Unrollme made certain deceptive statements to consumers, who may have had privacy concerns, to persuade them to grant the company access to their email accounts. (In re Unrolllme Inc., File No 172 3139 (FTC proposed settlement announced Aug. 8, 2019).

This settlement touches many relevant issues, including the delicate nature of online providers’ privacy practices relating to consumer data collection, the importance for consumers to comprehend the extent of data collection when signing up for and consenting to a new online service or app, and the need for downstream recipients of anonymized market data to understand how such data is collected and processed.  (See also our prior post covering an enforcement action involving user geolocation data collected from a mobile weather app).

A quick glance at headlines announcing the settlement might give the impression that the FTC found Unrollme’s entire business model unlawful or deceptive, but that is not the case.  As described below, the settlement involved only a subset of consumers who received allegedly deceptive emails to coax them into granting access to their email accounts.  The model of providing free products or services in exchange for permission to collect user information for data-driven advertising or ancillary market research remains widespread, though could face some changes when California’s CCPA consumer choice options become effective or in the event Congress passes a comprehensive data privacy law.

As part of the Unrollme registration process, users grant Unrollme access to selected personal email accounts for decluttering purposes.  However, this permission also allows Unrollme to access and scan inboxes for so-called “e-receipts” or emailed receipts from e-commerce transactions. After scanning users’ e-receipt data (which might include billing and shipping addresses and information about the purchased products or services), Unrollme’s parent company, Slice Technologies, Inc., would anonymize the data and package it into market research reports that are sold to various companies, retailers and others.  According to the FTC complaint, when some consumers declined to grant permission to their email accounts during signup, Unrollme, during the relevant time period, tried to make them reconsider by sending allegedly deceptive statements about its access (e.g, “You need to authorize us to access your emails. Don’t worry, this is just to watch for those pesky newsletters, we’ll never touch your personal stuff”).  The FTC claimed that such messages did not tell users that access to their inboxes would also be used to collect e-receipts and to package that data for sale to outside companies, and that thousands of consumers changed their minds and signed up for Unrollme.

As part of the settlement, Unrollme is prohibited from misrepresentations about the extent to which it accesses, collects, uses, stores or shares information in connection with its email management products. Unrollme must also send an email to all current users who enrolled in Unrollme after seeing the allegedly deceptive statements and explain Unrollme’s data collection and usage practices.  Unrollme is also required to delete all e-receipt data obtained from recipients who enrolled in Unrollme after seeing the challenged statements (unless Unrollme receives affirmative consent to maintain such data from the affected consumers).

In an effort at increased transparency, Unrollme’s current home page displays several links to detailed explanations of how the service collects and analyzes user data (e.g., “How we use data”).

Interestingly, this is not the first time Unrollme’s practices have been challenged, as the company faced a privacy suit over its data mining practices last year.  (See Cooper v. Slice Technologies, Inc., No. 17-7102 (S.D.N.Y. June 6, 2018) (dismissing a privacy suit that claimed that Unrollme did not adequately disclose to consumers the extent of its data mining practices, and finding that consumers consented to a privacy policy that expressly allowed such data collection to build market research products and services).