Consumers need help to challenge data misuse

Russell Parsons

Changing the perception that there are swathes of nebulous data companies making inappropriate use of data is one of the greatest challenges the direct marketing industry faces.

Whether the perception matches the reality does not matter, there is a common feeling among many consumers that their data is being traded, at worse without their authority, at best without their intent.

The vast majority that ply their trade in the data lists business are, of course, well intentioned and code abiding companies that although perhaps not appreciated by all do provide a worthwhile service to a channel that values data higher than any other commodity.

It is no surprise then that the Direct Marketing Association has just carried out its first expulsion of any kind for three years. Data Providers UK have been thrown out of the DMA for selling data without “proper regard for whether it met client requirements, and for the fact that it “unreasonably sought to absolve itself of responsibility for the data, and that refunds were refused or only offered as a last resort.”

It is not my place to comment on the rights and wrongs of the case in question. It is, however, admirable that the DMA took action relatively swiftly.

Recognising that as a self-regulatory force it is essential that any breaches of agreed codes and ethics are adhered to, the DMA says: “, any company that fails to operate within these standards brings both the DMA and the industry into disrepute”.

The importance of appropriate and fair use of data lists are also recognised by George Kidd, chair of the DMC, which enforced the expulsion. He said in response: “The quality of data lists used by marketers is crucial to responsible direct marketing.”

It is, of course, and the industry recognises this and, as demonstrated here, has reflected it by tough action.

The industry itself knows what to do, who to complain to and how a problem can be stamped out. This is great, and should be reassuring to a still sceptical public.

Thing is, to completely reverse the perception deficit, the industry getting its own house in order is only half the battle.

Consumers, if they take umbrage, cannot get a complaint investigated by the DMA. Their first port of call is the Information Commissioners Office.

It requires some effort, and various word combinations in Google’s search field, however, for an irate customer to be able to find out that this is the case.

Consumers, I’d wager, know that complaints about television scheduling or content know need to be addressed to Ofcom. Those that take issue with a television advertisement know that they should take their concern to the Advertising Standards Authority.

This knowledge offers comfort that somebody, somewhere is looking out for them.

People do not, I’d argue, know that the ICO is where concerns over use of data by direct marketers should be aired.

This needs to be addressed. An awareness campaign and greater PR effort by all those concerned needs to be delivered. Consumers need to know that someone somewhere can deal with whatever their problem is.

The ICO and DMA do great work, providing valuable resources, information and recourse for consumers and the industry. Time to start telling people about or reality will never trump perception.

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