As a journalist, scepticism is the default. So it takes a lot for me to be shocked, especially during a discussion which is just meant as an informal sharing of information. Yet I could not help but be taken aback to learn of the lengths to which many “dark DM” practitioners now go to retain their air of respectability, all the while engaging in practices which bring the entire direct marketing and data industries into disrepute.
Accreditation to an industry standard or membership of a trade association with a well-publicised code of practice is the badge of honour which these dodgy businesses seek. By aligning themselves with blue-chip practitioners who stick to the rules and police themselves rigidly, they can claim to be playing the same game.
In reality, these companies are often doing the exact opposite - reaping data with no concern for permission, privacy or frequency of usage, all the while cashing in on the appetite among marketers for fresh data. Where those clients are unsuspecting, it is because the flash of a certificate or membership number has provided reassurance. Where they are turning a blind eye, the effect is far more corrosive and even corrupting.
For the enforcers of standards and codes of practice, the challenge is knowing how truthful “dark DM” companies have really been when submitting their compliance reports. The vast majority of these are credible and reliable, yet a persistent handful claim to be keeping to rules which they are actually flagrantly breaching.
The shock came in learning that private investigators have been used to try to unmask these rogue practitioners. The very same resource which major media outlets, such as the Daily Mail, adopted last year to track how donor data was being over-used in the fundraising sector has found new clients within regulated industries.
Just how bad does a company’s behaviour have to be to merit such a level of investigation? Depends on your point of view, but it is clear to all in both DM and data that there are persistent offenders who place profit before the rights of individuals. Any move that will keep them in business and ahead of a penalty will be adopted. And even financial penalties are sometimes considered just the cost of staying in business.
What might finally force out these unwelcome practitoners with their fake claims to legitimacy could be the placing onto a statutory footing of the ICO’s guidance on direct marketing. As part of the second reading of the Digital Economy Bill today, such instructions will have the force of law, rather than just indications of a line of thinking which can be challenged.
Beyond that, some of these company directors need to be sent to jail for their breaches of data protection laws. Given their willingness to lie barefaced about what they are up to and the unprecedented use of investigators to catch them out, it is hard to see what else would stop them in their tracks.