Sunday, 10 July 2011

Seems Robert Halfon wants the government to regulate the Internet (but only for businesses). And he's a Tory?


Now before I go any further let’s be clear that I know little of the technical whizz-bangery that underlies on-line advertising and marketing. Indeed, it is possible – just as was the case with a previous generation of targeted marketing – that the technical possibilities get in the way of sense and good tactical thinking.

The objective of targeted market hasn’t changed – the aim is to reduce cost-per-order. That is it. There is no other justification for targeting customer and prospects. The only point is to raise the productivity of marketing activity and to improve the return on marketing investment.

Now we know how targeted advertising and marketing raises privacy concerns – indeed MPs are very keen to apply standards of data protection, data gathering and data use to private business that are ignored in the operation of public activities (and especially security and law enforcement).

So we have an EDM – a pointless motion to be sure but a statement from some MPs – about “new data protection controls to protect people against the rise in targeted advertising.” Apparently, WPP have “...profiles of up to half a billion internet users, which the motion suggests may include almost all British citizens.”

We’ll return to Big Brother Watch’s scaremongering about WPP in a minute, but first the motion:

That this House is deeply concerned that privacy is gradually being eroded by private companies using the internet to obtain personal data and selling it for commercial gain; notes that the latest problem is with WPP Group plc, the advertising firm, which claims to have built up individual profiles for half a billion internet users across the world, including allegedly almost 100 per cent. of British people; further notes that secret monitoring of internet users is already a huge issue, with data scraping and cookies monitoring people without their consent; believes an internet bill of rights is needed to guard against the growing infringement of civil liberties that are not covered by existing legislation; and further believes that the Information Commissioner lacks the powers necessary to protect personal data and has done precious little to protect our privacy in recent tests such as the Google Street View project.

Note that the MPs aren’t expressing concern about the police collecting and storing personal data, or HMRC, or DWP, of the security services or your local council. These MPs are concerned that private businesses are “secretly monitoring the internet”. This is rubbish. Utter rubbish.

Now I don’t know for sure what it is that WPP have collected but I’m pretty sure that if it does contain data on “almost 100% of British people” that will be information that you or I – or even Robert Halfon, the motion sponsor – would be able to collect without much trouble. You know the stuff – name, address, maybe a phone number, some credit history analysis and, for some, a little purchase history. Understand that this is the collecting of information that people give across freely in order to play in the Internet’s happy world.

And it makes me smile when phrases like “using the Internet to obtain personal data and selling it for commercial gain” – what on earth do these people think businesses do? And the Internet is increasingly the place to do business. So for Mr Halfon – who is a Tory and should know better – let me explain targeting.

There’s a shopkeeper who, when a customer walks into his shop, engages them in conversation. He finds out where they live, what they like to do, how many kids they have, when their birthdays are, what sort of jam they prefer and so forth. That same shopkeeper also notes what the customer buys, how much they spend and even where else they shop. And he keeps a record of this “data”.

The shopkeeper sends the kids a birthday card – perhaps with a discount off some sweets or a toy. And he makes sure he stocks the right jam, tells those who like it when there’s an offer on and introduces new offers, maybe as a result of looking at what other similar customers are buying.

Now I’m pretty sure that Mr Halfon would applaud such enterprise from a shopkeeper in his Harlow constituency. Indeed, as MPs are wont to do, he might pass comment on such initiative in the House while urging some minister to support and encourage such entrepreneurship.

But it seems that when a business does just this – gathering information about people so it might make better offers to them, design the products they need or want and reduce costs through less wasteful advertising – Mr Halfon disapproves and talks darkly of “civil liberties”. Yet there is no real difference – other than efficiency (the shopkeepers records will be far better than WPP’s ‘profiles’) – between the two activities.

There is a problem with targeting – mostly that it doesn’t work nearly as well as those selling the technology claim. And indeed the most precious information – purchase history and responsiveness to offer – isn’t something that businesses are prepared to share with their competitors. Simple address-related data has some use but as a tool for targeting is of limited value – and bluntly this is most of what WPP will have gathered.

And finally let me make an important point. I know exactly and precisely why a business wants to collect, store and use information about me. The business does this in order to improve its chances of selling something to me. I get benefit from this. That is it.

the state collects, stores and makes use of information about me for reasons of control, direction and taxation. I derive no benefit from such activity. Perhaps, rather than getting in such a flap about WPP, Mr Halfon (and the assortment of lefties who have signed his motion) might like to turn their attention to the real problem – abuse of personal data by the state.


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