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Future of Research

Why Companies Need to Care About Protecting Personal Data


Reg Baker

North American Regional Ambassador, ESOMAR

Those of us who make our living collecting, processing, sharing, and storing personal data increasingly face an evolving and continually challenging landscape when it comes to privacy and data protection. 

The most obvious example is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), implemented in May 2018 and then followed by lookalike legislation in Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and California. Legislators around the globe understand a digital economy has great potential for economic expansion, wealth creation, and societal improvement, but they also recognize most industries have had little or no ethical basis to guide the collection and use of personal data. 

All too often, revenue generation has trumped ethical and duty-of-care responsibilities. In recognition of this poor track record of self-regulation, the E.U. brought the GDPR into law.

A model to follow

In all of this, one industry has stood out with an exemplary track record in managing data, respecting privacy and building citizen trust: market research. Its track record of successful self-regulation uniquely positioned ESOMAR, the global voice of the data, research, and insights industry for the past 70 years, to educate and advise legislators on best practices and to secure a series of flexible exemptions within the GDPR legislation. 

Thus, ESOMAR ensured the value inherent in the collection and analysis of personal data could be realized while fully protecting the people who participate or whose data is used in research.

In action

Another EU law, the Copyright Directive, provides one concrete example. This directive would have required any text mining exercise, regardless of source, be subject to copyright payment obligations to every author whose words (including tweets, blog posts, Linkedin comments, and so on) were used in a text analytics exercise. It would have made virtually all text analytics infeasible, abruptly shutting down one of the richest analytic techniques in our toolbox. 

ESOMAR led a consortium of interests that resulted in an unequivocal exemption from the directive for market research.

In 2018, ESOMAR teamed with Kadence International to survey 300 companies in the United States, United Kingdom, and India across a variety of industries. The research verified that businesses are collecting more data from more sources than ever before, and, by their own admission, that data is being shared too freely and must be more carefully controlled. 

For examples, we need to look no further than the rapid growth of advertising technologies that rely on detailed profiles of individual consumers assembled from a wide variety of sources to target messages on the right platform. 

Worse still is the use of this kind of data for algorithmic decision-making that can result in people being denied credit, excluded from job opportunities, and discriminated against in many other ways. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that a majority of American adults judge these applications to be unfair to those being evaluated.

While practitioners within the broad field of market research know their obligations to those whose data is the lifeblood of our industry, the same cannot be said for other industries. This is the biggest challenge facing every industry sector. 

Experts stand ready to share their knowledge and experience to all comers regardless of industry. At the end of the day, the more we can do to assure citizens that we are using their data responsibly, the greater the chances that the value inherent in that data is realized for the benefit of all, and the more support the digital economy will receive from legislators.

Reg Baker, North American Regional Ambassador, ESOMAR, [email protected]

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