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Privacy: Avoid presumptions and ask (unless you're Waitrose)

08 Jun 2011  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Raymond Snoddy

Raymond Snoddy tells a story that rather eloquently illustrates just how large an issue privacy is becoming and how things can go seriously awry when the marketing community gets it even inadvertently wrong...

QVC's Richard Burrell had many interesting things to say at a Rovi press lunch yesterday about how flogging things on the telly really works - even things costing more than £1,000. It's the purest form of commercial television with no need for silly thing like progammes.

With its simplest of all television formats, QVC takes in £350 million a year in the UK, and three quarters of that comes from electronic devices - the remote, the web and smartphones.

Yet the most riveting thing Burrell said was almost a throwaway line about a large family of his acquaintance, which unsurprisingly had a large weekly food bill at Tesco.

The electronic tills did their work and identified the family as important customers in line for a reward. As a result when they returned to their car it has been washed for free by Tesco. A pretty innocuous way of showing appreciation and helping to build loyalty among key customers you might think.

Except that, according to Burrell, the recipients were not best pleased at all and indeed took their valued custom elsewhere.

Assuming that the high-spending family did not have any doctrinal attachments to dirty cars, the only explanation is that they didn't like Tesco taking liberties and doing something they had not been asked to do. A small invasion of privacy based on analysis of spending patterns.

Such an analysis of Snoddy domestic spending would lead Waitrose to the inescapable conclusion that the way to my heart would be to stand about the car park with a free bottle of wine, preferably with the cork already pulled and a glass waiting.

Not the slightest offence would be taken and any attachment to principles of privacy would fade rather rapidly.

The Burrell story does rather eloquently illustrate just how large an issue privacy is becoming and how things can go seriously awry when the marketing community gets it even inadvertently wrong.

Different people, different generations and different countries have widely varying degrees of attachments to privacy and there is little agreement on what constitutes privacy.

For the moment we can leave the antics of three-timing footballers to the entertaining battle between the judiciary, Parliamentarians and Twitter.

My money's on Twitter every time and with it the likelihood that dramatic changes in attitudes to the rights to privacy of the rich and famous and indeed everyone else are on the way.

But what about the average citizen and the endless store of electronic information that is collected on all of us?

The classic case - almost a business tragedy at least in the UK - was the experience of Phorm. It seemed such a good idea at the time. Track consumers interests in real time and offer than relevant advertising and offers. There was no privacy issue, the company believed, because the information gathered was anonymous, and unlike companies such as Google, no records were kept.

What was wrong with that for goodness sake? There was only one little problem. Consumers didn't like it and there was something a little gauche about BT apparently forgetting to seek permission from the 30,000 or so involved in an early trial. It didn't help much when the father of the worldwide web Sir Tim Berners Lee also came out against the idea.

There are some who refuse to use Google precisely because of the knowledge the online giant has about all its users. Yet you hear very little complaint about the activities of Amazon, which makes informed calculations about new books or music they believe you may enjoy based on previous purchases.

At the same time, on a daily basis, the young are wilfully abandoning any right to privacy by exposing themselves - so to speak - on social networks such as Facebook.

It is a difficult time for the marketing and advertising community because we are clearly in an age of transition on what constitutes privacy.

The only safe way forward is to avoid presumptions and ask. The trouble with having to opt in rather than being forced to opt out is that it could be bad for business.

In the end there may be no alternative because the European Commission is lumbering away in the background with its wonderfully named Right To Be Forgotten plans.

There is obvious opposition to such a concept, which would allow individuals to remove online content that was embarrassing, outdated or intrusive. If it goes ahead it could have a large impact on media organisations.

Can you imagine the sheer bureaucracy and endless squabbles involved in deciding whether or not to take down material after the receipt of a "content removal request".

As things stand its not unusual for media organisations to get requests seeking, for example, the removal of an online story about a rape accusation after the accused has been found not guilty. At the moment, making sure that there is a link from the original to the acquittal would probably suffice.

What would happen if there were A Right To Be Forgotten - which would amount to a right to rewrite history?

As always the US, with its very different attitudes to privacy, looms large in any debate.

A recent Atlantic magazine article predicted a coming internet war with EU citizens armed with their Right To Be Forgotten suing US-based social network companies to impose a European view of privacy.

In the meantime, a Waitrose bottle of wine would be very acceptable but if they only give my car its annual wash there will be absolutely no complaints of infringements of privacy or breach of the Data Protection Act.

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