Big Data and Policy Options – Food for Thought

“Big Data” seems to be in every other headline. While the term might be relatively new for most of us, the concept and the capability are the now-obvious outcroppings of the digital revolution. Increasingly referred to as “web 3.0,” in hindsight it’s easy to see where we’ve been heading with the preponderance of web sites and digital tools that have become integral to marketing, advertising and public relations in just the last few years.

While Big Data holds tremendous promise across a multitude of areas like scientific and health research, weather pattern analysis, population trends, fraud detection and many more, no sector has employed it like the Marketing industry.

Advertising is farthest ahead. Leveraging behavioral tracking technologies and combining them with other data sources [physical addresses, in-store purchases, even voting records], advertisers can now correlate massive amounts of data to predict trends and micro-target specific groups. Online outreach can now be instantly directed to a precise individual level. However, there are limits in effectiveness. For instance, will the same messaging resonate across a large block of consumers who may have displayed a certain behavior but for very different motivations? What impact might the behavior of statistical outliers have on a predicted outcome?

While Big Data may be a marketer’s dream, the flip side of individual privacy is coming more into focus. The story of Target advertising to a pregnant teen based on her shopping habits, before her own family knew of her pregnancy and much to her father’s dismay, has already become Big Data legend. The Center for Democracy and Technology, a leading Internet freedom advocacy organization in Washington DC, claims that “Privacy is the number one concern of Internet users, and it is also the top reason why non-users still avoid the Internet.” 

Implications of the Big Data paradigm are now catching the attention of consumers and lawmakers, and may trigger regulatory actions that could alter the trajectory of what can legally be done. Data privacy is the leading reason why some people still avoid the Internet, and others are coming to limit their participation and information-sharing.

While rumors of new policy action are starting to circulate in Washington, a few existing policies may start getting enforced more stringently. For example, the Federal Trade Commission’s 2010 Do Not Track framework has been all but ignored by the advertising industry. Senator Jay Rockefeller has now started a major push for legislation that would create a universal Do Not Track option for consumers and penalize companies who don’t comply.

Cyber threats compound the Big Data picture. While thankfully threat patterns can be more readily analyzed, there is a huge ongoing debate about what personal information the government should have access to in what circumstances. In January, President Obama issued an Executive Order that creates a voluntary framework for information-sharing between the private sector and the government. While proposed CISPA legislation failed in Congress in 2012 and again in 2013, everyone acknowledges that cyber security is growing in urgency and requires action. We should expect more bills in 2013.

There is also a current push to reform the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was originally intended to protect then-emerging wireless and Internet services. Among other provisions, location privacy is being discussed, primarily concerning terms for law enforcement to access location information (via cell phone or GPS data). However, it could set precedents that would later carry over to emerging marketing tools like proximity networks or location-based advertising.

What might changing legislation mean for the online world as we know it? What about implications for use of Twitter and Facebook, or innovation of new channels? How will consumer and citizen trust be affected? Where will the line be between an employee’s professional blog posts, media quotes and other communications written for a client and their standing as a private citizen? Given our global economy, international implications also need to be considered. For instance, the EU are fierce privacy advocates. And China’s aggressive corporate espionage and intellectual property violations mandate extra caution.

Technological innovation should not be stifled by government policy. Nor should marketers and professional communicators have to function in a McCarthyist environment where messages are punctuated by fear. With the head-spinning pace of change, harnessing Big Data with enthusiasm and prudence – respecting customer sovereignty and anticipating laws to come – seems an appropriate course of action – but that’s not what AdMen are usually known for.

You can download a full copy of my new paper “Big Data, Policy Options, and the (Almost) Unrecognizable World of Communications” at www.dialogrc.com.

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