Commentary

Updated (Again!): The Data Privacy Debate

A blue-ribbon global panel of research experts met Monday to discuss fundamental issues concerning the relevance of today's market research practices and processes. The panel, which was part of an international webinar hosted by the greenbookblog.org, included representatives from three major industry bodies:  CASRO (USA), MRS (UK) and ESOMAR (Global).

Each produced similar and parallel industry guidelines regarding research in the digital world, including Web and social media.  The three key questions which formed the framework for the panel's often divergent opinions were:

  • What constitutes privacy in the modern age of big data and what ethical obligations do companies have in how we collect and use that data?
  • Is the utilization of these open sources of data even market research by the classical definition?  If not, then do the guidelines being established by industry trade organizations have any relevance?
  • Given that firms who do not even identify themselves as "market researchers" re gaining market share and influence is it business suicide to align with a perhaps outdated definitions and codes of standards?
The differences in opinion were as wide as the scope of the issues involved, with new technologies for data collection and the associated ethical and legal questions that have arisen.  Understandably, the representatives of the industry bodies were generally congruent in the importance of driving self regulation before governments act in the key areas of:
  • Expectations of users and terms of use.  
  • The law of privacy
  • The law of copyright
  • The law of data protection
  • The principle of voluntary protection
While the panel raised as many questions as it answered, the importance of these issues to the advertising and media industries was clear.  In their simplest terms, the equity of the consumer was consistently stressed in terms of, "do no evil" or "do not harm" --  two similar perspectives, which apparently are very different when it comes to online scraping.  "Do no evil" was deemed as quite acceptable by one U.S. panelist, who said, "There have been no lawsuits," but quite repugnant by other panelists, who raised the second mantra.  The guidelines being developed clearly stem from positions of: "Protect the trust of the public," "voluntary participation," "no selling," and "no personal ID."

These tenants will surely still serve us all in this new data era. Behind these cornerstones are many hairy issues, including a crisp understanding of what is in the public domain and what needs to be constrained, as well as the various aspects of copyright.  

Some other terrific points to ponder included:  
  • Attribution is not the same as permission  
  • There are huge methodological issues in online data if general marketing research practices are not followed - bias.  
  • Is privacy an oxymoron in social media?  
  • What is the level of understanding of current privacy requirements by consumers and businesses, notably concerning data from social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.? (The panel suggested it is from "very high" to "very low.")  
  • Scraping practices do massive damage to the research company, the marketing research industry and our clients.
  • Guidelines need to be part of existing ethical codes to protect individuals from harm.
  • Guidelines need to recognize the force of the law to ensure data collection will not descend into chaos.
  • Guidelines need to be sharmonized worldwide while recognizing the differences in country-by-country laws.


If, as suggested, the current industry codes could potentially constrain or hinder the online industry from moving forward, then based on the importance of consumer trust, we must all become much more aware of the issues and have our voices heard as we move forward.  In the U.S. especially, self-regulation will serve our industry better than any government regulation, which would likely be severe and could potentially hurt productivity.  

So, who are "the great unwashed" in this new data Wild West: the industry associations or the existing practitioners?  Will an Erin Brockovich emerge to protect consumers and consequently damage our profession?

I suggest we all need to be involved with the dialogue to help drive the most pragmatic and appropriate principals, processes and codes of conduct to ensure we can mine online data for a very long time. 

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