Is GDPR Coming To A Country Near You?

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Late last year, Apple’s Tim Cook said that the US should have legal privacy protections like the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Rules), and a company called Acxiom has just seconded the notion.

This is big news, sort of.

You’ve probably never heard of Acxiom, but it’s one of the oldest and largest purveyors of data brokering; it collects data from multiple sources, and helps its clients develop deeper, more integrated understanding of individuals’ unique proclivities. Those clients use the understanding to sell stuff to us more effectively.

Cook thinks we should know more about what’s going on — he calls it a “shadow economy” — and even have the right to opt-out of some of it.

Axciom is no paragon of virtue, of course. Its strategists see what’s happening in Europe and probably want to get ahead of the curve. Much of what’s gone on there is less about changing how businesses gather data, or truly informing or empowering consumers; instead, now companies and their customers have to work a bit harder (publishing privacy policies, notifying consumers, and enduring those irritating pop-up questions that interrupt almost every visit to a major commercial website).

So no American version of GDPR would necessarily change much, except maybe impeding some of Acxiom’s lesser equipped competitors, which wouldn’t make the system more fair for users, but certainly more profitable for Acxiom.

Apple is no white knight, either.

Granted, its business model depends on selling hardware and services, not monetizing user data like Google or Facebook. But it enables those activities, and is happy to take a cut in the action vis a vis its App Store. 

Advocating for more privacy rules is kinda like a maker of ashtrays saying smoking should be regulated…it sounds good, but the declaration (and any subsequent actions) won’t do much to change the Status Quo.

The sorry fact is that disclosure and transparency aren’t the problems, so regulatory frameworks like GDPR aren’t the solution.

It’s like expecting that required publication of ingredients and nutritional information will help reduce obesity, when its causes range far beyond any suspected failures of personal judgment to include genetics, economic condition, and the not-so-small issue of addiction…which is relevant both to disorders of the gut and mind.

Don’t data exploitation and smartphone/social media addiction add up to a public health crisis?

For consumers to truly embrace and then control the uses (or abuses) of their data, maybe what’s needed isn’t an American GDPR, but rather a concerted and creative communications campaign intended to educate and inspire us.

Think smoking, starting in the 1970s… 

…ads (or Instagram posts, just to be current) that take the glamour out of social media stardom. Programs in schools on the dangers of privacy loss. Reporting that challenges the happy canard that exploitative tech is inherently neutral or inevitable, and chooses not to glamorize the entrepreneurs who foist it upon us.

I don’t know what the campaign would look like, and I’m not wholly convinced that it would work. But right now, consumers are prey for data collectors that do their hunting while hidden behind camouflage of free convenience and entertainment. 

Simply requiring that the hunters publish their locations and intentions for any of us who chooses to care isn’t going to stop most of us from flying in front of their guns.

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