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Stupid FTC Watch: More Brillidiculousness


By Ken Magill

Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill apparently doesn’t even read articles she cites to support her unsupportable assertions.

In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post last week Brill repeated essentially the same drivel she offered in a speech to the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in July. Call it Brillidiculousness.

The difference between the Brillidiculousness in the op-ed piece and the Brillidiculousness in the speech, though, was that in the op-ed piece she cited a Forbes article that seriously weakens her main assertion—that marketers are using data from companies like Acxiom to make decisions about individuals that can adversely affect their lives.

As has apparently become her shtick, she began by Brillidiculously conflating government surveillance with marketing:

“Revelations about the extent to which the National Security Agency (NSA) collects personal information started a robust national debate on how best to balance national security and privacy rights,” she wrote.

“All day long, as we surf the Web, tap at apps or power up our smartphones, we send digital information out into cyberspace,” she continued. “As we live our wired lives, we constantly add to the veins from which data miners pull pure gold. It took the NSA revelations to make concrete what this exchange means: that firms, governments or individuals, without our knowledge or consent, can amass large amounts of private information about people to use for purposes we don’t expect or understand.”

Cyberspace? Wired? What is this: 1998?

Not surprisingly, never once does Brill address the dangers of over-zealous government surveillance.

Nope. Once again, Brill uses fear of government surveillance to attack data-driven marketing.

“Many tech firms are calling on the government to allow them to reveal how and how often the government seeks information about individuals,” she continued. “We ought to demand the same sort of transparency from the commercial data brokers that know much more about us than we do about them. One of the largest, Acxiom, reportedly has information on about 700 million active consumers worldwide, with some 1,500 data points per person.”

To use tech companies’ recent demands to be allowed to be more transparent about government information requests as a leaping-off point for any argument regarding marketing data is, well, Brillidiculous.

It also begs the question: “Is she really this ignorant?”

Apparently willfully so.

She conceded that the Fair Credit Reporting Act already requires that firms collecting information used for making employment, credit, insurance and housing decisions “do so in a manner that ensures the information is accurate.”

But, she adds: “[P]ersonal data could be — and probably are — used by firms making decisions that aren’t regulated by the FCRA but still affect users' lives profoundly. These include determinations about whether we are too risky to do business with or aren’t right for certain clubs, dating services, schools or other programs.”

Leave side the argument that private firms have every right to make the determinations Brill implies are nefarious or inherently unfair.

What’s truly troublesome is Brill links to a source that puts her main assertions into question and apparently doesn’t realize it.

“More than a year ago, I called on the data-broker industry to develop a user-friendly, one-stop online shop to achieve these [transparency] goals,” she wrote. “In a helpful move, the chief executive of Acxiom, Scott E. Howe, recently announced plans to open his company’s dossiers to consumers. I invite Howe, his compatriots Bryan Kennedy at Epsilon and Don Robert of Experian, and other industry leaders to come to the table and hash out how we can put the principles of Reclaim Your Name into practice.”

The piece linked to an article on Forbes covering Acxiom’s “helpful move” that included the following:

“Acxiom had hoped to start letting individuals see their consumer files by mid summer but has run into delays. ‘It’s enormously difficult to do this,’ said [Tim] Suther, [former chief strategy and marketing officer for Acxiom] who has overseen the company’s global marketing, strategy and business development activities. ‘The reason for it is that all the systems that have been built up over the years have been built up with an eye for serving marketers, and marketers are not coming to Acxiom saying, gee, can you please give me this individual record about [Forbes writer] Adam Tanner. It’s not affordable, they are not interested. What they are interested in is doing that en mass so the systems have been built over the years to accomplish that.’”

Unless Suther was lying through his teeth, Acxiom’s systems were never set up for anyone outside the company to gain access to data on individuals. Offering such access isn’t profitable. Marketers don’t want it.

Suther flatly states that that there is no demand for what Brill asserts marketers are doing with data profiles such as those built by Acxiom.

It apparently doesn’t occur to Brill that if marketers aren’t accessing individual data profiles, they’re not using them to deny anyone anything.

The worst that can happen as the result of a bad data profile of the type Acxiom maintains is a marketer may fail to offer a product or service to someone who would have purchased it—a scenario the marketer would regret more than the person who failed to get the offer.

So by all means, Acxiom, Experian and Epsilon, go to the table and talk with Brill. But don’t expect anything remotely resembling a serious exchange of ideas.


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