Social Media Startup Seeks to Protect User Data

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A New York-based social media startup is seeking to set itself apart from mainstream tech practices by taking a strict stance on data privacy.

The company is a minimalist when it comes to data collection, according to Nick Janicki, director of media relations at Gan Jing World, an entertainment platform established in the United States last July by former Silicon Valley executives.

Gan Jing’s commitment starts with allowing the use of its app without a registered account. This feature was enabled last month. Liking or sharing a video doesn’t require registration, either. Commenting on a video, however, will require an account for maintaining community guidelines. Even for that, Gan Jing is exploring other technical solutions to lift the requirement, said Janicki, adding that the startup only collects data to meet legal requirements and essential functionality needs, such as an email address to confirm registration.

“Gan Jing World does not collect users’ info nor tracks users when they leave the site or app,” Janicki told The Epoch Times. “Tracking users across the Internet is not being done at all, which is really important.”

He said Gan Jing, which means clean, treats consumers as learners rather than end products—it allows users to set up preferences for the algorithm to work in their favor: guide self-improvement in a clean entertainment free of violent, erotic, criminal, and harmful content.

Treating users as end products has a direct impact on data privacy because companies own the data of their end products, according to Janicki, who says privacy is more important than ever now, as artificial intelligence may take privacy intrusion to an all-new level by mining personal data at unprecedented power and speed.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo A woman checks her phone in a file photo. (The Epoch Times)

That concept of users as end products is clearly visualized in Apple’s “data auction” commercial, a part of its data privacy campaign rolled out in May 2021.

In the commercial, a girl named Ellie witnessed an auction of her data—opened and read emails, drugstore purchases, location data, contacts, and texting habits. Then, looking visibly upset, she enabled the “ask app not to track” feature on her iPhone; the auctioneer and buyers began to disappear one by one.

To Track or Not To Track

The “ask app not to track” feature that rolled out in April 2021 was a part of Apple’s App Track Transparency (ATT) initiative. With that, Apple has established itself as a privacy champion.

If protecting data privacy partly means blocking tracking, then the industry needs to define tracking. Advocates say that tracking can occur when an app or website shares your personal data with a third party without your consent because that means one more potential source for a data breach.

Apple’s definition of tracking is narrower: tracking occurs when your personal data collected by one company’s app or website is connected with data collected by other companies for advertising purposes. Sharing personal data with third parties for other purposes, such as analytics and fighting fraud, is excluded.

Since its release, the effectiveness of the ATT initiative has been under question.

A September 2021 study by Lockdown Privacy, an app that blocks ad trackers, discovered that the “ask app not to track” feature was “functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking.” Lockdown Privacy studied ten popular apps and found the number of ad trackers to be the same with ATT turned on and off.

In addition, a Washington Post article reported that users’ “ask app not to track” preference can be overwritten by app developers using some utilities provided by data companies. So while app developers are expected to follow Apple’s privacy policies, they have the tools to circumvent that technically.

Then, in December 2021, the Financial Times reported that Apple had quietly allowed app developers to follow a “much looser interpretation” of its privacy policy. In particular, “companies including Snap [Snapchat] and Facebook have been allowed to keep sharing user-level signals from iPhones, as long as that data is anonymized and aggregated rather than tied to specific user profiles,” the report wrote.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Social media apps are seen on an iPhone in a file photo. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

And over a year into the “ask app not to track” feature release, Apple’s in-house advertising—Apple Search Ads (ASA) in its app store—showed a significant gain over its competitors.

ASA has joined Google and Facebook as the top channel used by big ad spenders, according to a September 2022 report by Appsumer, which aggregates cross-app advertising performance data.

While about 75 percent of the big ad spenders used ASA before the ATT feature release, that rose to 95 percent in the second quarter of 2022, at the same level as Google and over 10 percent higher than Facebook’s, according to Appsumer’s research, which surveyed digital advertisers in North America and Europe who typically spend $354,000 a month.

With the “ask app not to track” feature leaving much to be desired for blocking tracking and the fact that Apple made strides in the advertising market at the same time, some experts have raised questions about how serious Apple is with privacy protection.

Stephen Cheliotis, top brand strategist at Gravity Global, told the Drum, an online publication in the marketing and media industries, that Apple’s privacy campaign generates “positive perceptual value” if taken at face value, but may be perceived by others as “no more than a disingenuous piece of positioning to steal advantage against the likes of Google and Meta with whom they are fiercely competitive.” The Epoch Times has contacted Apple for comment.

Gan Jing’s Approach to Advertising

Gan Jing wants to go back to traditional advertising, where demographic data was collected through voluntary survey responses and wasn’t tied to individual identities, according to Janicki.

He added that precision targeting based on personal data is overrated because the targeted individual is usually culturally invisible, and therefore, the context is missing; and precision targeting may incur the risk of over-optimizing into a suboptimal situation. And good business may be achieved without intruding on people’s privacy, he said.

“There’s still some data capture that allows for things like recommendations,” said Janicki. “But Gan Jing doesn’t continue to track you when you leave the site or app, and your data isn’t being sold as an individual to advertisers. I think those are the two biggest differentiators of Gan Jing.”

He said for now, Gan Jing can only control its own environment and invite partners to build an ecosystem that protects data privacy. However, a user may still experience ad targeting if an advertiser does data matching on its own and targets the user somewhere else on the Internet. However, with more partners joining hands, a new ecosystem that respects users’ privacy can form, he added.

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