Magazine article Marketing

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Controlling Interests

Magazine article Marketing

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Controlling Interests

Article excerpt

Websites where a hunger for data has outweighed concern for the privacy of users face a backlash.

Data greed. It's ugly, damages your business and can land you in trouble.

About 10 years ago, I was doing some consulting for a telecoms brand on its website. For small business customers to request a brochure detailing the tariffs on offer to that sector, they had to complete a form with 24 fields; ignoring the fact that they couldn't download the thing, this was a high bar.

I pointed out that every field in the form represented a reduction in the completion rate. I observed that most of the information was useless anyway.

Then I realised I might be labouring under a misapprehension; namely, that the object was to place tariff brochures in the hands of as many interested customers as possible. So I asked: 'What is the purpose of this exercise?'

The client looked at me as if the entire world's combined idiocy had taken up residence in my head. 'Data capture,' he said.

Clearly, the notion of some planned use in mind for this data was unnecessary; this was a landgrab - ask questions now, and we'll decide how to act later.

We have seen something similar in recent weeks, with Google being castigated for collecting data about the web pages people were viewing as its Streetview cars passed. While we all thought the cars were simply capturing images of the streetscape, it turns out they were also collecting information about unsecured wi-fi networks. It's not clear what Google planned to do with this, but what got it into trouble was the discovery that it had also been looking at the actual traffic on those networks.

Today's Google is a very different beast even from that of two years ago, when I described in an article how the search business routinely retained records of users' search behaviour for 18 months. Google admitted its mistake and offered to delete the data, retaining it only until regulators had decided whether they wanted to prosecute.

What seems to have been a genuine error highlights both the sensitivity surrounding privacy issues, and the capability of well-resourced organisations to know a great deal about us.

Facebook, meanwhile, is establishing a reputation for overestimating users' willingness to share their information. Its Beacon ad system notified users' friends when they bought stuff, its new privacy controls defaulted users to the lowest standards of privacy, and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a speech this year that social norms relating to privacy had changed, meaning openness about personal information was now regarded as customary. …

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