Plex

UPDATE: Over the weekend, the company has backtracked on its plans to remove the opt-out feature from data collection. The original story is below.

Plex, a popular supplier of multimedia streaming solutions, has updated its privacy policy and has removed the possibility that users could opt out of the company's data collection practices.

As you might expect, users didn't take the new policy update very well. Angry customers voiced their displeasure on the company's forum, on Twitter, and on Reddit. None had anything positive to say.

Plex explains decision

The company sells software and online services that allow users to stream music, videos, or TV streams from one device to another in a server-client network. The Plex server takes an input stream and branches it to several devices (clients) such as smart TVs, smartphones, tablets, PCs, etc..

Just like any software vendor, the company needs to collect data about how customers use its product. As the years went by, some usage metrics became essential to the functioning of the Plex software, and the company created an "exceptions list" for the opt-out clause.

Plex says that the number of metrics it now needs to collect is much higher and it does not make any sense to add them to the exceptions list because they are so many. The company's full explainer is below:

Over the years, there have been more and more exceptions to the “opt out”. We’ve tried to enumerate these exceptions in the Privacy Policy as they arise and as we build or introduce new features, but there are now a lot of exceptions (and providing mere examples of these exceptions, like many privacy policies, has annoyed users in the past). There’s all sorts of information that is transmitted simply in order to deliver services, e.g.:

— servers connect to the cloud to check for updates;
— clients talk to the cloud to discover how to connect to remote servers;
— services like Alexa and Sonos are designed (by Amazon and Sonos) such that metadata must be available to our cloud services;
— we have to know you have a Plex Pass to enable mobile sync and other premium features;
— we have to communicate through our cloud infrastructure to relay playback requests/commands/events in certain scenarios;
— if you use our relay service when direct remote connections cannot be made, we have to have data to make the hand off between your server and the remote device;
— we have to provide accurate reporting to licensors for things like trailers and extras, photo tagging, lyrics, licensed codecs and so on (this is only anonymized data).

As we worked through this revision, we came to the conclusion that providing an ‘opt out’ in the set-up gives a false sense of privacy and feels disingenuous on our part. That is, even if you opted out, there is still a bunch of data we are collecting that we tried to call out as exceptions. So rather than try to enumerate all of exceptions, we decided: (1) to make it even more clear that we don’t collect data that tells us what is in your library; (2) to remove the opt out provision primarily to be more clear up front (but also acknowledging that the data is clearly useful); and (3) to be very transparent about what we do, and don’t do, with the data (including Section F, which prohibits us from selling your data).

Despite Plex's efforts to explain its thinking, its decision to collect all data from user's Plex servers without an opt-out clause has backfired.

User backlash ensues

Many users said they would be looking for another product. Most of the critics said that while Plex doesn't collect information about what users have stored in their personal libraries, the company can infer this from other data it collects.

Plex's new privacy policy is set to take effect starting September 20. In a statement, the company said it does not plan to sell any of the data it will be collecting from its users.

The company will certainly be in trouble with the European Union, where the law specifically points out that companies must obtain user permission no matter what.

Other software such as Firefox, Winamp, and others, also collect usage data, but they allow users to opt-out. In a simple explanation, Plex just forced obligatory usage data collection on all its users, a-la-Windows style.