You think you are Irish. You might be more French

Breaking the rules sometimes pays off, while playing by them does not. Just ask the French and Irish football teams. (Ignore the implosion of the French at the World Cup, unless you believe in instant karma.) And Frank Lampard may have something to say on the value of rules that are not enforced.

When it comes to data, the same considerations apply. There are plenty of businesses who wonder whether the cost of compliance is greater than the cost of a fine if caught in breach of data protection and privacy laws.

One of the problems is that the business case for playing fair is not easy to make. When the ICO report “The Privacy Dividend” was published back in March, there was anger in some parts of the data industry that it did not spell out exactly how to justify protecting personal information to the board.

According to the authors, this was for the simple reason that they could find no hard data that proved the case either way. In their research, businesses were either in favour of doing the right thing or not, usually as a reflection of the culture in the company, handed down from the top level.

If you want to know whether your own company is on the side of the angels of the devils (or is Irish rather than French, if you prefer), then look at what your sales teams do when they get close to the close of the quarter and their numbers are not looking good. It is often at this point that the hunger for data is sharpest and concerns about its origin and permissions lowest.

Not that the commercial pressure has to be that high. Online data collection is a constant activity, yet takes little consideration of privacy issues. The justification is always to optimise the site and conversion rates, not whether the individuals whose activities are being tracked might feel their privacy has been breached.

So a conflict is likely between the commercial world and the regulators if the suggestion that cookies need to go to fully opt-in is made law. And if the UK Information Commissioner does become the final legal arbiter of data disputes, rather than the courts, yet more discussions will be needed over whether to comply or play dirty.

Regulation is cheap. Law makers and politicians like it because it has every appearance of action, yet does not require much effort. But any law is only as effective as the way it is enforced. So tighter rules on data will only matter if businesses decide to play along, since there will never be enough resource to check every company. In the heat of the moment, even the greatest can stoop to the lowest level. Just look at Thierry Henry…

By David Reed, editor, Data Strategy

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