Regulators at the federal and state levels are once again applying pressure on companies that collect and use consumer data. Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., broadened his investigation of lesser-known data firms to popular media companies including Conde Nast. Meanwhile, California has tightened its grip on web sites and mobile apps aimed at children under 18, requiring them to allow kids to delete content they've posted, and prohibiting such sites from running ads for products including e-cigarettes, alcohol and lottery tickets.
"When consumers provide personal information in interactions with websites, they may not be aware that data they are sharing may be shared with data brokers," stated Mr. Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, in a press release. "Consumers may also not be aware of how that information may be used once it has been shared with data brokers."
The five-term Senator has been vocal on privacy issues for years and is sponsor of the Do-Not-Track Online Act, originally introduced in 2011. He said in January that he will not run for a sixth term in 2014, suggesting he will push to get his signature privacy legislation on the books before he leaves office.
In missives sent to several media firms, Mr. Rockefeller alluded to his previous inquiry of data firms including Acxiom, Datalogix, Epsilon, Experian and Transunion, as less-than-fruitful. However, he noted, "One preliminary finding of this review is that hundreds of thousands of websites that gather information directly from consumers may be a source of consumer information for data brokers."
Twelve sites were sent letters dated September 24 including IAC's About.com, Johnson & Johnson's Babycenter.com, Cafemom.com, Time's Health.com, and Conde Nast's Self.com. A Time spokesperson confirmed the company received the letter; other publishers did not respond to Ad Age regarding the letter.
The inquiry requests information about the publishers' website data collection and sharing, particularly regarding personally identifiable information and health, "family" and financial data. It also seeks names of third parties that have received such consumer data from the media firms, which were asked to respond by October 11.
Online surveys, sweepstakes and site registrations are commonplace among digital publishers, which have sold such information to data firms for use for email marketing and other marketing purposes since the early days of the consumer web. Indeed, the publishing industry has sold information about its readers gleaned through print subscriptions and contests for decades.
Media companies are the tip of the online data collection iceberg. While many web publishers supplement revenue by selling such information, they also make non-personally identifiable information on audiences visiting their sites available through online ad data companies such as BlueKai and Exelate. In addition, behavioral data tied to email addresses or other personal registration data is collected and sold by social-sharing widget companies and online review or commenting platforms.
In California, a privacy law intended to give minors more control over the information they've shared online was signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Monday. The bill goes into effect in 2015 and requires sites and online or mobile app firms to allow children under age 18 to have information they've posted removed. It also restricts such sites and apps from knowingly targeting minors with ads for products including alcoholic beverages, firearms, tobacco products, e-cigarettes, lottery tickets, tanning bed services and even aerosol paint "capable of defacing property."