FTC hearing on personal information privacy

Wired reports about an FTC hearing on personal information privacy.

As would be expected, various groups showed up to complain about too much and too little information being available.

Privacy groups such as EPIC argued that companies should ask for less information and keep to just what they need to know about customers.

On the other hand, data mining companies, such as Teradata, argued that the profiling of consumers results in their being presented with less unrelated advertising.

This latter point is an interesting one, and one common to the data collection and profiling industries. Basically, the idea is that if the companies know that you are an unmarried, single guy living in a condo in Chicago, taking the L to work, having only one credit card and buying a lot of bicycling equipment, you are likely to need specific kinds of products and services and therefore the advertisers would be able to focus on sending your adventure vacation information instead of online ads for minivans.

I'm certain that I don't like this idea, for a couple of reasons.

One, not everybody is as easily classified as the marketeers think they are, and this cuts both ways for advertisers. The more targeted their advertising becomes (without opt-in, we'll get to that later), the more likely it is that you won't be advertised things that you do want as well as things that you don't.

Two, people change. Their needs change, their likes change, and they, themselves, change. The more certain that advertisers are that you have certain attributes, the more likely they are to inundate you with offers for particular products. When you go through a life change (marriage, kids, serious accident, job change, move to a new city, mid-life crisis), your needs change and you are unlikely to need the same things you needed before.

On a less macro level, you may be very interested in all sorts of automobile information while you are looking for a new car. However, once that car is purchased, you don't need a lot of detail car spam, since you're going to wait at least a couple of years before buying another one.

This is where sophisticated opt-in can be beneficial. I know that many retailers don't like it, because it puts somebody else in the driver's seat (either the information supplier or the customer), but it doesn't change the fact that a customer knows when they are interested in getting information. If you could go to www.needacar.org (don't try it, I just made it up), and say that you wanted to receive car spam for the next 30 days or until you buy a car, you might do it. However, today, you may not sign up to a web site for a particular vendor because they are going to send you information for the rest of your life.

I keep thinking there is a happy medium for unsolicited and solicited commercial email that allows the user to control at the source (or an intermediate distribution point, but definitely before final delivery) their interest in a particular topic.

Perhaps requiring bulk emailers to register if they are sending more than a particular number of the same (or substantially the same) email to a group of users and then having a standard clearinghouse for that registration information that spam-filtering software can use to filter out unregistered volume email and provide a central repository or mechanism for removal from subscriptions.

Even that idea runs the risk of creating a chilling effect by requiring publishers to register, which generally I'm against on free speech grounds.

Got an idea? Leave a comment.