A Data Broker's Rocky Road to Transparency

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The fast-growing consumer data industry often finds itself on the defensive, dogged by privacy concerns and reports of persistent errors in the troves of information that get sold to banks, credit card companies and other marketers.

Julie Brill, a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, recently proposed giving consumers access to the information that data brokers have gathered about them, letting consumers have a say in whether their data can be sold, and allowing them to correct significant errors in their files. “I sincerely hope the entire industry will come to the table to help consumers reclaim their names,” Brill said earlier this year.

In early September, data broker Acxiom (Nasdaq: AXCM) took a big step to get out in front of any potential regulation. The Little Rock, Ark.-based company launched AboutTheData.com, a website that's designed to allow individual consumers to see, and correct, the raw data the firm has gathered about them.

The site, which has been in the planning stages for nearly two years, also allows consumers to opt out, so that Acxiom will no longer sell their data, though it issues a disclaimer that seems designed to discourage that option. In short, the website is a voluntary effort that may presage mandatory changes in how the data broker industry operates.

The site's beta launch has been rocky – this reporter is one of many visitors to the site who's been unable to log in.

In a recent interview with American Banker, Acxiom Chief Executive Officer Scott Howe, a former Microsoft executive, was candid about the site's early struggles and said that the company is working diligently to work out the kinks. But he was enthusiastic about the idea that his industry can be remade to honor the preferences of American consumers, a change that he cast as both an ethical imperative and a smart business move.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Tell me about the genesis of AboutTheData.com.

SCOTT HOWE: I thought it was the right thing to do because I want consumers to have a voice. And I also thought it was the right thing to do from a business perspective. If we're the industry that has prided itself on connecting businesses to people, then not having a relationship with those people, you can't possibly be an effective matchmaker.

We faced some technical challenges, which have delayed us from getting it into the market. The biggest of which, quite frankly, is that the way that advertisers and marketers use big data models is very different than the way a person would use it. Even after only a week, we've learned so much that if we could go back and re-launch, already I would do some things a little bit differently.

What would you have done differently?

Well before we launched, I went and visited a whole bunch of people who have gone down a similar track. And it includes the credit bureaus. And the feedback I heard from all of them was: You don't know what you don't know. And so above all, you're going to have to listen more than you talk, and you're going to have to react quickly. You're going to have to hire some folks who understand consumers as opposed to businesses. And they were spot-on.

A little bit north of 10% of visitors have had problems actually authenticating themselves. Part of that is that people were putting in ID that we didn't recognize that we probably should have recognized.

I will tell you that most of the visitors to the site have been pretty positive. There's a small portion that have been negative, and I think they've been valuable too. One of the most common questions we've gotten is: Is this all the information that you have?' And we've said on the site, ‘Yeah, what we're showing is the information that we collect from suppliers. And it's everything.' But we make no bones about the fact that we haven't shown people what we actually do when we cleanse the information and build models on top of things.

Folks are probably surprised, like, ‘Why is this information so wrong?' Well, it's because the raw source information that suppliers are giving us is wrong, and it hasn't yet gone through kind of the bottling process to weed out things that are, based on big-data models, obviously wrong. And we've got to think about whether we want to show some of that information.

Building trust takes time. And in an industry that's been cloaked in secrecy for 30, 40 years, you'd be naïve to think that there wouldn't be some real skeptics after a few days.

One of your hopes is that people will correct incorrect information, or add more information to their profile, right?

One of the most common pieces of feedback that we've gotten is from people who have asked whether they could append additional information. ‘Why can't I input my favorite advertisers or my favorite merchants, so I get more of their stuff?' It's a good question. And we have to think about it.

Right now people are coming to the website because it's a little bit of a novelty. I think longer term, the only reason people will come is because they perceive they are getting something of value in return. And for different people that might be different. It might be better advertisers. It might be exclusive access to offers. It might be unique content. Heck, it might be some day that they get paid. Right now we buy all our information. Given the quality of some of it, I'd rather pay consumers directly than buy it from some of these data suppliers who are giving us wrong information.

About a third of visitors have corrected some element of their data. And that has given us insight into which data suppliers, for whatever reason, have incorrect information.

How does the regulatory outlook affect your thinking with this site?

Since I became CEO of Acxiom, I've done a number of interviews, but the part that always ends up on the cutting room floor is the part where I say, ‘Well, you might be surprised to know that Acxiom's in favor of tighter industry regulations.' The one benefit from a regulatory perspective about this coming out is: I'd like to think that it earns us a seat at the table to be part of those discussions.

What kinds of regulations would improve the industry's reputation, and also improve consumer experiences?

I believe in visibility and choice. And I think it is good for the industry for folks to understand what kinds of information has been collected, and then have a choice around how that is used. And if you think about the history of our industry, I'm not sure that either of those conditions have been met.

What has been the reaction of your clients to this website? I cover the banking industry, so I'm interested in how banks and credit card companies have responded.

I would probably say 90% of the emails I've gotten on it were emails of congratulations, and people saying, ‘Hey, I'm sure this is going to be a rocky journey for you, but congratulations on taking the first step.' Especially in financial services, I think people do remember when the credit bureaus did the same thing, and I think they would say that worked out pretty well.

But what's interesting is that many of those same clients are also giving me feedback as to their personal experience with the website and their data. ‘Why can't I get authenticated?' Or, ‘This piece of data on me was really wrong. Why is that?'

What's your view on consumers' attitudes about the use of their personal data for marketing purposes? Given how our world has changed, are people more accepting of the fact that this data will be collected and sold?

I think it's dangerous to ever make sweeping generalizations about people. And so I'll tell you, and this goes back to stuff I used to do at Microsoft, we did some analysis. And what we found is that, call it five to 10% of the people were going to be uncomfortable with any kind of information ever being shared about them. In contrast, 10 to 15% of the American population absolutely doesn't care. They tend to skew from a younger generation, and just have a really different view. I think the vast majority of Americans fall somewhere in between those two extremes.

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