The latest shot in the privacy regulation war has been fired, and it puts a whole new twist on the debate. Turns out that companies are collecting less data about shoppers than they used to, at least according to one group that opposes new privacy laws.
The idea of self-regulation has been the barrier that has successfully kept regulators at bay. And now there’s evidence that it may actually work.
But the twist is that companies aren’t collecting less data about customers because they’re nice people, or because they respect privacy. They’re less interested in data, it turns out, because they didn’t know what the heck to do with it.
The study released by the Progress and Freedom Foundation didn’t actually say that, but it’s there between the lines. The foundation did note that just 75 percent of 385 surveyed Web sites collected personal information beyond a visitor’s e-mail address and other basics. That’s still a pretty big number, but it’s well below the nearly 100 percent level of two years ago.
The Foundation would like us all to believe this is evidence of “market-driven” behavior changes by companies — that customers have spoken out for less invasion of privacy, and that sites have responded in kind.
If I could provide a one-word answer to that claim, it would have to be: Ha. Two words: As if.
The Foundation’s second explanation is much more accurate: “Firms may also have overestimated the economic value of collecting personal information,” they said at a press conference.
Bingo. Sites aren’t collecting as much information because they figured out that most of what they were collecting wound up in digital storage, gathering digital dust and waiting for the magical day when someone would come along and turn the languishing data into valuable market intelligence.
That day has not yet come. And companies probably are figuring out that it doesn’t pay to collect information anymore, especially when that process itself may scare away some potential customers.
Time Will Tell
That notion flies in the face of what the Web is all about: speed and convenience. Besides, there’s evidence that even when banks and other financial institutions were required to send mailings to all their customers offering them a chance to opt out of having their information shared, only about 20 percent seized the opportunity.
I have long argued that people are just too harried or lazy to read those policies and complete opt-out forms. And I still believe that companies will exploit that weakness to the best of their ability, pushing the envelope far enough to get what they want but not far enough to raise the suspicion of shoppers.
The fact is that behind the scenes, data gathering and analytics aren’t as sophisticated as we have been led to believe. The information isn’t as valuable as companies thought. At least, not yet.
And there’s the rub. The people who produced these statistics say they serve as evidence that government should keep its hands off the Internet privacy issue.
But it seems likely that it’s only a matter of time until the millions of dollars being poured into analytical software firms — which are among the few early-stage tech firms still being funded by venture capitalists — start to pay dividends.
Then, as before, personal data will become a sought-after commodity.
This debate will start all over again. Put it on your calendar for sometime in the future: Government regulation versus self-policing, round 2.
Take a breather, soldiers, but reload and get ready, because this battle is far from over.
What do you think? Let’s talk about it.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.