Over the past two years software company Zoho has removed all third party cookies from its sites as it strengthens its user privacy procedures and policies.

“We don’t use any third party cookies to track users when they come to any of our sites,” Vijay Sundaram, Zoho’s chief strategy officer, told delegates at the company’s Zoholics conference in Austin today.

“This is unusual, almost no product will do that because the marketers will kill you — that’s the way they learn about how the customer uses their products.”

Vijay Sundaram
Vijay Sundaram, Zoho’s chief strategy officer

Sundaram told Which-50 the company chose to remove any external tracking because it was the right thing to do.

“Sometimes there’s a more primary value that we must subscribe to,” he said.

“If you use third party cookies, we are basically allowing third parties to have access to information on our customers. Customers don’t know that, they’re not told that. So that is something that is actually obviously surreptitious, even though every company on the planet does it.”

“We stopped putting Google Analytics on our pages because we simply don’t want any other party to have access to that data.”

(The company does still use its own in-house tracking to monitor usage – more on that later).

Ad free business model

According to Sundaram a company’s business model will determine how it approaches privacy.

Despite having free products, such as Zoho Mail, over 15 years ago the company decided it would never have an advertising revenue stream because it was in conflict with the company’s privacy stance.

“The fundamental tenant that we have is if you have a business model like an advertising model, you are fundamentally in conflict with user privacy,” Sundaram said.

“That policy was made very early, before there was any pressure from government agencies, that this is incompatible with the idea of customer privacy.”

Sundaram noted the Zoho isn’t a public company, and therefore doesn’t have external pressure to find new revenue streams to fuel growth rates. For example software companies often begin building software, before moving into a service business and selling advertising, to show their investors they are growing.

“If you are a destination site, or a site with a lot of traffic there’s a built-in incentive for you to go after the advertising market,” he said.

“So then you start using all these cookies and very soon you’ve got into this surveillance world so you can create customer segments to make the most of advertising dollars.

“Since we have decide we will never go down that path there’s no such pressure – we have free email with tens of millions of users, so we could monetise that, [so] there’s plenty of money we are leaving on the table.”

Some of Zoho’s own products, such as its website builder, may be used by third party cookies. That choice is up to the customer, Sundaram said.

“We are not going to prevent them from doing anything. Their freedom to use third party cookies is their freedom and their choice,” he said.

“We can’t impinge on your decision on how you are going to track customers. We can’t prevent you from doing that and we are not a regulatory body. So we can uphold our own set of values – we are going to provide the technologies for customers to do what makes sense for their business.”

Tracking usage

Zoho does still use its own tracking technology to monitor how customers are using its products, but that data stays inside the business.

Sundaram compared this to a spell checker which has to watch what you are doing and check it so it can suggest corrections.

“If you watch how customers are using their apps, you can see they are having trouble navigating a particular type of workflow. Those things are legitimate and we do it only using our own technology, none of that data we share with anybody else, and we only use it for the purpose of understanding and improving the use of the product.”

Following the introduction of Europe’s strict privacy rules, GDPR, last year. Zoho has committed to applying the GDPR standard to all its products and customers, regardless of where they are in the world.

“We take the highest level of user data protection today and we are already extending it to all out geographies,” Sundaram said.

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