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Updated (Again!): The Data Privacy Debate: Defining The Future Of An Industry

The Data Privacy debate has been percolating for some time now. Because we think this issue is so critical and it needs more discussion NewMR & GreenBook, with the support of MRGA & NGMR, have decided to hold a public forum debate on the topic of data privacy.


Update: The final lineup of panelists is now in place for this important debate. Featuring representatives from MRS, ESOMAR, and CASRO as well as international thought leaders on the future of market research, this is sure to be a CAN”T MISS event!  You can check out Radio NewMR today for a “warm-up” debate as Brian Tarran of Research Magazine joins Ray Poynter and I for a discussion on the broader implications of these issues.

The Data Privacy debate has been percolating for some time now, but the Market Research Society in the UK has brought it to a rapid boil with the recent publication of their discussion paper on the topic. Michalis Michael of Digital MR was the first to respond with his blog post questioning the wisdom of the position taken by the MRS. This follows on the heels of guidelines being developed by CASRO and ESOMAR and the ongoing work by the MRA here in the U.S. to protect market  research from some of the legislation around data privacy issues being proposed here.

Ray Poynter does a great job of explaining the issues involved with the MRS paper on his blog titled It’s time for market research to join 21st Century so I won’t recap it all here other than to say that I agree with Ray’s points. Moreover I believe that any efforts by legislative bodies to regulate such a rapidly evolving issue will fail  and that if MR adopts strategies such as what the MRS has proposed that we’ll be sealing our own fate and might as well close shop now; MR simply will NOT be relevant or competitive in the 21st Century.

I think there are three core questions to address in this debate:

  1. What constitutes privacy in the modern age of big data and what ethical obligations do companies have in how we collect and use that data?
  2. Is the utilization of these open sources of data even market research by the classical definition? If not, then do the guidelines being established by industry trade orgs even have any relevance?
  3. As firms that do not identify themselves as “market research” but clearly are competitive to traditional MR increasingly gain market share, is it business suicide to align with a perhaps outdated definition and code of standards?

So those are the issues involved with this topic, and they are relevant indeed. In fact, I think they very well may define the future of our industry more than anything else that is impacting us today. Because we think this issue is so critical and it needs more discussion NewMR & GreenBook, with the support of MRGA & NGMR, have decided to hold a public forum debate on the topic of data privacy so that the whole industry can get involved in this important discussion. Here are the details:

When: Monday, August 22 at 12:00 EST

Where: Hosted on both the NewMR webinar system and the MRGA 365 Virtual Event platform. Register here:

Panelists: Barry Ryan, Adam Phillips, Peter Milla, Ray Poynter, Tom H.C. Anderson, & Michalis Michael. Moderated by Andrew Jeavons and hosted by yours truly.

Presented in cooperation with NewMR, GreenBook, MRGA, and NGMR.

A special thanks to our sponsors: Netbase and MicroPanel by Survey Analytics.

This will be a one-hour informal debate, with the last 15 minutes reserved for audience participation via Twitter (hashtag #MRDP) and questions asked on the event platform.  Space is limited to the first 500 registrants, so register now!


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We hope you’ll join us for is what is sure to be an informative, entertaining, and most of all very useful event that has a direct impact on the future of our entire industry!

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13 responses to “Updated (Again!): The Data Privacy Debate: Defining The Future Of An Industry

  1. There are a number of inconsistencies with the information reported. Ihe views below are my personal views and not those of anyone I currently or have previously worked for.

    In particular it selectively quotes the FB T&Cs:
    If you collect information from users, you will: obtain their consent, make it clear you (and not Facebook) are the one collecting their information, and post a privacy policy explaining what information you collect and how you will use it

    This refers to applications which sit within Facebook and which deal with opt-in consent for applications not for publically available data. It does not reference the rest of their terms and conditions or their privacy policy.

    Facebook is clear that:
    “Everyone” Information. Information set to “everyone” is publicly available information, just like your name, profile picture, and connections. Such information may, for example, be accessed by everyone on the Internet (including people not logged into Facebook), be indexed by third party search engines, and be imported, exported, distributed, and redistributed by us and others without privacy limitations.
    Such information may also be associated with you, including your name and profile picture, even outside of Facebook, such as on public search engines and when you visit other sites on the internet. The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.” You can review and change the default settings in your privacy settings. If you delete “everyone” content that you posted on Facebook, we will remove it from your Facebook profile, but have no control over its use outside of Facebook.

    Twitter is even more explicit
    Our Services are primarily designed to help you share information with the world. Most of the information you provide to us is information you are asking us to make public.
    and continues

    Your public information is broadly and instantly disseminated. For example, your public Tweets are searchable by many search engines and are immediately delivered via SMS and our APIs ( to a wide range of users and services. You should be careful about all information that will be made public by Twitter, not just your Tweets.

