Acxiom CEO: Rockefeller Data Bill Worse Than Worst Part of Obamacare

But He Thinks Industry Needs Something More Than Self-Regulation

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For the record, Scott Howe is in favor of regulation in the consumer data space.

The CEO of Acxiom is not, however, a fan of the current bill being put forth in Congress and, speaking to a crowd at the Rutberg Global Summit in Atlanta today, said the outcome if the bill sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V. passes will be worse than the worst part of the Affordable Care Act.

Scott Howe, Acxiom CEO
Scott Howe, Acxiom CEO

Just as Mr. Howe applauded the intent of the Affordable Care Act to offer better access to healthcare, he supports the Data bill's intent to give people better data protection -- but fears the outcome.

"If you think about the worst part of the ACA, welcome to the data bills," he said.

He said the bill does two things that will be bad for the industry. Firstly, "if approved in its current form, it's approving legislation that hasn't even been written," he said, since the bill gives the FTC power to write the legislation. That would be followed by a period of time during which the industry would agree to adhere to it. "If I'm going to agree to something, then I want to agree to something specific," he said.

But his other big concern is the provision of the bill that would grant consumers access to data held by data brokers serving the marketing industry, allowing them to correct information or opt-out from use of that data for marketing purposes.

"It grants the government the ability to create a centralized consumer data portal whereby all permissions are granted," he told the crowd. The complications of building such a portal "makes the ACA look like child's play."

Mr. Howe, who was interviewed by Medialink CEO Michael Kassan, shared that when Acxiom was working last year on its AboutTheData.com portal, which similarly allows consumers to see what data Acxiom has about them and correct inaccuracies or opt-out, it had an "army of engineers" building it. He said: "This is one of the most difficult technology undertakings."

That said, he is in favor of regulation -- just not this bill.

"People are surprised to hear I've pushed for regulation," said Mr. Howe. "I fear self-regulation is a euphemism for doing nothing."

The Rockefeller proposal, introduced in February, "should make us all nervous," he continued. "The right answer is somewhere in between. It can't be 'do nothing,' but it can't be let's have someone over there decide it all for us."

He suggested regulation should focus on creating specific "guard rails" around data collection, data storage and data usage -- not building a consumer-data portal.

Mr. Howe said that watching the data breach that besieged "a major retailer" over the holidays and the way information subsequently came out in dribs and drabs made it clear that there's a good argument for having "strong breach-notification laws about what needs to be communicated to whom and when."

Eliminating the bad apples
Other regulatory goals he supports: ensuring that marketing data will only be used for marketing purposes and not for things like evaluating job applications or financial-approval decisions, and ensuring data isn't used to take advantage of the elderly or vulnerable.

"To the extent that legislation could eliminate the bad apples in the data space, that's good for all of us," he said.

Mr. Howe also offered updates on consumer usage of AboutTheData.com. In the first six months of its existence, more than 750,000 visitors visited the site and Acxiom recorded an opt-out rate of 1.5%. About 11% of visitors changed some element of their data. The most common change was political party, followed by income and education levels.

He said the most common piece of written feedback was a question -- "Where can I tell you more?" -- and one piece of criticism we got was "this can't be all you know." (In fact, testing from Ad Age staffers found the data surprisingly scant -- and in many cases outdated.)

Incidentally, the most popular category of data that people wanted Acxiom to know was that of their favorite brands -- Nike, Apple, Sony, Google and Coke.

Data as currency
Mr. Howe's talk at the event, a gathering of telecom executives produced by investment bank Rutberg & Co., was preceded by one from Paul Jacobs, executive chairman of Qualcomm Incorporated, who also suggested the internet needed to address the data question.

Mr. Jacobs said his hope for 5G -- the next major phase of mobile telecommunications -- was that it would "reinvent" the internet to correct for some of the problems the internet hasn't solved, such as, he said, the question of "Do I own my data?"

Currently, he said, data "is not ours like the dollar bills in our pocket," which you can choose to give out based on what you get in return. But that is the direction we're headed.

"Consumers have voted with their feet that they're willing to give up certain information for certain services. The question is whether that [exchange] in the future is going to be a more explicit transaction."

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