Trying to head off regulatory safeguards that would enable a consumer to control how their information can be gathered and sold, data broker giant Acxiom launched a new website—Aboutthedata.com. The site fails to provide consumers with an honest explanation of why they are now subject to ongoing commercial surveillance—offline and online. Acxiom’s goal is to sanitize its practices, cloaking them in disingenuous phrases as “We no longer want to receive mass marketing – getting bombarded with ads that have no relevancy to our lives – because it’s intrusive and wastes our time. That’s why companies want to use data about you to personalize and shape your experiences with them.”
What Acxiom fails to say is what is well-known by anyone in the data and user profiling business: that today, an individual consumer is relentlessly tracked, analyzed (affluent or “waste"), retargeted, “optimized,” measured, reached via multi-channels (mobile, PC, etc.), auctioned-off in real-time to the highest bidder, with the use of their geolocation and social media data, targeted using a sophisticated array of digital marketing tools, etc. A consumer’s data profile is filled to the brim by almost endless and ever-growing contributions from dozens of online and offline data broker partners. And we haven’t even begun to add what will be scores of new data points derived from digital wallets, mobile shopping apps, e-coupons and more as online and offline experiences become further integrated.
Similar to the language used by the online ad lobby’s aboutads site, Acxiom perversely frames its data collection as a kind of Internet freedom issue, not one that raises major privacy and consumer protection concerns. It says: “Ever wonder why it’s free visit to your favorite Internet sites and mobile apps? It’s because they are funded by ad sales. Data ensures that the ads that you are seeing on websites and mobile applications are tailored to your wants and needs.” They are candid that today, little can be done to stop what is a growing explosion of nearly 24/7 personalized and ubiquitous marketing fueled by digital technologies and tactics. But they calmly reassure us that, in the end, it’s all about helping our lives: “The reality is that ads won’t stop – if companies don’t have data about consumers, the ads are still shown, they just won’t be targeted. That means that a middle-aged man in the market for a new car might see ads for kids’ toys instead. But with the right data, his local car dealership would be able to reach him with information on the next big sales event offering big discounts on the latest models. And he would soon be riding in new comfort and style.“
Much more should be expected from Acxiom, which considers itself a leader in the data industry. Acxiom's board should engage in soul-searching: shouldn't the company provide the serious transparency and control an individual living in a democratic society expect? Acxiom has an opportunity to help transform the industry into one that places the consumer first. It should call for privacy legislation, regulatory reform, and also innovate new ways to empower consumers as the gathering of our data further expands. Its site should admit that the sales of data on an individual, now done in real-time, offline and online, raises serious privacy concerns. It should review its own practices and empower individuals to control how their information can be used by any of its products and with its partners—such as Facebook.
Acxiom should explain on any informational website what it says to customers and give consumers the power to decide whether it’s ok or not. For example, shouldn’t a consumer know Acxiom promises that its Data Management Platform “can scale to millions and millions of data points, enabling you to analyze and manipulate your data to reveal macro and micro insights into how campaigns are working across various channels, the specifics of the audiences being reached and what changes could be implemented for improvement…Bringing all data sources together to create a single view of a user ...”
Or about its work targeting us on mobile phones: “We can put you at the forefront of the mobile mix. We can help you reach your target groups on their mobile devices—with certainty. Whether you need specific customer segments or highly sought after new acquisitions, we have the ability to reach them via analytics, recognition and our mobile premium publisher partnerships.”
Or the requirements it looks for as it hires account executives for its growing targeted marketing business. They need a background in: “*Digital Platforms and Targeted Media (i.e., understand how data drives creating appropriate audiences to driver performance for advertisers).”
A debate--led by the FTC, CFPB, state attorney's-general and consumer advocates--is required about Acxiom's new effort. CDD is committed to protect the interests of financial consumers as the marketplace further shifts to digitally-based services.