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Stupid Media Watch: The Times Smears; Congress Acts

7/31/12

By Ken Magill

An irresponsible hack job published in the New York Times has spawned a baseless Congressional investigation into data-driven marketing.

Eight members of Congress last week sent letters to nine data brokers—Experian, Acxiom, Epsilon and Equifax among them—asking for extensive information about how they gather and process marketing data.

The letter is the direct result of an alarmist, one-sided smear piece New York Times reporter Natasha Singer did on Acxiom in June.

The world learned of the probe in a follow-up article Singer wrote last week—an article that flat out states that the probe is a direct result of her original smear.

Make no mistake: Singer isn’t reporting the news. She’s driving it, and she’s steering it in a direction she clearly hopes does not bode well for data-driven marketing.

Gotta give Singer credit for one thing: She writes a kickass scary lead.

“In a move that could lay bare the inner workings of the consumer data industry, eight members of Congress have opened a sweeping investigation into data brokers — companies that collect, collate, analyze and sell billions of details annually about consumers’ offline, online and mobile activities for marketing and other purposes,” she wrote.

One can only hope this move will “lay bare the inner workings of the consumer data industry.”

Then maybe the members of Congress who launched this investigation will realize how beneficial data-driven marketing is to consumers by helping eliminate waste and keeping prices down, and how intellectually bereft privacy advocates are when it comes to advertising.

In particular, the probe is the result of a bat-shit wacky assertion made in Singer’s original piece by privacy zealot Pam Dixon.

“But privacy advocates say they are more troubled by data brokers’ ranking systems, which classify some people as high-value prospects, to be offered marketing deals and discounts regularly, while dismissing others as low-value — known in industry slang as ‘waste,’” wrote Singer.

Would someone please tell me where Singer came up with that nonsense negative connotation for “waste?"

She continued: “Exclusion from a vacation offer may not matter much, says Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a [one-person] nonprofit group in San Diego, but if marketing algorithms judge certain people as not worthy of receiving promotions for higher education or health services, they could have a serious impact.

“’Over time, that can really turn into a mountain of pathways not offered, not seen and not known about,’ Ms. Dixon says,” wrote Singer.

See how that works? Privacy advocates have yet to come up with a single case of demonstrable harm as a result of data-driven marketing so Dixon asserts the harm may be invisible.

And she succeeded, as can be seen in Singer’s follow-up piece.

“Now Mr. [Edward] Markey [D-MA] says he wants the Congressional investigation to further expose data broker practices, saying some had the potential to affect people’s access to education, health care, employment or economic opportunities,” wrote Singer.

“He said he was particularly troubled by data broker programs that categorize individual consumers as desirable or undesirable sales prospects, often without their knowledge and consent, a practice that he said raised privacy concerns. ‘I’m hoping to ratchet up the transparency so we can foster a system of oversight and consumer control over their data.’

“The privacy caucus’s letter was prompted by an article last month in The New York Times about Acxiom, based in Little Rock, Ark. Mr. Markey’s office gave The Times a copy of the letter.”

So there you have it: The Times’ Singer does a reportorial smear-job on Acxiom, quotes a swirly-eyed privacy zealot making baseless assertions, and an entire industry comes under Congressional investigation as a result.

Now it’s up to the data brokers to answer the call.

If there was any more evidence needed that members of the Congressional Privacy Caucus are perfectly willing to be led down the road to stupid with nothing more than an empty accusation, this investigation is it.

That they can take seriously for one second the idea that profile-driven advertising is an invisible socio-economic injustice shows just how gullible they are to privacy-advocate fear mongering.

And given that the Congressional Privacy Caucus is so clearly in thrall to the anti-data-driven marketing side of the debate, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising if the questions in their letter to data brokers were written by privacy zealots in the form of gotchas.

So be it.

Educating a bunch of grandstanding lawmakers on the harmlessness and benefits of data-driven marketing may be difficult. But hacks like Singer and Dixon leave the data-brokerage industry no choice.

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