    National Constitutions
    The references to the national constitutions are implicitly relative to tapping into communications which are assumed to be private e.g. telephones. Not to conversations which by definition the user has made public or has agreed should be public. Users already have the right to be private, services like twitter and blogs simply give everyone a public voice.

    Where there may be an argument, forums
    Perhaps online forums could be constituted as private or public meetings which could arguably be deemed as inappropriate to monitor without consent. Again the T&Cs of these sites would need to be checked on a case by case basis.

    Overall I personally feel that this white paper is poorly researched and biased.

  2. There are national data protection legislation issues here which, according to the jurisdiction, are more subtle than English readers might think. In Spain today, Google has been told to delete information about people from search results. The search results in question are records about arrests that actually appeared, and are still online, in a Spanish government’s gazette. The Spanish citizens are questioning the right of Google to have that information and display it via search and the Spanish Government has ordered the links from the search engine.

    Though this sounds odd from an Anglo-Saxon point of view, the Spanish view (possibly Switzerland, Germany and France would be similar), is a presumption of Privacy and that organisations (eg businesses) should not information about individuals in general. The organisations can have personal data in certain clearly defined circumstances for legitimate use such as processing and order, with a right to redress from the individual (eg the right to be forgotten). The principle is therefore minimum data for the data holder, maximum privacy to the individual. And this is irrespective of whether the data was ‘public’ or private – a company cannot possess a photograph of someone just because it was public if the individual objects (see the Streetview privacy issues) – privacy is much more important even if that person was in a public place.

    Obviously this contrasts extremely strongly with the more laissez-faire view of the UK, and the unregulated view of the US where ‘fair use’ might apply.

    Imagine harvesting a quote and a username and then using this on a poster to promote a product. In certain European countries, this would count as a breech of privacy. In the UK and US it would run into copyright issues and, given the extent that the username is unique, could run to trademark issues. Perhaps the individual would have the perception of his or her quote being used outside the context it was intended (music and art copyright allows the creator to maintain control of their work, or say a film critic to avoid having a quote taken out of context). Even if you don’t show the username, the quote itself may be sufficiently unique to find the original quote and link back to the individual.

    Turn the poster into a Powerpoint presentation to a more limited audience and what has changed from the point of view of privacy?

    While personally I think 99% of the population would see nothing wrong with lifting comments and quotes from public forums as observations and citations, I think we have to be very careful, writing in English and thinking in terms of English/US law when continental European practice comes from a different philosophy. As a minimum we’d certainly need researchers to ensure the original context is accurately reflected (eg not misrepresenting sarcasm as a positive view). It might also be appropriate to require a researcher to contact and get explicit consent for any quote to be shown publicly, but that for data to handled statistically to be allowed as anonymous market research.


    1. Thanks Saul, that is a good point, and the “borderless” aspect of the internet, especially social media portals, makes this doubly complex. I still go back to my core position that I do not believe any legislative body will be able to seriously curtail this business process and it is unlikely that two of the largest companies in the world, that are also now fundamentally integral to the very fabric of online commerce, (Google and Facebook) will allow such efforts to go unchallenged. I don’t think there are any easy answers here, but I am very glad that we’re openly asking the questions and thinking about the implications!

  3. Hi Leonard,

    At the core of this there is a strong distincion between what businesses can do and what legislation says they may do. In continental Europe, privacy is a core constitutional right – it can’t be written out very easily or bent to the will of the business community just because of their size.

    Market researchers are in general someway behind the curve. Web tracking companies are doing a lot of analytics. Most small companies are using Google Analytics (Urchin) and playing site and keyword optimisation games. Does this fit in the domain of market research and do researchers have skills in these areas?

    However, there are quite a few nepharious practices going on too. The following article on KISSmetrics ( explains how analytics firms are using a wide variety of underhand methods to maintain tabs on where you go and what you see – probably to the point of knowing who you are – irrespective of your personal preferences. It doesn’t sound like ‘fair practice’ that market research should support – so where are the lines?

    In Europe at least these bad practices strengthen governments hands. In the UK, Phorm (a form of tracking users at the ISP level, then targeting ads) had to close down. Google has had to change Streetview practice to allow people to demand removal or blurring of pictures (eg in Switzerland). The EU currently has a directive out that technically, requires explicit consent if cookies are used on a website. It’s not a free-for-all, and legal regimes will get tougher if bad practices continue.

    Though I still worry that researchers don’t have the technical skills or connections (this is real-time database analytics and web strategies and semi-automated e-commerce/ad delivery systems). I don’t want to imply research shouldn’t do anything and let everyone else take over, but it would seem that research should have a position on what is ethical and can be supported. There’s a void at the moment and it is feasible for the research industry, as experts in dealing with privacy and sensitive subjects, to set a view.

  4. Saul on the copyright issue that you bring up if you use one’s quote you are actually required to give credit to the author, masking it would be a violation of the copyright law under certain circumstances. Copyright and Privacy laws are two almost opposing laws: the one is asking us to disclose and the other not to.

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