Database marketing discord requires consumer education

The July 24 call for a probe by a bipartisan committee of congressmen into the practices of database marketing firms marks a public schism between lawmakers, privacy advocates, and marketers on the issue of regulatory legislation.

In letters sent to nine database marketing companies, including Acxiom and Experian, Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), along with six other signatories wrote that consumers have a right to know the nature of data collected about them and how that data is used and sold.

The congressmen stated that certain tendencies of database marketing firms, such as ranking consumers as high- and low-value prospects—a practice alleged by a June 16 profile in The New York Times on Acxiom—could affect an individual’s access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.

“It seems clear to me that any consumer should have the right to ask any data company what information it has about them and see the complete file,” says John Simpson, privacy project director at privacy advocacy firm Consumer Watchdog. “It ought to be the case that if there are any errors in the file, you should have the right to correct it. I think that in terms of certain information, you should have the right to tell the company you don’t want to have it in your profile.”

Arkansas-based database marketing firm Acxiom, however, insists that information is collected and used in good faith.

“All [marketers are] doing is making the decision about whether or not I send you a specific offer, or I send you an offer with a discount, or you get one of three different flavors of the offer,” says Acxiom’s chief privacy officer Jennifer Barrett Glasgow.

“We’re not using sensitive data and those decisions do not have significant consequences to the consumer one way or the other.”

Barrett Glasgow says that much of the proposed legislation, such as the suggestion that database marketers follow regulations set forth by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), would be “overkill.” She asserts that the acceptance of database marketing practices is an issue of education.

“We’ve worked closely with Congress for well over a decade on all kinds of legislation,” Barrett Glasgow says. “And we really don’t think that Congress, once they understand how data is used and the value that it brings both to marketers and to consumers, will do anything foolish.”

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