Was Gore’s Speech Giving a Warning to Marketers?

The Direct Marketing Association applauded privacy initiatives announced by Vice President Al Gore last week, but some think Gore delivered a thinly veiled message to marketers: move faster to quell consumer fears over data collection or the White House will unmuzzle the regulatory hounds.

In a commencement address at New York University on May 14, Gore called for “an electronic bill of rights for this electronic age.”

“Americans should have the right to choose whether their personal information is disclosed,” he said. “They should have the right to know how, when and how much of that information is being used.”

Gore also unveiled a new Web site sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission at www.consumer.gov, where people can prohibit companies from prescreening their credit records, prevent their driver’s license data from being sold and remove their names from marketing lists through links to the DMA Mail Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service. He also called for strict legislation on how and when individuals’ medical records can be used.

In reaction to Gore’s speech, H. Robert Wientzen, DMA president and CEO, said, “The Direct Marketing Association applauds Vice President Gore's new privacy initiative and pledges to support the administration's efforts to protect consumers' privacy online. We stand firmly behind the administration's commitment to industry self-regulation of the collection and use of information online as the best way to successfully promote the growth of commerce on the Internet.”

Gore’s speech and Wientzen’s reaction came a day after Ira C. Magaziner, senior policy adviser to President Clinton, urged the direct marketing industry to be more proactive in its implementation of mandatory self-regulatory guidelines.

“We really are in a race against time,” Magaziner told a crowd at the DMA Government Affairs Conference in Washington on May 13.

Some industry watchers said Gore’s speech may be a signal that the Clinton administration is not as committed to industry self-regulation as Wientzen’s statement indicates.

“I think they’re considering [consumer privacy regulation] an option now,” said Ari Schwartz, policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology, Washington. “A high public official making this kind of statement is a shift.”

Gore, for instance, called on the Commerce Department to have a summit on privacy within the next month to bring privacy and industry officials together to explore the “feasibility and limitations” of industry self-regulation.

“I have my own biases, but it’s no secret that industry hasn’t done a whole lot [on privacy],” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Washington. “I think they’re starting to feel in the White House that if they give the industry a kick in the pants that something more might happen.”

Connie Heatley, senior vice president of public relations and communications at the DMA, said that, yes, the Clinton administration is eyeing privacy legislation but that “it is very narrowly defined legislation.” The areas of greatest concern to legislators are those of gathering medical data and children’s data, which also concern the DMA, she said.

“So in the broader picture, we still stand where the White House stands, which is behind [industry] self-regulation,” she said.

Heatley added, however, that the DMA is feeling the heat.

“There’s lots of pressure,” she said. “There’s pressure from Magaziner and there’s pressure from the vice president’s office, especially in those two [medical and children’s data] areas.”

Within a month, Heatley said, the DMA will release a statement concerning the collection of children’s data online. She also pointed to the DMA’s privacy policy generator at www.the-dma.org/policy.html, where companies can create their own privacy statements as evidence of self-regulation at work. According to the DMA, since it unveiled the service a year ago, more than 700 companies have used it.

The DMA sent privacy guidelines governing all media to its members last month. Members have until July 1 to comment on them and until July 1, 1999, to comply with them or risk losing membership.

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