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FEATURE15 June 2009

Do politicians ‘get’ research?

Europe Features Government News

A data protection bill that threatened to place a ban on market research in Germany has stalled. That’s a relief for researchers – but the whole saga raises worrying questions about the dialogue between the industry and government.

Observing the debate over proposed changes to Germany’s data protection law has been a strange experience.

The bill, introduced to parliament in December, aims to control the use of personal details by requiring opt-in rather than opt-out systems for marketing communications – prohibiting companies from contacting individuals without obtaining their explicit consent first.

Great news for research, you might think, especially in a country where the industry has gone to great lengths to protect its reputation, and where researchers enjoy one of the highest levels of public trust in Europe. Last year the country’s research associations announced a joint publicity drive to improve the image of MR and differentiate it from direct marketing.

All good reasons to welcome a law like this, surely? Wrong. The bill lumps research together with marketing and advertising, and would make it subject to the same restrictions.

Research industry representatives who examined the bill concluded that it would not only make it illegal to contact people using details from databases, it could even prohibit the use of randomly generated numbers for telephone research or random route sampling for door-to-door research.

To call it a ban on market research would be an exaggeration – but not a huge one.

So the associations swiftly made their views known, calling for research to be specifically exempted from the new rules, and warning of “possible fatal consequences”. Regional representatives in the federal council – which casts an eye over bills before they are discussed by parliament – agreed, calling on the government to consider clarifications to protect market and opinion research.

But on the whole there has been an atmosphere of eerie calm considering that the stakes for the industry couldn’t be much higher, and that some are still arguing that the bill (already watered down from previous drafts) doesn’t go far enough to protect personal privacy.

Richard Hilmer of Infratest Dimap seemed relaxed about the situation in a discussion at a recent media conference, saying politicians had been open to the industry’s concerns. In a recent interview with Research, BVM chairman Wolfgang Dittrich was similarly calm and upbeat, calling the lumping together of research with marketing and advertising an “oversight”.

This optimism can perhaps be explained by the fact that the case for exempting research is so clear-cut that nobody seriously believes the government would ever enact the bill into law in its present form. If they did they would quickly regret it, as they would find themselves unable to conduct any polls.

But even if the government does end up saying ‘oops, sorry’, that doesn’t make it any less worrying that they hadn’t taken into account the crucial differences between marketing and research in the first place.

For now the bill (which affects various aspects of Germany’s data protection law) has stalled, apparently because of disagreements within the ruling coalition, and looks likely to be left on hold until after September’s general election. Assuming that Dittrich is right, we can expect to see it amended before it moves any closer to becoming law, and the research industry saved from disaster.

“The lawmakers just didn’t really understand how market research works,” Dittrich told Research. “Now they do.”

It’s hard to know whether to be reassured that they understand now – or alarmed that things had to get this far before somebody explained it to them.

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