Competition: Another Big DC Week for Tech (Where Do We Go From Here?)

When the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google come to Washington, you know there’s going to be a lot of posturing – and it’s usually not (just) from the witnesses.

The focus this past week was the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust Law rather than privacy, security, and foreign influence – topics of previous high-profile hearings. Yet the out-sized attention on these leading executives and companies – all of them U.S.-based – is actually a testament, in my humble opinion, to the power of data, information, and innovation at work advancing the American and global economy. Has this exercise and accumulation of power been benign, beneficial… or harmful?

I’ve not been shy to tout the conveniences and benefits that we’ve accrued and enjoyed as a result of responsible data use. Yet I do not dismiss an investigation of harm, unintended or otherwise. Simply, I ask that in our zeal to rein in questionable practices, let’s flash a sign to policymakers: “Handle with Care.”

The world has embraced the Information Economy. It just so happens, not by accident, that the United States has both many global leaders (four of them visiting DC) and – it must be said – a long tail of innovative companies that want to grow, prosper, and potentially join the ranks of the next big, successful data-driven entities.

As Americans, we should do all we can to recognize our own advantage, and to encourage such business ingenuity – for a better world.  Transparency, control, and civil liberties must be protected… that’s all.

There’s a part of me – with my direct marketing heritage – that’s utterly in awe of what these companies have achieved, each of them forging their own paths to business success, and doing so in a way that has cultivated and curated data – marketing and otherwise – to create in each a global powerhouse. Digital has always been “direct marketing on steroids” (please let me know who coined this phrase), and many of these companies achieved their success through a fervor for measurability and accountability.

But the question of the day – antitrust – is a very serious charge. 

Practically every business revolution in the age of capitalism – oil, banking, computing, communications, digital, among others – have had to grapple with the question, how much power is too much? What constitutes “too big” in the Information Economy? Though no one has gone there yet, could there ever be a concept in the digital world as Wall Street’s “too big to fail” – in reference to our banking giants?

I myself don’t have these answers, but I do think it’s worth looking (again) to our digital and direct marketing heritage for some guidance. Certainly any new federal laws and regulation, such as for privacy, ought to be pragmatic in their approach – rather than overly prescriptive. We have a blueprint for a federal privacy law in Privacy for America, for example, which seeks to discern reasonable from unreasonable data uses.

Some consideration, please.

  • What if we held out that data collected for marketing use should be used for marketing purposes only? What non-marketing uses – product development and design possibly – might also be acceptable?
  • Should personally identifiable data collected for marketing use ever or always be anonymized for non-marketing use? Certainly, let’s make sure we can recognize consumers as they jump from device to device and across digital and offline platforms, if for no other reason than marketing or fraud prevention purposes. These aims grow the economy, serve consumers, and finance vital social aims such as news reporting.
  • Under what circumstances should private-sector data be handed over to government sources? What legal protections should govern such handovers – subpoenas and otherwise? It’s a borderless world. What access should foreign governments have to such data, about U.S. citizens or from other jurisdictions? It’s a fine line – or even a fuzzy blur – between anti-terrorism and unwanted surveillance of ordinary people.
  • And of course, there’s anti-competition. Data enablement and data sharing should grow the economy, foster competition, and serve consumers. Laws – whether anti-competition or privacy – should seek the same, and not undermine innovation. For example, the current demonization of third-party data feeds a frenzy that concentrates first-party data collection and power in “walled gardens” – where knowledge about customers’ marketing preferences often becomes incomplete and clouded. Could policymakers use their pen unwittingly to diminish the long tail of ad tech to detrimental effects? Even (some) Europeans have questioned what they’ve done.

As far as bias is concerned, add my voice to those who wish to do our utmost to minimize and eliminate protected-class discrimination in our algorithms and artificial intelligence – gender, race, religion, sexual preference – as we practice the art and science of commerce.

All the same, I have deep sympathy for this same task regarding political free speech: when and how we would ever attempt to define and remove political bias is dangerous territory. What is a lie? What is hate speech? What is a conservative or liberal bias?

There are no easy answers here. But I look forward to this public investigation, all the same. We need to understand fully where the Information Economy may overstep, overreach, restrict free speech, or undermine competition – even if these grievances are found to be remote.

Data Love Story in the USA With a Few Spats, Too

You might call this time of year, Jan. 15 to March 15, marketing data’s “high season,” based on all of the goings-on. There’s a lot of data love out there — and, like all relationships that are precious, they demand a huge amount of attention, respect, and honor — and celebration.

I’ve been enjoying Alliant’s “Data and the Marketer: A Timeless Love Story” postings this month, leading up to Valentine’s Day.

You might call this time of year, Jan. 15 to March 15, marketing data’s “high season,” based on all of the goings-on:

The Alliant infographic download got me thinking of some other “key” dates that might also be recognized on the Data Love calendar, reflecting other aspects of the love story. Not all love affairs are perfect — are there any? Sometimes there’s a quarrel and spats happen, without any abandonment of a full-on love affair.

