Warning: Marketing Data Policy-Making Ahead in the U.S.

U.S. data policy-making efforts make certain assumptions about marketing. It’s as if there’s a sign coming, saying: “Data Is a Weapon.” But what if lawmakers instead assumed data was a force for good?

U.S. data policy-making efforts make certain assumptions about marketing. It’s as if there’s a sign coming, saying: “Data Is a Weapon.” But what if lawmakers instead assumed data was a force for good?

Certainly, when dealing with the European data protection community — who may seek 4 percent of your global profits — it is wise to be deferential, even praiseworthy.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, in his speech last week to European data commissioners that hearkens back to President Eisenhower’s warning in 1961 about the “military-industrial complex,” identified commercial data collection interests as a “data-industrial complex” that has “weaponized” the collection and monetization of data with great efficiency.

Reading of this, one might extrapolate that all data collection is worrisome, and that this so-called trade in data amounts to “surveillance” that is inherently harmful.

To some, this might be 1961 all over again — or 1984, for that matter.


In reality, some may be singing from the choir book brought to us by European Parliamentarians. Every time I see a cookie notice on my U.S. website visits, I’m reminded, perhaps gently, that our sovereignty is being visited upon by foreign lawmakers. Europe’s leaders are trying to remake the Internet in its image — while China’s leaders do the same — and the world may be a lot less friendly toward each other as a result.

Considerations of a Healthful Policy Debate

As consumers, we may welcome privacy and security in our nation’s Internet public policy debate. All is not the same, however. We must handle our own policy-making with utmost care. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is one model — but is this European law really the right fit for the United States or, for that matter, other regions of the world?

In the private sector:

  • Consider the role that ad-financing (read, digital data) plays in ensuring quality journalism necessary for a healthy democracy.
  • Consider what consent restrictions (read, opt-in) would play in diminishing the ability of start-ups and mid-sized companies to compete with established companies — competition in the digital economy.
  • Consider an appreciation of the long-tail of the Internet — and the diversity of content and niche interests that meet consumer demands, made available through small publishers.
  • Focus on who is at the center of privacy restrictions — the citizen, digital user and the consumer. In every aspect, what are the trade-offs that individuals would experience when responsible data flows are effectively shut down?
  • Appreciate that all data are not the same. Are there data collection scenarios where there is a greater likelihood for harm? Are there categories of personal and user data that are more harmful than others — to the interests of that individual? In the United States, we already highly and wisely regulate such data as credit, health, children’s data, government identification numbers and more.
  • And importantly, understand how private sector use of data — and public sector use of data — differ. How should the two exchange, and not exchange, data between them?

Globally and certainly here in the United States, data enables commerce, consumer choice and diversity of content. Truly, the commercialization of data drives incredibly powerfully beneficial social aims. Such aims deserve recognition as policymakers weigh measured regulation.

Some global business leaders, for whatever motivations, heap praise on GDPR, but there’s danger in assigning “one size fits all”-type regulation. “Surveillance,” too, is a very loaded word — especially where responsible data collection and use represent an unparalleled force in the private sector for good: jobs, economy, competition, ad-financed content and services, and much more. Even governments package public records for beneficial use in the private sector. Remember the only reasons businesses exist is to create and serve a customer.

Where Surveillance Is a Material Concern

On the other hand, where surveillance truly is not a loaded word is where the public sector gathers and uses digital and mobile information to monitor citizens. Or where a government, foreign or domestic, demands the handover or censorship of such information from and of the private sector.

Here, I applaud close – very close – attention to what our government, or any other government, does with digital data, including that which exists in the private sector. Within the U.S., warrants, court orders and subpoenas should be demanded before private sector entities satisfy any government requests for information (and/or deletion of information). As government indeed has honest objectives — combatting fraud, terrorism and other crimes, or advancing public safety or health, for example – then it is wise to provide for independent judicial overview as a necessary check and balance to validate such laudable goals.

Data is a weapon only when it’s perversely used to disserve a consumer, a voter or a democracy. Let the private sector freely use information responsibly for all else, for it unleashes forces for good that serve consumers, the economy and robust discussion.