Is Data Privacy Self-Regulation Imperative To Preserving Ethical Market Research?

For many, the ARF’s Town Hall on research ethics  last week was a warning regarding how we will ultimately damage the heart of the research business — especially if we take the positions of Rick Bruner, vice chair USA for I-COM, even in the new sullied moral and ethical culture we now "suffer" in the U.S.

I always considered myself a lone wolf in putting a high priority on protecting consumers in every dimension of privacy/invasion/time/value/honesty/integrity/etc. to generate trust via our research efforts throughout my career.

Consumers are the essential oil for our research engines, as Rolfe Swinton, director data assets, GfK, fully comprehends. Conversely, Bruner clearly takes a more laissez faire and cavalier attitude toward them.

Taking the consumer’s position at the Town Hall, Allie Bohm, policy counsel at the non-profit Public Knowledge, addressed how the industry might incorporate the voice of the consumer in developing industry privacy standards and introduce teeth into any such efforts.



She reminded everyone of a fundamental truth (not fake news!): Consumers are overwhelmed by the complexity of most data policies and, as a result, agree to them without reading or understanding them. This essentially serves the conservatives' position on the privacy issue and their claim that everyone agrees to their data use by the site they are on!  

Allie offered three mandates to protect consumers (from themselves):

  • Provide meaningful notice and consent (i.e., have simpler, more understandable privacy policies)

  • Employ robust security safeguards and offer meaningful redress.

  • Provide redress. Public Knowledge advocates removing forced arbitration clauses from companies’ privacy policies, which would prevent class-action suits.

Clearly, some in the audience were delighted while others were cringing.  

Dr. Gian Fulgoni, chairman emeritus, comScore Inc. reflecting the conservative perspective opined: “As long as the consumer has given appropriate permission to use their data, I don’t think ad targeting is a problem. And it seems a fair trade to provide access to content in exchange for permission to use their data for ad targeting.”

However, this position from an industry leader raises the following critical consumer questions, echoing Allie Bohm’s Town Hall remarks:

  1. What kind of “permission” and how meaningfully asked?

  2. Who actually owns the consumer’s data even if permission is given?

  3. Do consumers retain the unequivocal right to withdraw or delete all their information and ID?

  4. What controls are required — of whom as well as how — to ensure consumers are targeted for legitimate ads/information and not fake news?

  5. With the billions being made by Facebook and other internet players, what is a fair trade price for consumer’s information, often very rich, due to sophisticated tracking and site linking?

A headline from The Independent newspaper in the UK, Tuesday 20 March 2018 based on an interview with Finn Raben, director general of ESOMAR, underlines the deep concern for having no regulation in this fundamental arena and the value of consumers to our industry:

“Unlike the example of Cambridge Analytica, data collection can be beneficial — it's just got to be done with respect. An unregulated data collection industry makes it harder for law-abiding and ethical researchers to understand and reach people, and help governments, societies and businesses make more pertinent decisions.”  

As we are aware, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) developed in Europe is “hairy” and developing any kind of U.S. equivalent with appropriate teeth should/could be a Phase II of this ARF initiative, along with suitable industry partners.  ARF would not be faced with re-inventing the self-regulation wheel, at least entirely.

In working with ESOMAR and MRC over many initiatives, it appears critical ARF truly executes a full assessment of Codes, Standards, Guidelines & Principles from as wide an international range of relevant organizations as possible related to data privacy. Under Paul Donato, CRO, ARF, that preliminary assessment has been done.

I believe the comprehensive review of existing codes the ARF team is embarked on will pay dividends to the ultimate guidelines, which will underpin self-regulation and protect the industry from itself long-term. This approach has served ESOMAR well and although rarely embraced by MRC, will serve this ARF initiative, even though the focus must be primarily the marketing, advertising and media industries in the U.S. rather than globally.

However it also needs to address the broader political marketing and research scope in view of its potential damage to our industry and democracy. The latter aspect will be sensitive and tricky for ARF and its Code of Conduct & Data Privacy Guidelines Development Committee, but this aspect must surely be included?

Of course, the Rick Bruners of the industry and some of the major data collectors will likely take a very different tack.

However, perhaps the wisdom of Finn Raben and the Europeans will ultimately be embraced, despite the positions of well-known conservative data-driven companies and, in fairness, many consumers who simply shrug their shoulders at the privacy issues. (If only these consumers really understood the abuse and manipulation of their data, as typified by Cambridge Analytica!)

I never signed up to Facebook or “Fakebook," but few wanted to listen to that rationale either.

History, notably Germany in the 1930's, taught us that a Cambridge Analytica democracy debacle involving "Facebook" was just waiting to happen. It seems the chickens have come home to roost finally, as the cloak of naiveté is removed. Most of us are also aware of the millions of dollars in settlements that Facebook and others have already paid over the years for their continued abuse of consumer data.

Scott McDonald and the ARF are to be applauded in pursuing Data Privacy Guidelines as the foundation for self-regulation for our industry. Hopefully, it will be comprehensive and timely enough to ward off potential government regulation and demonstrate the respect the research industry truly has for consumers?  

McDonald commented: “Traditionally, in many companies, the Research and Insights function served as the “voice of the consumer,” providing candid feedback on products and services, occasionally speaking truth to power when bad ideas were being considered. In our more recent headlong rush to be “data driven,” we have elevated behavioral tracking over asking direct questions and, somewhere in the process, assigned less value to the “voice of the consumer.” (And to the Research & Insights departments that interpreted it.)  

For the long-term health of all data-driven companies, this needs to be rebalanced. I hope that the ARF’s emerging "Code of Conduct and Data Privacy Guidelines" can make a significant contribution to that rebalancing.”

Developing the preliminary framework for the overarching principles of Data Privacy Guidelines for advertising and marketing in time for the ARF’s “Address Critical Measurement Issues” Conference June 12-13, part of its AudienceXScience series, is an important goal —especially with the May 25 GDPR compliance approaching.  

This will ensure the industry can have a solid structure, presented to a broad international audience, in order to generate interest before adding the exact and extensive language required — and the teeth — needed for compliance.

It will be a tough, multifaceted, on-going process for ARF, and we should all be supporting their efforts.  

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