By Beth Givens, Project Director
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
It never fails.
When a story on "junk mail" is featured by a newspaper or TV reporter, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse hotline number is given as a source for more information, our phone rings off the hook for days. We log hundreds of calls from consumers who, often in angry tones of voice, want their names taken off "all those lists." Some mistakenly assume that we can provide that service for them. They're sorely disappointed when we explain that the best we can do is mail them our six-page publication containing mail-reduction tips.
In our nearly five years of experience in operating the hotline for California consumers, no other topic has garnered the response that unwanted mail does -- not even media reports on medical records or workplace privacy, where the consequences of privacy abuse are likely to be far more serious. In 1994, unwanted mail was the number one topic of complaint on the hotline, accounting for nearly one-third of calls.
What's going on here?
Our analysis of the "junk mail phenomenom" focuses on control. Every day, consumers are reminded that they have virtually no control over what enters their mail box. In other words, they have no say over how their personal information is used by marketers. When we suggest to hotline callers that they send their name to the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service (MPS), many say, "Oh, I've already done that. It doesn't work."
In recent years, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has made a concerted effort to encourage marketers to adopt a code of fair information practices. It has issued the Fair Information Practices Manual: A Direct Marketer's Guide to Effective Self-Regulatory Action in the Use of Information (1994), which we have had the opportunity to review. The principles spelled out by the DMA include the basic tenets of all fair information codes: right to be informed of data collection and transfer, right of access and correction, limitation of data collection, right to opt out of data transfers and secondary usage, and security of personal data.
Unfortunately, we have seen no indication that marketers have indeed been adopting and practicing fair information principles. Nor are we convinced that the Mail Preference and Telephone Preference Services, the centerpieces of the DMA's campaign, are used to any significant extent by private and not-for-profit sector marketers. When they are used, their effectiveness is limited. Names are retained for only five years. And when consumers subsequently order merchandise from a catalog, their names are likely to re-enter the marketing datastream, unless they indicate with each and every purchase that they do not want their names released.
I am waiting for the day when the fair information practices are more than lip service -- when:
- All magazine subscription forms, even those that fall out of the magazines that I'm reading, contain prominent disclosure and opt-out statements regarding their list rental practices.
- Customer service agents for mail order companies read me the company's opt-out statement when I order via their toll-free phone numbers (currently, the opt-out statement is "visible" only to those who fill out and send in the order forms, not to those who order by telephone).
- I can order, free of charge, a copy of my consumer profile from the database compilers such as Metromail and Database America (these are not now available). And I can correct the data, or even have my record removed from circulation.
I'm also waiting for the day when:
- We no longer hear our hotline callers complain that they have repeatedly asked to be removed from a company's -- or a nonprofit's -- mailing list, only to be ignored.
- Disclosure and opt-out statements are at the top of consumer surveys, not at the bottom in 6-point type. (Such surveys include Carol Wright consumer profiles and National Demographics & Lifestyles product registration forms.)
- Consent is asked for all secondary use of data, and I no longer have to be concerned that data about my penchant for Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Crunch ice cream, along with my latest cholesterol count taken at the shopping mall's health fair, won't someday end up in the hands of my health insurer.
What can the direct marketing industry do to demonstrate if indeed a self-regulatory approach can work?
Before panning the self-regulatory approach as being totally ineffective, I would like to propose a pilot project: that a dozen of the major players from all aspects of the direct marketing industry adopt the fair information practices in a meaningful and highly publicized way -- complete with prominently displayed disclosure and consent statements, a more inclusive MPS and TPS which offer one-stop shopping name deletion, and consumer access to data profiles. Only until then, will we know if the self-regulatory approach can work in this country.
Failure of U.S. marketers to give consumers real choices about how their personal data are used will only exacerbate consumer discontent. With direct marketers by the thousands now making their products and services available via the Internet, it is particularly critical that the industry address the use of the treasure trove of data that is sure to be collected.
Of course the alternative to self regulation is legislation. It is instructive to look to the experiences of Quebec and New Zealand, two political entities which have recently enacted fair information practices legislation affecting the private sector. To my knowledge, the direct marketing industries in both places are still alive and well. And consumers are treated to a good deal of control over the use of their personal data.
In the meantime, back at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, our phone keeps ringing -- and those angry anti-junk mail callers keep on registering their complaints with us.