Broadening its year-long investigation of data brokers, the Senate Commerce Committee has asked About.com, Self.com and other popular Web sites to outline their data collection and sharing practices.
“When consumers provide personal information in interactions with Web sites, they may not be aware that data they are sharing may be shared with data brokers,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) writes in a letter sent this week to 12 Web publishers. “Consumers may also not be aware of how that information may be used once it has been shared with data brokers.”
The letter asks each Web site operator to state whether the company collects “health, family, financial or other information” from consumers and, if so, whether that data is linked to “personally identifiable information” about them. Rockefeller also asks the companies to name any third parties with whom they share such personally identifiable information.
The letters were sent to About.com, Time Inc's Health.com, Bankrate.com, Realage.com, Cafemom.com, Conde Nast's Self.com, Fool.com. Finance.youngmoney.com, Mensfitness.com, Investopedia.com, Ehealthforum.com and Babycenter.com.
Rockefeller began investigating data brokers last October, when he sent letters to nine major companies asking them for information about data gathering practices. In the letter sent this week, the lawmaker says that some of those companies have declined to answer the Senate's questions.
“Unfortunately, to date several major data brokers have refused to identify to the Committee specific sources of the consumer information they obtain -- or the specific entities that in turn have compiled information from individual website sources,” the letter states. “They instead have state more generally that the information they obtain derives from categories such as 'surveys,' 'questionnaires,' and 'sweepstakes.'”
He also says that some data brokers categorize people into marketing categories like “rural and barely making it,” or “ethnic second-city strugglers.” He adds that the categorization process “is not transparent to the consumer.”
The Direct Marketing Association criticized Rockefeller's move, arguing that data-driven marketing contributes to the economy. Peggy Hudson, senior vice president of government affairs, said in a statement that Rockefeller “has chosen to single out a couple of poorly named marketing categories as a reason to demagogue an industry that is the brightest beacon of American innovation.”
DMA vice president of government affairs Rachel Thomas tells Online Media Daily that the nine data brokers who were originally questioned “have sent tens of thousands of pages” answering Rockefeller's questions.
She adds that those companies might be contractually required to maintain the confidentiality of any third parties from whom they gather data. “It is inappropriate to ask companies to violate the trust of their customers, especially without some sort of identified harm,” she says.
The Senate Commerce Committee isn't the only one investigating data brokers. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission sent subpoenas to nine data brokers -- Acxiom, Corelogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, Peekyou, Rapleaf, and Recorded Future. The FTC is expected to issue a report by the end of this year.