In response to a recent Congressional probe aimed at marketing data firms, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) had this to say in a letter directed at lawmakers: “In the digital age, data-driven marketing has become the fuel on which America’s free market engine runs.”
At the end of July, Reps. Edward Markey (D–Mass.) and Joe Barton (R–Texas), cochairs of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, sent a request to nine third-party data providers—Acxiom, Epsilon, Equifax, Experian, Harte-Hanks, Intelius, FICO, Merkle, and the Meredith Corp.—looking for a host of information about their practices, including a list of data items collection from or about consumers, the methods by which that information is collected, and any encryption or other safety measures used to protect the data.
The DMA is in essence defending a direct marketer’s right to bear data. In fact, Linda Woolley, acting president and CEO of the DMA, says that’s exactly what consumers actually want marketers to do, as long as they do it well. Congress doesn’t seem to grasp that the use of data is about much more than “just getting people to buy things,” she says.
“This is a matter of catering to the customer and knowing what they want and what their preferences are,” Woolley says. “Think about this from a customer point-of-view: No one wants to check into a hotel they’ve been to before and have the person at the front desk say, ‘Have you ever stayed with us?’”
The real issue at play here, according to Woolley, is not the use of data—the way direct marketers are using data now “is just a digital version” of how they’ve always used data, she says—but the almost impossibility of defining what a data broker actually is. She points to the fact that there’s even a publisher, Meredith Corp., ensnared in Congress’s widely cast net.
“If [a data broker is] any company that collects and uses consumer data, then that pretty much covers every company on the face of the earth,” she says. “Where do we draw the line?”
The nine companies were required to submit the information requested by Congress to lawmakers by Aug. 15.