When Opera announced its purchase of Toronto-based virtual private network company SurfEasy this morning, the natural first thought was that this was potentially great for privacy-conscious users of the Opera browser, but an odd buy given that Opera's advertising business accounts for two-thirds of its revenues. VPNs are for escaping online tracking, while targeted advertising requires it.
However, the Norwegian company doesn't see any conflict – and the reason for that lies in how Opera's business is these days at least as much about mobile apps as it is about the browsers it's best known for.
First off, it's important to note that Opera isn't yet saying how it will integrate SurfEasy's technology, which allows for anonymous Web surfing, into its products, or indeed when it will do so, other than hinting that "in the next few months we are looking forward to integrating these into joint products to expand Opera’s product portfolio."
As for the nature of the technology, an Opera spokesperson stressed on Thursday that SurfEasy doesn't block advertising (no one said it does), but rather lets Web users exercise their preference for not being tracked, if that's what they want.
The key consideration here is that Opera Mediaworks – the division that promises targeting for advertisers and revenues for publishers – isn't as concerned with the Web as it is with native mobile apps. According to the company's spokesperson, apps account for "the core" of the Mediaworks business and Opera has faith in the privacy policies of the publishers and app ecosystem providers (i.e. Apple and Google).
The "PC/Internet", as the spokesperson put it via email, provides another scenario: "an open ecosystem that is exposed to a lot more risks to consumer privacy". So that's where SurfEasy's protections will be directed. Opera may maintain that many users see "relevant advertising" – based on them being tracked – as a fair "value exchange on free content and services", but it's also banking on the fact that many Web users want to have no part in this "value exchange", hence the purchase of a company whose website bears a picture of an evil Ad Tracker monster that SurfEasy promises to banish.
The thing is, this dichotomy between the risky open Web and the trustworthy world of mobile apps is not really so clear-cut. Mobile apps track people's usage too, both within the app itself and by poking around the user's smartphone to see what else they have installed.
Just because Opera trusts the publishers' privacy policies doesn't mean users read them, and the current state of mobile permissions – "We need access to all your contacts and calendar entries, but we won't tell you why or when we'll use them" – is laughable.
In fairness, a pure mobile VPN service like SurfEasy isn't going to protect you against in-app tracking anyway – for that you'd need to turn to something like Disconnect Mobile, which will also block the activities of in-app trackers by matching them against a blacklist. But either way, it appears Opera's enthusiasm for respecting people's privacy wishes is weighted towards the parts of its business that aren't so lucrative, even if they're what the company is best known for.
It will be interesting to see how Opera does integrate SurfEasy with its non-Mediaworks products, which are far more popular on mobile (particularly in emerging markets, where the firm has many carrier deals) than on the desktop. As with Opera's mobile ad platform, some of the other products also don't seem to be a natural fit with a VPN service: Opera TV, for example, depends on deals with content partners who probably don't want their users pretending to be in a country they're not in.
Opera Max and the Rocket Optimizer, which are all about delivering better mobile Internet performance through clever compression techniques, should stand to benefit – Max is already based on the use of a VPN that routes client-server traffic through Opera's "data-savings cloud".
The Opera browsers, of course, are the clearest way in which the company can use the SurfEasy acquisition to pick up new users.
Mozilla, one of Opera's biggest rivals in this space, is already toying with the privacy angle by working with Tor – for now, this is largely a matter of running Tor middle relays and helping the anonymisation network improve its Firefox-based browser, but there's scope for closer collaboration on that front.
If Opera can move quickly to pitch its own browsers as the privacy aficionado's choice, it may still have an opportunity to take the lead in this regard. Just don't expect Opera to help make those money-spinning native mobile apps less invasive anytime soon.
Featured image credit: Tech.eu