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Why You Should Think Twice Before Signing A Change.org Petition

Change.org, the online petition platform, is everyone's favourite form of online activism. As with most things these days, do-gooders and protesters alike take to the internet to start movements, and Change.org has quickly become the go-to tool for the lazy in the digital age.

Dubbed the "Google of modern politics", it's amassed 150 million users around the world, and increases by another million every month. With just a few clicks anyone can sign, or even start, a petition - Brexit alone generated over 400 petitions, because in the 21st century democracy inevitably goes hand in hand with online platforms.

But even though Change.org sells itself as a progressive non-profit, it's a social corporation created in Delaware (America's fiscal paradise) and has headquarters in Silicon Valley. While it's true that it open doors to fight social injustice, it's also profiting off it's users big time.

How much is your email worth?

According to Italian magazine L'Espresso, Change.org is all but non-profit and sells user's information to the highest bidder. In an investigation published two days ago (link in Italian) the publication released Change.org's client price list ranging from "€1.50 per email if a client buys less than 10,000, up to €0.85 per email if the number goes above 500,000," for user emails used to sign sponsored petitions.

A copy of Change.org's price list (Image: L'Espresso)

On Change.org's website, under the headline "Will you ever sell my email address?" the 'non-profit' replies with the following answer:

 

"Never. In order to provide a free, open platform for our users and hire a global support staff, we display advertising in the form of sponsored petitions, which are similar to sponsored videos on YouTube, sponsored links on Google, or sponsored tweets on Twitter. 

It is up to our users to decide whether to sign the petitions and opt in to their causes. If you choose not to opt in to hear more from our advertisers, it in no way affects how you use the site."

 

So, while they're transparent about sponsored petitions they fail to mention that signing them might mean selling your data to anyone from charities to political parties. L'Espresso reached out to some of Change.org's clients asking if it's true they buy petition user's emails, and say that "some replied too vaguely not to raise suspicions, others, like Oxfam, were honest in confirming it."

The charity explained that "only when users indicate they want to support Oxfam, we're asked to pay Change.org for their contacts," referring to the option Change.org gives users to be kept up to date about that specific petition - ie. that little box that, when left unticked, results in your inbox flooding with promptly-trashed emails.

Change.org didn't deny the claims either, and in fact told L'Espresso that prices "vary from client to client and depending on the volume of purchases." John Coventry, Change.org's head of communications, specified that if a user signs the petition with the “Keep me updated on this campaign” box checked, your e-mail address is sent to the sponsoring organisation and Change.org gets paid.

No such thing as online privacy

And, as it so happens, that the box is checked by default. Once you’ve "unknowingly" subscribed to an organisation’s e-mailing list, you’re no longer covered by Change.org’s privacy policy, meaning that organisation can sell your contact details and informations to other organisations.

With millions of users and hundreds of thousands of petitions, the company has unprecedented insight into the habits of online activists. As L'Espresso points out, if you sign an animal rights petition, you’re 2.29 times more likely to sign a criminal justice petition. And if you sign a criminal justice petition, you’re 6.3 times more likely to sign an economic justice petition, 4.4 times more likely to sign an immigrant rights petition, and four times more likely to sign an education petition. And so on.

This, if anything, explains why your inbox is flooding with spam emails you don't remember signing up to. And it also means you might want to go through Change.org's privacy policy with a fine tooth comb before agreeing to their terms and conditions.

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By Olivia Cassano, published on 20/07/2016

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