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HBO’s Silicon Valley wades into a heated debate about privacy policies

Silicon Valley is Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s biting comedy about the American tech industry, now in its fourth season. Every week, we’ll be taking one idea, scene, or joke and explain how it ties to the real Silicon Valley and speaks to an issue at the heart of the industry and its ever-lasting goal to change the world — and make boatloads of money in the process.

Spoilers ahead for the second episode of season 4, “Terms Of Service.”

It was written last year, but last night’s episode of Silicon Valley, “Terms of Service,” waded right into a heated privacy debate taking place right now in the tech industry. On the show, newly minted CEO Dinesh takes the reins of PiperChat, the video chat app that emerged from the smoldering remains of Richard’s failed idea for a platform. Little did Dinesh know that the terms of service he failed to import into his new chat app contained a very important legal protection.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection ACT, or COPPA, is designed to protect children under the age of 13 from using services that could collect data on them and potentially sell it to third parties. It’s why the age limit for Facebook and Snapchat is 13 — complying with the law while allowing underage users is too risky for even tech giants to attempt. In the case of PiperChat, Dinesh discovers that by not having a comprehensive privacy policy, he’s violated COPPA countless times a day and racked up more than $25 billion in potential fines. While the show plays up the idea that PiperChat is becoming a haven for child predators, the real connection to the tech industry is around the ethics of data collection.

Here in the stranger-than-fiction Bay Area, a controversy unfolded last month around a service called Unroll.me. The parent company of Unroll.me, which automatically scans a user’s inbox to cut down on junk mail, turned out to be bundling data gleaned from these emails and selling it to third parties. We know this because one of those buyers was Uber, which purchased data on Lyft customers from Slice Intelligence. (Slice bought Unroll.me back in November 2014.) That Uber was purchasing this data came to light because of a revealing profile of CEO Travis Kalanick published in The New York Times last week.

The ensuing debate has been contentious, to say the least. Unroll.me CEO Jojo Hedaya offered what many called a non-apology when he said “it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service.” Another Unroll.me co-founder no longer affiliated with the company then penned a brutally honest Medium post defending her “sweet, sweet friend Jojo.” The co-founder, Perri Chase, accused any user upset about data collection practices of being naïve about free internet services.

That brings us back to Silicon Valley’s inadvertently timely commentary on the expectations of privacy. The show certainly had no knowledge of Unroll.me’s activities, but the tech industry is flush with companies that hide unsavory practices behind impenetrable terms of service agreements.

“I checked the TOS box when I submitted it to the App Store, but then I didn’t end up doing it, alright!” Dinesh admits in last night’s episode. “But then when we caught fire, the last thing I wanted to do was bog our users down with legal bullshit. I mean, nobody reads that stuff anyway.” The endearing and lovingly ignorant Jared replies, “Well, first of all, everyone reads the terms of service.”

Of course, Jared couldn’t be more wrong. Virtually no one reads TOS agreements; the entire crux of a rather gruesome 2011 episode of South Park centered on a fictional Steve Jobs punishing iPad owners for failing to read the fine print of a recent iTunes update. The same is true of Unroll.me. The company never caught flak in the past for collecting and selling user data because it buried the details inside a lengthy legal document nobody reads.

Of course, the other side of the debate is about where to place blame. Chase, the Unroll.me co-founder who lambasted critics for their naïveté, had a point: “What exactly do you think is going on in your free Gmail inbox?” she wrote. Should we as users be expected to understand and accept every data collection practice underpinning every service we use? Or should tech companies stop exploiting consumers who just want to make their lives easier by masking questionable behavior with good intentions?

The court of public opinion suggests the latter, as the power dynamics here clearly afford tech companies the leverage to exploit their users. But as Silicon Valley makes clear, companies have incentives not to take privacy seriously. For PiperChat, Dinesh was worried his app’s meteoric growth would stall if he asked for broad user permissions. In the case of Unroll.me, talking too much about what the company did with its users’ data threatened to drive them away and scuttle its business.

Now, however, Unroll.me is in quite the predicament. Google it and you’ll find countless how-to guides explaining how to detangle your data from its service. Yet it’s unclear if the lesson the tech industry will learn here is to be more upfront, or to simply not to get caught. As for PiperChat, the young and scrappy engineers managed to sell the sinking ship to their longtime rival Hooli. Because the only thing better than owning up to your mistake in Silicon Valley is sending your enemy down the same doomed rabbit hole.

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