Editorial: Privacy 500? Forget It

In an opinion piece on privacy on Washingtonpost.com last week, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, utterer of the now famous quote, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it,” made a common-sense case against absolute privacy.

“If you’re in an accident, do you want an ambulance driver to be able to access your medical records online? I think you do,” he offered as one example.

At the end of the piece, though, McNealy throws the media an undeserved bone:

While industry has done a pretty good job at privacy self-regulation, he said, “I recognize it took some prodding from watchdogs in the media. … The media could also start rewarding companies who have learned to offer both consumer protection and personalized service. Maybe some enterprising magazine will start publishing an annual list of the companies with the best policies and practices. The Privacy 500, perhaps.”

Bad idea, Scott.

The reason: The overwhelming majority of reporters have no idea how marketing data is used, and make feeble attempts, at best, to learn. As a result, they have an obscenely overblown idea of what types of information direct marketers collect and how they use it.

“We take calls from reporters all the time who think [direct marketing] lists include everything they’ve ever done, everything they’ve ever bought, whether they’re married, how many children they have, their e-mail addresses, what Web pages they’ve visited, what their dog’s name is,” said DMA spokeswoman Christina Duffney. “They think you may be on the Web and accidentally go to a page you didn’t mean to visit, and that’s in there [the mythical all-encompassing list].”

In reporters’ defense, they work under insane deadlines, most don’t do many stories on privacy and it’s an issue with a long learning curve.

But when doing these stories, how many reporters even take a walk across the hall to talk with their circulation directors about their publication’s list usage and what types of information their publication’s list includes, or how strict privacy regulations might affect their publication’s circulation drives?

Not many, by the tone of most of what is being published.

More likely, by the time a reporter writing on privacy calls a direct marketing expert for a quote, the piece is done. They’re simply looking for a throwaway line so they can claim balance.

Hence, the line that seemingly every privacy article includes some version of: “Meanwhile, marketers claim they must invade people’s privacy to stay in business.”

Reporters are often de facto consumer advocates. And with the days of fat-cat robber barons long over, many are frustrated muckrakers who long for the days of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” the book that exposed Chicago’s meatpacking industry to be a ruthlessly bloody exploiter of immigrant labor.

Being pro-privacy is one of the increasingly fewer opportunities for editors and reporters to become champions of the masses like so many ink-stained greats who banged on typewriters before them. With tenacious watchdogfullness, they can protect consumers from having their identities stolen. Never mind that that’s a security, not a privacy, issue. It also gives them a chance to protect people from unwanted mail and that oh-so-easy target, the hated telemarketer.

What’s more, advocating privacy, even implicitly in a so-called balanced piece of news reporting, is a mindlessly easy position for a reporter to take. Everyone’s pro-privacy. It’s like being pro-puppies.

As a result, coming out against privacy advocates creates the perception that one is in cahoots with greasy bilkers of the elderly and sinister, faceless Big Brother types who record our every move.

So Scott, thanks for the well-intentioned idea, but there has been scant evidence that any publication outside the hardcore direct marketing rags, which admittedly have their own biases, is qualified to compile your Privacy 500 list.

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