What Privacy Policies Ought to Say
By Ken Magill
Website privacy policies are worse than useless.
No one but freaks, lawyers and government officials reads them. And the only time they come into any kind of meaningful play is when authorities pick through them looking for statements they can use to punish a company with its own words.
Most recently, RadioShack has come under scrutiny for including its customer list in its bankruptcy auction.
“A website maintained by Hilco Streambank, which is serving as an intermediary for RadioShack, says that more than 13 million email addresses and 65 million customer names and physical address files are for sale. Hilco Streambank is careful to note that the bankruptcy court might not approve the deals, and there have already been two legal filings in attempts to block the sale of customer data,” said a report on Bloomberg Business.
“The broader challenge, filed last week by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, argues that RadioShack made an explicit promise to its customers not to sell their personal data,” the report continued.
Privacy policies are not required by law and should not exist. They are nothing but a dangerous liability to any organization that has one. But for some reason, companies feel compelled to publish them anyway.
I’d like to help.
Dear Valued Customer or Prospect:
First, get a life. We can’t think of a more wasteful use of your time and energy than reading corporate privacy policies. By reading this document, you affect nothing other than to lose a small part of your life you can never get back.
But seeing as you spend time reading privacy policies, there are probably large portions of your life you don’t want back.
Reading your automatic-garage-door-opener manual would be more productive than this.
Drinking beer would be more productive than this. Or at least you’d be more fun to be around—unless, that is, you’re a mean drunk. Then try smoking pot. No one gets mean on pot. But it might make you more paranoid than you already obviously are.
But while you’re here, let’s get a few things straight: If you think the information surrounding your transactions with us is your personal information, grow up. It’s not.
No one holds a gun to your head when you purchase from us. We own the information surrounding those transactions just as much as you do.
The idea that one entity in a voluntary, value-for-value transaction owns the record of that transaction while the other does not is infantile twaddle.
The good news is our quest for revenue works for you. We don’t want a relationship with you. We don’t want to be your friend. We just want your money—over and over and over again. It’s called repeat business. The last thing we want to do is make you mad enough to stop spending money with us.
As a result, we will only ever use our jointly owned information to offer you stuff you’re likely to want to buy.
Likewise, when we “share” the information with third parties—share being a euphemism for “sell”—we will only sell it to organizations that want to present you with stuff you’ll probably want.
Actually, we would consider selling the information to anyone willing to buy it. But it turns out the only companies interested in paying for the information surrounding your transactions with us are those whose executives think they’ll profit off the purchase—those who think they have stuff you’ll want.
See how that works? There is a natural economic governor driven by mutual interest that limits our behavior with customer data. We are financially motivated to avoid causing you discomfort.
You see, marketing is all about using empathy to overcome inertia. Put another way, marketing is us understanding and meeting—or even anticipating—your needs and wants well enough to move you into getting up off your needlessly paranoid ass long enough to dig into your wallet or purse.
As a result, all successful direct marketing programs are a series of precise acts of empathy delivered in volume—seed catalogs delivered to gardeners just before spring, for example.
As long as we continue to show empathy in our dealings with you, you will continue to spend money with us. As soon as we stop showing empathy, you stop spending money. And we sure as heck don’t want that.
Lastly, if we ever sell this business—or god forbid, go bankrupt—please have the maturity to understand our customer list and associated transactional information is an asset. But again, the only entities with a potential interest in buying it would be those whose principals believed they could make a profit off the purchase—those who think they have something or things you’ll want to repeatedly pay money for.
But let’s just take a worst-case scenario. Say in bankruptcy we sell a list with your name, postal address, email address and transactional history to some company that has executives too stupid to realize they are unlikely to have anything you want and have no idea how email marketing works.
You may get some off-target direct mail but that stuff is so expensive, believe you me, it will end pronto. Some email spam may also come your way, but because spam filters work so well these days you probably won’t even see it in your inbox.
And in the unlikely event that spam resulting from us selling your email address does hit your inbox, there is this little doohickey called the “report spam” button. Hit that and voila! You shouldn’t see spam from that sender in your inbox again.
If enough people report the suckers who bought our email list as spammers, email inbox providers will block them from reaching even their best customers. And boy, will they learn their lesson then.
Even if we turned completely evil and sold our email list to Boris the Russian pill spammer, you probably wouldn’t see his messages unless you dug through your spam folder.
It’s that simple.
So you see? There are layers of economic and technological protection safeguarding you from any stunts we may pull with our customer list.
You needn’t worry about what we may or may not do with information about your transactions with us. The worst that can happen is you may be on the receiving end of some trivial nuisance behavior.
And if that nuisance behavior is enough to send you over the edge, you need to learn to place a higher value on your time and energy.