  • 1960 — The Direct Marketing Association (then, DMAA) develops its first self-regulatory ethics code for data and lists, in an early industry initiative to separate the good from bad players. It becomes the basis for practically every data protection (and consumer rights) framework since.
  • 1971 — The Mail Preference Service is launched (today DMAChoice) the first marketing industry opt-out control program for consumers — the essential framework for every consumer choice tool in marketing (in-house and industry-wide) since.
  • 1973 — The U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare introduces and adopts eight Fair Information Principles. In 1980, the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development adopts these principles for trans-border data flows. In 1995, The European Union, among other governments, enact variation and interpretation of these formally into law, eventually adopting the EU General Data Protection Regulation in 2018.
  • 1991 — Jennifer Barret is named Acxiom’s privacy leader — among the first enterprises to name what essentially would become a “chief privacy officer.” In 2000, Trevor Hughes launches the International Association of Privacy Professionals. A nascent cottage industry evolves into a huge professional education and development organization that today includes tens of thousands of members.
  • 1992 — A nonprofit and privacy advocacy organization, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, is formed, and soon thereafter begins tracking data security breaches, both public and private sector. Its breach list since 2005 is posted here. Data privacy and data security, as evidenced in Fair Information Practice Principles, go hand-in-hand.
  • 1994 — The first online display ad appears on the Internet, by AT&T. (And the first commercial email perhaps the same year.) So marked the humble beginnings of Internet marketing — “direct marketing on steroids.” I thought Jeff Bezos used this term in Amazon (formed 1994) early days during a DMA conference – but alas, I’m having a hard time sourcing that one. Perhaps this quote was related to Google (formed 1998) and the real-time relevance of search!
  • 1995-96 — Subscriber Ram Avrahami asserts a property right to his name in a lawsuit against S. News and World Report. Because he thwarted the spelling of his name on the magazine’s list – in a bid to discover who else the magazine rents its subscriber list to – the court ultimately rejects his challenge. The case, however, introduces a novel concept and set of questions:Is the value of any list or database tied to the presence of any one individual name on that list, a penny a name in this case?  Or, is its value because of the sweat of the brow of the list/database creator (a business, nonprofit group, or other entity) that built a common attribute to which a list may derive commercial value?The “walled gardens” of today’s Digital Giants largely were built on such data collection. These two questions recognize that a “data-for-value” exchange must be perceived as mutually beneficial, or else consumer trust is eroded. “Who owns the data?” (a 20th Century assertion) might be better substituted today as “Who has a shared interest in the value and protection of data?” (a 21st Century proposition).
  • 2006 — Facebook is formed, among the first companies that created a “social network.” (I’m sure the adult content sector preceded it, as it often points us the way.) In one industry after another, digital disruption reorders supply chains, consumer-brand relationships, shopping practices, and name-your-own-business here. The Great Recession, and venture capital, serves to speed the quest for data-defined efficiency and transformation.
  • 2017 — Equifax, one of the United States three leading credit and information bureaus on Americans, experiences a breach of epic proportions. While the nation was fascinated with subsequent public hearings about Facebook, its data deals, and its (ahem, beneficial) targeted advertising practices, a potentially much more egregious purveyor of harm – sponsored government hacking of the highest order – largely gets a ho-hum from the general public, at least until this past week.
  • 2020 — California fragments online privacy protection in the United States – only underscoring the need for the federal government to act sooner than later. Support Privacy for America.

So, yes, there’s a lot of Data Love out there — and, like all relationships that are precious, they demand a huge amount of attention, respect, and honor — and celebration. See you soon in Orlando!

 

 

Dare to Scare: What If ‘They’ Closed the Internet?

But what if “they” — starting with policymakers in this country — took the extreme step of mimicking Europe, eschewing third-party data collection and use, destroying all of the free content such data transfers pay for, and effectively put today’s open Web behind pay walls and data walls?

The fragmentation of the Internet is marching along.

Europe went all “opt-in” — effectively halting a significant part of the Internet’s financing mechanism all in the name of privacy, without fairly considering the social and economic ramifications on competition, diversity, and democracy. (Or worse, they considered these aspects — and shut it down, anyway.)

China (and most despotic countries) bar access to much Western content. Will Hong Kong be next? Meanwhile, many of these “closed” countries are active players in using digital channels to stoke up social division and to meddle in free nations’ democratic processes.

And then there’s the rest of the global Internet — and the organic, disruptive, and innovative way it is built, maintained, and paid for. Simply allowing data to flow to responsible uses, and enable such exchanges to finance news, apps, games, email, social platforms, video, niche content, and so many other content and conveniences it would be impossible to list them all.

But what if “they” — starting with policymakers in this country — took the extreme step of mimicking Europe, eschewing third-party data collection and use, destroying all of the free content such data transfers pay for, and effectively put today’s open Web behind pay walls and data walls?

Sound very elitist? It is. Sound anti-progressive? It’s that, too. Anti-commercial? You bet. Anti-competitive? Very much so. Anti-consumer? Oh yes, it’s that, too. The deleterious effects may be already underway.

And if we’re not careful, it may just happen in the country that is most responsible for building the Global Information Economy as we know it. What a travesty it would be to throw such leadership away.

A recent study — just looking at the app world — gives a glimpse of what’s at stake. Looking at just nine top-used mobile apps, consumers state they would value access to such content at approximately $173 billion per year — content that is free to them today, thanks to ad financing. Wow! Further, current ad revenue for these apps is a tiny fraction of these assigned values. So, net, there is a huge economic dividend to consumers (and the economy) because these funds stay in consumer pockets, or are spent elsewhere.

As we march forth on privacy-first, we must consider what could happen if such responsible data uses were shut down by short-sighted public policy. What if the result were a “dumb” Internet? There’s still time for U.S. leadership, pragmatism, and a sensible way forward.