DMA Responds to Op-Ed Attacking Commercial Data Use

As part of our ongoing efforts to set the record straight about the countless ways that data-driven marketing benefits consumers and fuels the data-driven economy, DMA today stated that it strongly disagrees with a recent opinion piece by FTC Commissioner Julie Brill published by the Washington Post, titled “Demanding transparency from data brokers.”

In response to the article, DMA President and CEO Linda A. Woolley wrote an open letter to Commissioner Brill, saying, “This op-ed inaccurately targets reputable practices that benefit consumers and unfairly demagogues the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the field of responsible data-driven marketing.”

The full text of the letter follows:

Linda A. Woolley, J.D.
CEO & President

August 19, 2013

Commissioner Julie Brill
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580

Re: Washington Post Op-Ed Attacking Commercial Data Use

Dear Julie:

I am writing in response to your op-ed entitled, “Demanding transparency from data brokers,” published in the Washington Post on Friday, August 16, 2013.   This op-ed inaccurately targets reputable practices that benefit consumers and unfairly demagogues the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the field of responsible data-driven marketing.[1]

As CEO and President of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), I represent the leading business and not-for-profit organizations providing and using consumer data in ways that contribute significantly to individual consumers, businesses, and the American economy.  These organizations fuel popular, beneficial and harmless services that consumers want – even demand – as part of their digital lifestyles.  Third-party data use and sharing are essential for business success in today’s information economy.  Businesses use data to drive a host of decisions – from what products to develop and offer to where new retail locations should be established.  Third-party data also promotes competition by helping new or smaller businesses compete with larger companies, without the need to amass their own data from scratch.  Consumers benefit from these behind-the-scenes activities, which support and enrich the offerings available to them in the marketplace.

Rather than highlight the societal benefits resulting from this data revolution, the op-ed demonizes data and conflates the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) with those of responsible data-driven marketers.  The use of consumer information for commercial purposes is already governed by a robust set of sector-specific federal and state laws and regulations.  The law, for good reason, has always treated surveillance issues as distinct from commercial uses of data.

Further, as you know, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regularly uses its authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act to hold companies to their promises through onerous and expensive enforcement actions.  Confusing issues of national security and responsible marketing paints an alarmist picture of supposed threats that the collection of marketing data poses to consumers.  There is no place in the discussion of NSA surveillance to equate such practices with the commercial use of data.  Ironically, the op-ed does not even articulate a position as to the NSA’s practices.

Asserting that consumers need to “reclaim their names” focuses on speculative harms and ignores the consumer protection derived from customization and personalization of Internet experiences through the commercial use of data.  Commercial data use stops fraud and makes the world safer – in both the online and offline environments.  The products and services informed by the use of data help American consumers preserve their names rather than fall victim to identify theft.  Suggesting that marketing data is used to “determine what offers we receive, what rates we pay, even what jobs we get” is factually inaccurate and misleading, given that the use of any data – including marketing data – for eligibility determinations is already illegal under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.  The op-ed wrongly suggests that this is not the case for some data.  In fact, a “reclaim your name” campaign would lead to more fraud and limit the efficacy of companies and data discussed in the op-ed.  These companies are among the leaders in providing the tools and services that fight identity theft and help to stop fraudulent online purchases, benefiting Americans every day.

I was particularly troubled to read the op-ed given your ongoing, direct dialogue with the industry and the fact that the FTC, under its 6(b) authority, is currently examining the practices of some of the same companies you reference – and is undoubtedly learning the critical societal benefits of such services.  Given their cooperation with the FTC’s and other attempts to better understand the commercial use of consumer data – coupled with the fact that none of these inquiries have alleged actual harm or wrongdoing – the call for legislation to restrict benign and long-standing business activities is unfounded.  As a Federal Trade Commissioner, your public statements can negatively impact law-abiding, productive businesses and their employees.

In contrast to the speculative harms and accusations about the commercial use of data in the op-ed, DMA and its members continue to focus on providing meaningful education and robust choices for consumers about how information is used for responsible marketing purposes.  For more than forty years, DMA has created and enforced Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice, policed industry bad actors, and provided consumer choice mechanisms for mail, email and the online environment.  We believe that responsible use of consumer data is essential – consumers can and should decide for themselves which of the many benefits of the data-driven lifestyle they want to embrace.

It is my sincere hope – and the hope of the DMA membership – that our future dialogue will be conducted in a manner that is constructive and positive, such that we can continue to increase consumer understanding about the responsible commercial use of data, the ever-increasing benefits it affords to society, and the invaluable fuel it provides to our data-driven economy.

 Sincerely,

Linda A. Woolley

CEO & President


[1] According to DMA’s The Power of Direct Marketing 2011-2011 report, direct marketing accounted for 8.7 percent of total US gross domestic product and produced1.3 million direct marketing employees in the US in 2012 alone.  Their collective sales efforts directly support 7.9 million other jobs, accounting for a total of 9.2 million US jobs.

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