Kim Smouter

It is an exciting time for the research industry. In English literature, one might even say a watershed moment, a defining moment that will change the course of our industry’s history.

Web 2.0 is quickly giving way to Web 3.0. And Web 3.0, as we all know, will be built on the ability to pull the vast body of data that has accumulated on our computer and cloud systems. We will be able to put that body of data to the service of business, consumers, and governments alike. Big data, as its name suggests, is big, it’s huge, and its contours are as undefined as the boundaries of the real-world.

And yet, as big data continues to excite businesses around the world, one is also reminded of the negative media coverage that big data is also proving very capable in attracting. We are at a stage when the technology is far outpacing consumer (and regulator) acceptance and this places industries dependent on consumer trust and confidence in a very tricky situation. With the market pulling one way, and ethical and professional expectations seemingly pulling another , the legacy of our industry in promoting professional and ethical standards is key.

Persistent negative media coverage is raising consumer fears about data collection and use. Companies that are found to be abusing data, unless they are massive household brand names, are deemed to be creepy and become easy prey to regulators and legislators that will not hesitate to come down with big fines, targeted media attention, and imprisonment for the worst offenders. Indeed, legislators are keen to use big data to secure voter confidence and consequently, their votes.

One need not look far to see practical examples. The battle is already happening today. At ESOMAR, one of the core benefits we offer to the members is our representation service. It works by establishing close relationships with these regulator and providing them with a trusted point of contact when they consider legislation that might impact us – wilfully or otherwise.

The EU debate
The European Union’s long and drawn-out debate on the future data protection framework that will govern all personal data of 500 million citizens has been a central pillar of action for the service. We’ve conducted and participated in dozens of meetings to better understand regulator concerns and provide constructive feedback. We have been working closely working with partner associations trying to ensure that in the EU regulators’ zeal to adopt a new data protection framework, the European powers that be do not completely lock out the industry from being able to use big data to provide better insights to clients.

It’s worthwhile keeping these debates in mind and using associations like ESOMAR, or any of the 60+ national associations that exist out there, as a source of intelligence on these developments – the debate is evolving quickly – but the trend towards stricter legislation, tighter permissions on single-use data, and officials’ remarks that business will “just have to adapt,” are all elements we should keep in the back of our minds as we move forward into this exciting and lucrative space.

ESOMAR is also monitoring global developments and the trend is very clearly moving towards global coordination of national approaches, and an echoing across the world that a tough global framework promoting privac and a responsible and transparent use of data, will be a focus of the world’s largest economies moving forward. The Edward Snowden incident has led to a serious political backlash, spearheaded by German chancellor Merkel, prompting a response from US President Obama really speaks volume.

The NSA legacy
The political sphere is abuzz with stories about how the National Security Agency has attempted to coerce our most trusted brands to give out the personal data we’ve given them in order to spy upon governments and citizens at unprecedented scales using dubious legal grounds to do so. The belief that what we do on the internet cannot be tracked and traced by our own governments has quickly been thrown into question. We’ve discovered big data doesn’t just benefit companies and the business of making money, it can also be used by governments for command and control purposes.

These debates have excited the passion of certain legislators who see this as proof that they need to be tough on data collection, any collection. Whole-scale bans on profiling, 5% annual turnover fines for companies that cooperate, the cancellation of the free trade agreements that we depend on to be able to collect and transfer the data we collect from questionnaires, that are in turn processed in cheaper countries, these are all the things which are being discussed at a very high level and being contemplated seriously. The reality is that it takes a few two many of these incidents for legislators to write in law that renders a quarter of market, social, and opinion research illegal – this is why the monitoring role of associations is so crucial in the long-run.

Big data is indeed quickly proving to be a double edged-sword that deserves our careful attention. Operating in the big data space will not simply mean adapting the way we work in our businesses and the way we use data to develop new products and earn profits.

Big data will also become one of those topics that we, as an industry, will need to carefully address is how we communicate to consumers and regulators alike or risk facing a difficult situation where our customers are asking one thing, and legislators, pushed into a corner by concerned voters, making it illegal to carry on with our big “big data” plans.

If the industry is to continue to benefit from individuals feeling comfortable enough to provide us with honest answers to our questions, then this piece of work will only increase in importance moving forward.

What can you do?
Big data need not become a legalistic nightmare. What is becoming clear is that there are a number of practical things that companies would be well advised to ensure they do whilst the ESOMAR, EFAMRO, and GRBNs of the world ensure that we retain a good public image.

The first is to ensure that our privacy policies and our communications addressed to consumers is as clear as they can be, the easier these policies can be made the more kudos you will achieve for providing clear information.

Where possible, and especially in the design of new products, services, or when securing new technologies, it’s important to include a privacy by design question – make sure that each and every component of your systems has been tested against data breaches.

Be absolutely clear internally about what data your processing, for what purpose, and ensure that organisational checks and balances are in place to ensure that data, which needs to be kept separately, is effectively kept separately. The same will increasingly be the case for data collected for research purposes versus data collected for other purposes, as the trend is for these datasets to be governed by very different law books.

Also, when a data breach does occur, reporting it quickly to the data protection authority will be increasingly important – and in the case of European law – obligatory within 48 hours.

Doing these little things can go a very long way to avoiding the risk of fines under data protection legislation, whilst still being able to reap the benefits of the Web 3.0 revolution.

Kim Smouter is Government Affairs Manager at ESOMAR

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