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The Great Data Privacy Debate: A Summary

Today Andrew Jeavons moderated a fascinating live debate on data privacy in market research. This debate featured leaders from each of the three major industry associations, as well as opinion leaders on the topic. Here are the opening statements of the six participants.


By Tamara Barber

Today Andrew Jeavons, EVP at Survey Analytics, moderated a fascinating live debate on data privacy in market research. The virtual debate has been brewing in blogs, LinkedIn, and Twitter for some time, but a discussion paper on the topic from the MRS and new draft guidelines from CASRO brought this issue back to the forefront in recent weeks.

This webinar featured leaders from each of the three major market research associations, as well as industry opinion leaders on the topic. Here is what the six participants had to say in their opening statements (Note that I’ve remained as true to the dialogue as I could given how fast I can type. I’ve included quote marks where I’m sure of their accuracy):

Barry Ryan: MRS Standards & Policy Manager, EFAMRO Director of Policy and Communication. Ryan kicked off the opening statements by quoting William Gibson. “The future is already here – it’s not very evenly distributed.” He notes that six years ago, researchers already understood the value of big data, so they chose to set it in ethical principles. And furthermore, in the 1970’s the OECD drew up data protection principles in response to the growing speed and abundance of microprocessing power. These principles are now law in many jurisdictions and are mandatory requirements for researchers. Any market research guidelines should apply to social market research because they are intended to be interpretations of applicable law.

Peter Milla: Principal, Peter Milla Consulting, lead author on CASRO’S Social media Research guidelines. Milla’s point of view is that the industry must stay focused on the privacy and treatment of research participants, which he recognized are not technically research respondents. He specifically highlights the issue of masking, saying that any guidance from CASRO has to do with protecting participants. These guidelines are not technically part of the codes yet, and they will evolve. This is about doing no harm, not suffering any consequences from doing research, and no selling.

Adam Phillips: Managing Director of Real Research, chairman of ESOMAR’s Professional Standards and Legal Committees. Although Phillips was having technical difficulties during the opening statements, his overall message is that “when you tell people you are in market research, they want to know what why you want to know what you want to know and why they should trust you. The ethical codes help people understand that you are not selling and that they will not be personally identified… We need to have a way of telling people how we are using their data. It’s about trust.”

Ray Poynter: EVP at Vision Critical and author of the Handbook of Online and Social Media Research. Poynter acknowledged that his position is similar to that of Ryan’s, but he is concerned that guidelines are “dead white mens’ rules.” “In an attempt to stay ever purer, organizations such as MRS are coming up with narrower and narrower definitions of market research. And what they define as MR really is MR, but it’s a shrinking part of the whole business.” He argues that it’s “arrogance if we set up rules from the chattering classes rather than letting people decide what’s done with their data.”

Tom Anderson: CEO Anderson Analytics, Founder and Chairman at Next Gen Market Research (NGMR). Tom took a much more cynical view of the industry and began by saying that “surveys have little to do with social media and text analytics.” If the latter do need guidelines, they shouldn’t be drawn up by people who know little of the techniques and technologies. Furthermore, in his view, market research industry standards have always been designed to benefit the industry, and keep the secrets of the industry away from clients. His example: the industry would “hate nothing more than to show clients how badly the sampling sausage is being made. But at least it has served many suppliers well over the years.” Yet, current social media guidelines among industry organizations would not benefit market research. Rather, even the Honomichl Top 5 would not abide by these constraints, which would also hinder smaller creative firms. At the end of the day, he asserts, the members of these trade organizations are too traditional and are fighting to preserve an industry status quo.

Michalis A. Michael: Founder and Managing Director at DigitalMR Ltd. Michael’s opening comments closely mirrored those from his most recent blog post. There are three key issues that the current trade organizations misunderstand:

  • They adhere to traditional notions of market research, talking about ‘respondents’ to refer to people who post comments.
  • They talk about private gardens, when in reality social market research largely applies to the public domain and not password protected areas.
  • Whether they realize it or not, the trade organizations are advocating for an environment in which market research simply will not be able to compete with software developers who care nothing for market research codes.

Following these opening statements, there were far too many well-made points to summarize succinctly, but here are the topics that I found most compelling:

  • Legislation, regulation, and business risk. There was much talk about how a lawyer would interpret current privacy laws, the definition of the public domain, and whether sites’ terms of service hold legal water in any case. Anderson states that every Web site has its own terms of service, but other industries who routinely use screen scraped data – such as text analytics companies – aren’t worried about violating terms of service (until they get a letter from a lawyer). Meanwhile, Ryan of the MRS states that regulatory agencies tend to define privacy and consent very narrowly. And his organization has a duty to educate the industry on how current law is being applied and advise on proper business practice in this context, so that members can make informed decisions on the business risks of certain practices. CASRO’s Milla also notes that the Federal Communications Commission in the US no longer delineates between marketing and market research. For him, the smart move is to self regulate so that regulatory agencies aren’t compelled to impose even tighter restrictions.
  • Public awareness of the public domain. Poynter stated that ‘self regulation has had its day.’ Instead, we need a much clearer definition of what is public domain. Those who are industry opinion leaders are happy to have their blogs quoted, but who is to decide whether or not something published outside of a blog is public domain? To what extent do people who are having online discussions consider themselves to be published? Poynter and the representatives from industry organizations argued that the public at large has a limited understanding of what’s private and what’s not. However, Michael and Anderson believe the onus is on the individual to be aware of private versus public online interactions. Moreover, if other industries competing with market research are not regulating in this way, the guidelines handicap the industry.
  • The global challenge. Social media easily crosses national boundaries, yet every country has differing data privacy laws. This is a particular challenge to Phillips of Esomar, who feels that right now the industry has an opportunity to define what is reasonable with regard to data privacy before many countries begin enacting legislation specific to this subject. While it’s unrealistic to expect that each country will have the same laws, his organization would like to “put forth basic rules that are reasonable to legislate the around the world,” when it comes to giving people a mechanism to understand how their data is being used for market research, harkening back how market research is treated in the context of ‘do-not-call’ lists.

One thing is for sure in all of this: market research is undergoing a significant transition, and in the case of social media, we must take into account the law, the competitive environment, and how both will evolve. Lenny Murphy has already posted his follow-on to the debate on the Greenbook blog, and I’m looking forward to round two in this ongoing discussion!

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