Coalition shows its colours on data politics

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It has been an important week for gauging how the present UK government views data and its role within business.

Ministers have made announcements in two significant policy areas, each with implications for how marketers can collect and utilise consumers’ details.

The first of these concerns the EU’s new online data privacy directive, which comes into force on May 25 and is currently the number-one preoccupation of digital data marketers across the continent. It requires that advertisers ask permission for web users before placing cookies on their browser to collect data for targeting purposes.

To the relief of the ad industry, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has said that it will allow advertisers to take an “opt-out” approach to complying with the directive. This means that ads will have to provide a clearly visible button where web users can click-through and reject cookies, but will not need to ask them to take the decision actively to opt in.

There will also be plenty of time for advertisers to adjust to the changes. Communications minister Ed Vaizey said the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is ultimately responsible for enforcing data laws, is unlikely to censure companies for the first few months while they are still adapting to the changes.

The ad industry will hope the ICO never needs to get involved. Its own self-regulatory body the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is expected to hear complaints made about how advertisers go about complying, and to take its own enforcement actions accordingly.

The emerging framework for dealing with the directive appears, then, to be broadly pro-business – keen not to be overly strict in its regulation. Whether this ultimately satisfies the EU’s laws will be a matter for the European Commission to decide.

On the other hand, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) seems determined to put forward the pro-consumer case when it comes to data. It is working with brands such as Barclaycard, Google and Everything Everywhere to create platforms where consumers can access data on their consumption habits being held for marketing purposes.

The initiative, called MyData, might sound onerous to companies at first, but the released data is also intended to be an open commercial resource. BIS suggests that it will allow the creation of apps that give consumers a way of comparing service providers. It will also, therefore, create an incentive for marketers to improve their customer service so the resulting data shows them in the best possible light.

So, here are two very different approaches to data management from two different government departments. It may or may not be instructive that the more business-friendly attitude comes from the Conservative-run DCMS, while the more public-minded initiative is a product of BIS, where Liberal Democrats Vince Cable and Ed Davey are at the helm.

It does seem, however, that within this government there are cheerleaders on both sides. For observers of the Coalition, that will not come as much of a surprise.

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