Selling your personal data
From HBS Working Knowledge
Special to CNET News.com
September 1, 2003 6:00 AM PDT
It's a startling idea: Instead of relying on regulators to protect our privacy against telemarketers, data miners and consumer companies, we should capitalize on the value of our personal information and get something in return.That is the idea put forward by John Deighton, a Harvard Business School professor, in a recent working paper titled "Market Solutions to Privacy Problems?"
Just what would consumers get in return for their personal information? Money perhaps, or price discounts, better customer service, maybe products tailored specifically to their needs.
His point: The information that is gathered about you by stores, researchers and credit agencies belongs to those companies, not to you. They in turn resell that information to others. So if our personal information is such an asset, shouldn't we benefit from our asset as well? Why shouldn't intelligent consumers sell their identities to stores they trust? And wouldn't those trusted stores in return be motivated to use that information wisely?
"The challenge is to give people a claim on their identities while protecting them from mistreatment," Deighton said. "The solution is to create institutions that allow consumers to build and claim the value of their marketplace identities and that give producers the incentive to respect them."
We asked Deighton to elaborate on his ideas.
Q: You argue that market forces can do a better job than regulators in protecting privacy. In general, what is wrong with a regulatory approach? Isn't the telemarketing hotline working?
The do-not-call list is the rich desserts of a thoroughly nasty industry. The saddest thing about it is that it will not put an end to uninvited outbound telemarketing. You'll still get calls from firms you deal with, including those you have no choice but to deal with such as local phone companies. Politicians will still be free to call. It took 20 years for politicians to act on their constituencies' widespread indignation. Don't count on regulation to solve anything in time or on budget.
The idea of offering the opportunity to buy privacy is hard to swallow. The challenge is to give people a claim on their identities while protecting them from mistreatment. The solution is to create institutions that allow consumers to build and claim the value of their marketplace identities and that give producers the incentive to respect them. Privacy and identity then become opposing economic goods, and consumers can choose how much of each they would like to consume. There is some evidence to suggest that markets evolve toward this solution of their own accord, but regulation can accelerate the evolution.
Why is the distinction between privacy as a right and identity as an asset an important one to consider?
By contrast, an asset is a possession or quality with value in exchange as well as in use. It is property with a market price and opportunity cost. Rights are matters for regulation, assets are matters safely and usually better left to markets. Framed in these terms, here is the problem with regulation. It solves the problem of intrusion on consumers caused by the inefficiencies of marketing methods, but at the cost of completely denying the customers the value of their identity.
What are top issues companies need to consider when creating privacy relationships with customers?
What is the advantage to consumers to think of their identity/privacy in terms of being an asset?
They also lose out on a variety of nonmonetary benefits like recognition and preferential service that may matter more than money.
Using the supermarket frequent-shopper program as an example, what forces are at work to protect against a consumer being the victim of unwanted intrusion?
What is the overall advantage to an economy where anonymous mass markets give way to markets in identified customers?
It's about offering its customers and prospects an identity that they find useful and are proud to wear. Under a market regime, this value is available to manufacturers, improving the efficiency of its marketing methods, and shoppers capture some of the value. In a market of competing frequent shopper programs, competing grocers bid for the right to gather a shopper's data by offering discounts on merchandise to program members and in some cases by offering members nonprice benefits such as superior service.
Anonymous mass markets are giving way to markets in identified customers because many of the information technologies of the last several decades such as databases, call centers and the Internet have had the effect of facilitating interaction between firms and individually identified customers. Such interactivity makes market-matching much more accountable and hence more efficient than it was under a broadcast marketing regime.
A program of general regulation that lets consumers build and manage identity assets and share in their value holds out the promise of jointly delivering more efficient marketplaces and more civil commercial discourse.
© Copyright 2003 President and Fellows of Harvard College
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