Answers Served: PeekYou’s Hussey Offers Glimpse Into Data Practices


conversationADOTAS – My nickname around the Washington, DC, indie rock scene used to be “SHAC,” an acronym for “smarmy hipster a**hole [real bad word],” which is an amalgamation of the various names I was called on music blogs. I was a little surprised (maybe disappointed) SHAC didn’t appear in my PeekYou profile instead of my supposed interest in “God.” Being an agnostic Unitarian, I have no idea what that means, but the profile got my music taste right: Jawbox, Pink Floyd, Sunny Day Real Estate and David Bowie were on top. I also ranked a “3” in importance on the web, which I found kind of demoralizing…

PeekYou is a people search engine whose “primary goal is to create a single profile for every person in the public domain,” according to CEO and founder Michael Hussey — the firm accomplishes this by linking screen names and pseudonyms with users’ real names and tapping a wealth of data soureall public information available online to determine demographics and interests. Part of its B2B revenue model includes a “per query pricing structure,” and the company sells segment and aggregate data sets as well as individual level data.

No surprise with The Wall Street Journal’s recent evisceration of RapLeaf, an online data collector that builds advertising profiles with real names and emails (though it strips personal information before selling them), PeekYou has received some criticism about its data collecting and selling efforts. Hussey was kind enough to elaborate on PeekYou’s business model and practices, as well as share his definition of online privacy.

ADOTAS: You recently commented that PeekYou’s “primary goal is to create a single profile for every person in the public domain” — why does PeekYou want to do this? Why is it important/necessary?

HUSSEY: Human beings have moved from communicating via a single node of information (a phone number) to potentially many thousands of internet-connected nodes (websites, social networks, message boards, etc.). PeekYou’s goal is help re-organize the web by associating those links and that content back to the people who created it.

Ten years from now, this class of data will power the highest quality search engines, social networking tools, e-mail platforms, and analytics and advertising platforms. Every major Internet property — Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Google, Facebook — is attempting to create their own version of what is now called the “social graph.”

We’ll see where we fit over the coming years. But when I conceived of the concept four and a half years ago, I knew for certain that adding the people layer was the next logical step for organizing the Internet.

Could you explain PeekYou’s revenue model? How do you justify selling user data to various companies?

Our B2C properties, including, are advertising-based models. In B2B, our revenue model is based on a per-query pricing structure.

How does anyone justify selling this class of data? It is a lot of hard work to develop this database and there are good companies who want to utilize it in ways that, in fact, benefit consumers.

Who are PeekYou’s buyers? How do the buyers typically use information sold by PeekYou?

We expect to publicly announce a couple of partnerships later on this quarter within the social listening space.

Do you take an active interest in how buyers use information? Do you prohibit any activities?

Absolutely – we’re only working with premium partners who respect the sensitiveness of this data and will not allow it to be used for spamming purposes.

A blog post describing PeekYou reads: “PeekYou delivers not only segment and aggregate data sets, but also individual level data and targeting abilities by using actual demographic information within a secure framework which protects the privacy of the individual.” How does PeekYou protect the privacy of an individual?

We do not sell email addresses, contact information, financials, medical info, etc. We’ve chosen to work with analytics platforms because they are useful research tools and we are able to provide real demographic insights for their clients. The data we sell is very useful in this context. Any future partnerships we create will be dealt with on the same principles.

We believe there are two types of people – people who want to be private and people who want to be public. We embrace the public web and in the long run, believe that is where people will want to participate.

Everyone has their own unique comfort level with public web disclosure. We disclose links we’ve indexed through and for those who are not comfortable with what is out there, we provide easy opt-outs.

We’re about to launch our own product suite called PeekControl, and also start working with online reputation management services to help people regain control once they’re fully aware of what is already out there in the public web.

What role does the PeekScore Internet-importance meter play in selling data?

It depends on the partner. Many companies are working with some excellent companies such as Klout to help measure “influence.” At this time, we do not necessarily consider PeekScore a measure of influence; more so a measurement of the size of a person’s digital footprint (though there certainly should be a correlation between size and influence). We’re excited about PeekScore and believe it will become a more important component of our product set over time.

How do you feel PeekYou’s data collection and selling methods are similar and different to other data merchants?

We’re focused on indexing the public web around people. Though we’ve been presented with offers from App developers to purchase private data, it was never our mission to do so. We respect that people who contribute information behind login firewalls expect that data to remain confidential.

What in a Facebook profile is up for grabs? Is there anything public that data collectors and tracking companies should avoid?

Anything behind the login firewall is off-limits – and Facebook has made that abundantly clear – and good for them, too.

What has been your take on The Wall Street Journal/RapLeaf controversy? How do you feel about RapLeaf’s data collection and profiling methods?

They took a different approach to collecting data from day one, in which they were focused on harvesting email addresses and associating links to those emails. We know there are advantages and disadvantages to that approach.

How do you feel PeekYou’s business compares to offline targeting companies?

Given that we have a B2C site, we allow users to control the links that we’ve discovered. We’re obviously much more public about what we’re doing than any offline targeting company. Bringing the power and control back to the individuals is what will make this industry thrive over the long term.

What is your opinion on data-collection regulation or legislation? Will industry self-regulation be enough to calm consumers about data collecting practices?

I hope the industry can self-regulate, but I’m not sure yet. I’m keeping a close eye on it.

Is Internet privacy an oxymoron?

Definitely not. There are private networks and public networks. People have the right to choose where they want to participate. At the end of the day, it is up to the individual to be smart and educated about where they participate – which sites they join – and what they post to the web. If it is in the public domain, search engines will find it.

The information on PeekYou is already out there. By creating a better, more useful search engine, we in turn educate Internet users. We make them aware that public knowledge is both an amazing opportunity and a potential liability. The question is, do you want to control how your public data is discovered and packaged or do you want to remain passive?

As our online identities merge closer with our real-world selves, it is imperative that we understand now more than ever the potential consequences of our online actions. We believe that as more people act the same way online as they would offline, everyone benefits.


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