Data collection firms are the new Big Tobacco. West Virginia Senator John D. Rockefeller IV has initiated what the New York Times called “an extensive investigation of nine leading information brokers.” While their practices are legal, Rockefeller expressed concern that consumers don’t know what information is being collected about them or how it’s being used by marketers:
“Collecting, storing and selling information about Americans raises all types of questions that require careful scrutiny,” said Rockefeller in the press release. “While these practices may offer some benefits to consumers, they deserve to know what’s being collected about them and how companies profit from their information. We are sending letters to nine different companies today to learn how this industry works.”
The Senator’s release identifies the nine companies that will be in the hot set:
- Reed Elsevier (Lexis-Nexis)
One suggestion from the FTC (pointed out in the Times’ piece) is to make the data collected about individuals available to them in the same way that credit reports are today. Google actually does a version of this currently with its “Account Activity Report.” This approach — making consumer data files available for review and correction — might be an interesting way to bridge the worlds of consumer privacy and digital marketing.
However, adopting a “take no prisoners” posture, Linda A. Woolley, the acting CEO of the DMA, is quoted calling the senator’s investigation “a baseless fishing expedition.” She adds rather ominously, “I hope Senator Rockefeller understands what he’s tampering with.”
That second remark made me think of the satirical and prescient 1976 movie Network and its “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature” scene, in which the CEO character played by Ned Beatty educates Howard Beale (Peter Finch) about the realities of modern global business. The other movie moment that came to mind was the “horse head in the bed” scene from The Godfather. But that was a little too gruesome to embed below.