Truth and Consequences


A few weeks ago, CNET published an article about Google. To create some interest, the article kicked off with some information obtained via Google about Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO. The specific information published about Schmidt was by today's standards pretty banal: town of residence, money made selling Google stock, political contributions and a tidbit or two about his outside interests. None of it was all that revealing.

Google's reaction to the story has to merit an award for tone-deaf public relations: it banned everyone at Google from talking to anyone at CNET for one year. Yes, CNET is being punished for using Google to write an article about Google. Irony and hypocrisy abound. But beyond the quick yucks, there is a much bigger issue: to varying degrees, we've all been throwing data together so quickly and on such a grand scale that we haven't really stopped to consider the consequences of our work. Putting all the information in the world under one index is indeed an activity rife with implications, and even less ambitious attempts to gather and disseminate data have issues associated with them. And these issues actually grow as you become more successful at what you do.

Many of us now have data products based in whole or in part on data mining, assembling data gathered on an automated basis from all over the Web. Getting data assembled properly is no small feat, and there can be consequences if it is not correct. This isn't just an issue for consumer information, as the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in its famous Greenmoss decision. Nor is it just an issue for financial information. It's only a matter of time before some company is passed over for a contract, or some individual is passed over for a job based on an incorrectly aggregated data profile, and then watch the legal fireworks. Blazing new ground can be risky.

Similarly, we all need to remain focused and clear on why we collect and report certain information. We've all seen the spate of recent headlines about identity theft. The real question for many of these data providers, one not publicly addressed, is "what were you doing with all that information in the first place?" Which of your customers had legitimate uses for it and why? To hear some of these data providers talk, you'd come away convinced that private investigators were the largest and most lucrative market out there. Hardly. Talk to these data providers privately, and they will quickly admit that the main reason they aggregated all this personal information was because they could, and because when it comes to information, more is always perceived to be better. In many cases, those data aggregators most loudly proclaiming that "more is better" are the ones that know the least about their customers and how their data is being used.

I've been very bullish about rating systems and user recommendations as a way to add value to databases, and still am. Yet I will acknowledge there is a dark underbelly here as well. We spend a lot of time worrying about attempts to game these systems to achieve undeservedly high scores. But there are also cases of consumers using rating and referral services to punish businesses they take a dislike to, sometimes for the pettiest reasons. Some businesses are saying that negative comments hurt them financially, and that the data publishers behind these systems are disinclined to get involved in the messy business of arbitrating disputes, so they are left with no avenue of appeal.

Our vision of infocommerce is that data, properly formed and properly delivered, becomes more valuable to customers, who rely on it more. That's a great business model, but with increased reliance ON our data, there comes increased responsibility FOR our data, and what we are seeing now is just a sampling of some of the heightened level of scrutiny to come. We must be ready with a thoughtful policy that protects interests that extend far beyond our own businesses.

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