Zoho on collecting customer data and avoiding the cookies trap

The Indian productivity giant has avoided the moral conundrum of revenue vs customer privacy, its chief strategy officer has explained.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Zoho's chief strategy officer Vijay Sundaram is a firm believer that business growth should not come at the cost of customer privacy.

"20 years ago, we made a decision: We will never have a model that makes revenue out of advertising," he told ZDNet.

"What that means is that slows down your growth because you have obvious ways to add an additional revenue stream … but what that winds up doing is something that lasts over a longer period of time."

According to Sundaram, the exponential growth it can potentially offer could also result in conflicting models.

"You see a lot of technology companies today, and it's not just the Googles of the world, or the Facebook's of the world, and many technology companies, including Amazon and Microsoft and others that have an advertising model, however big or small it is," he said.

"There is a fundamental conflict in that model because ad revenue and privacy are fundamentally at loggerheads -- in a sense as the oil and water business -- they just don't mix."

See also: Zoho hits 50 million business users, launches WorkDrive  

Sundaram said that while there are advantages to driving ad revenue, it would loosen privacy requirements as there's a fundamental conflict. He said at minimum, more work is required to keep both separate to avoid breaches, but it only gets worse from there, he added.

"Marketing has never been a crime. Companies have marketed to their customers since God knows when, time immemorial, so what you have is -- how you use the marketing, how you use the tools," he said.

"What of those tools are made visible to your customers? How do people know how they're being observed, watched, or how their data is being used? ... That's where the moral part comes in.

"It's the analogy of … is a crime attributed to the gun or the gun holder? Marketing is a tool … what are your ethics and morals or governance is the bigger question."

Another decision taken by the Indian productivity giant is that it has banned third-party cookies.

"Third-party cookies are an evil of the internet age that people are simply not aware of," he said.

"There's a lot of 'value in collecting this data,' because there's a presumption ... that customer data is up and available for sale, despite all the regulatory regimes that are trying to clamp down on it."

By banning third-party cookies, Sundaram said Zoho has been able to make the statement to its customers that their data is their data.

"Our customers may choose to use our products and put in third-party cookies -- we don't have a right on that, and we can't mandate that," he added.

"From our point of view, every company should just do this. In fact, they should do this because it's a matter of principle. And most companies will only do it when they're mandated by the law."

Zoho, which offers a suite of enterprise applications that add up to be a business operating system, currently boasts a user base of over 50 million.  


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