Practice Safe Big Data

When the Federal Trade Commission implemented its “do not track” recommendations for self-regulation of the industry, it expected the industry to change its ways. And some have. Browsers now offer the technology to opt-out of tracking, and some publishers have also stepped up. But advertisers, especially affiliates, have mostly been hold outs, and as a result, prepare for FTC No Not Track 2.0. Speaking at a recent Wall Street Journal conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz openly discussed that a lack of resolution in 2012 is likely to result in a legislative solution in 2013, since “one of the few issues that isn’t partisan in Congress is privacy.”

So what would this legislation look like? How much will Congress decide they want to control what “Big Data” you gather and use about your readers? One approach is to mimic the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (or COPPA), where controls exist on what kind of data to collect, how it can be collected, how it can be used, and who has to approve its use. Likely a good idea for kids, but what happens to our affiliate businesses? And what are the costs (read fines) that come from a mistake?

The hardest part of this regulatory approach is that most Americas are willing to give up information if it means getting something of value. Watch this Christmas season to see how many people will give up email addresses to get coupons and free offers. Heck, the messages on my iPhone and iPad each morning seem to grow exponentially as the merchants behind my free apps reach out to inform or direct me. I seem to have bought into the model completely.

So if the population is willing, what we need to do as an industry is be careful with how we use data. Keep lists confidential. Develop easy to read and more accessible user agreements. Be consistent with your policies. Research and split test the kinds of communication that are effective versus those that are too creepy to readers. Treat readers as we would desire to be treated. Let’s practice safe Big Data and try to relieve pressure on regulators to act.

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