First they came for the charities. Then they came for gambling sites. Who’s next?

David Reed, director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ

Does what happened to charities over their use of personal information matter if you are not a charity? Clearly, mistakes were made and a new regulator has been specially created to try to prevent a reoccurence. With gambling sites currently the focus of a similar degree of scrutiny for the way they recruit players, it is possible they may end up having their own, sector-specific data-driven marketing regulator created.

So does that matter to you if you do not operate in their sector? It should - because there is a strongly anti-data agenda at work which views almost any use of personal information to build business as scandalous, even where it is completely legitimate and ethical. That is not to whitewash the problem of targeting vulnerable consumers - clearly this needs to be dealt with quickly and effectively. But it does raise the question as to which sector will find itself in the spotlight next.

The Daily Mail is often the first and foremost critic of data-driven business, but not exclusively so - heavyweight titles like The Guardian and TV programmes like Newsnight have also scrutinised the way personal information gets used to create value. Rarely do they like what they find (except, paradoxically, when it comes to “sexy” subjects like artificial intelligence). 

Frequently, media commentators conflate illegal data use, such as wealth profiling without permission or purchasing unpermissioned data from affiliates, with legal activities, such as modelling affluence or using sales promotions to acquire customers. The line between these can be quite narrow, which is why even right-minded marketers have been known to get it wrong.

But acts of omission, human error or ignorance rarely justify the wholesale condemnation of a practice. When it comes to personal information, the General Data Protection Regulation is bringing about an important rebalancing of rights and value that will see most sectors pull back from grey areas.

And yet, when the Data Protection Bill is published in September, the data industry will enter a new phase of peril. Only this time it might be because sectors which have been misusing data could attempt special pleading and hope that the Government’s slim majority might see exemptions introduced. 

It might only take a handful of Conservative backbenchers to become convinced that charities do not need to be covered by the Bill in order for an amendment to that effect to get passed. With the UK in Brexit mode and an adequacy ruling potentially up for grabs in the space between GDPR coming into effect and then being replaced by the Bill, such lobbying could prove successful.

Imagine the media backlash which could result. At the very moment when consumers will have new controls and rights in their possession, they might find themselves being told that all use of their personal information by commercial organisations is bad. The impact on consent rates (where this is the mechanism being used to collect data) could be catastrophic. Even within legitimate interest-based data exchanges, there could be a negative impact on brand reputations and customer engagement.

In short, the data industry might find itself as popular as PPI cold calls. And part of the reason could be an historical failure to speak up for the positive value of data-driven business and marketing. In order to avoid being in the same spotlight as charities and gambling sites, other sectors have kept quiet about their legitimate, positive, beneficial uses of personal information.

As the Lutheran pastor and poet, Martin Niemöller wrote, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Socialist…Then they came for me - and there was no-one left to speak for me.” Compliance with GDPR is important - but so, too, is speaking up for data-driven business that is legal, transparent, fair and trusted.

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