NEWS14 June 2010

Draft privacy bill poses major challenges to research industry

Government North America

US— A draft data privacy bill risks making it harder for researchers to reach respondents, thus impacting the accuracy of survey results, according to an analysis by the Marketing Research Association.


Government affairs director Howard Fienberg warns that the bill – pitched in its executive summary as an answer to concerns about online privacy and online advertising – is actually “a broad data privacy bill… and impacts far more than advertising and commercial enterprises”.

Fienberg says the definitions of “sensitive information” – that is, information about race and ethnicity, religious beliefs and sexual orientation – are all relatively common demographic questions in survey and opinion research that would require opt-in consent before they could be collected under the restrictions laid out in the draft bill.

Data collection by phone would also face “a nearly impossible challenge” if the bill were passed in its current form, says Fienberg, pointing to a requirement that privacy notices be made available to an individual “in writing” before data collection begins.

“[That] would mean mailing potential research participants a copy of the privacy notice in advance of contact,” says Fienberg. “Even that action would require some data collection, because the researcher would need to know the individual’s name and mailing address in order to send the notice.

“Time-sensitive studies would be imperilled,” he said.

Requirements for express consent to be obtained before personal information is disclosed to unaffiliated parties would also be “impractical given most research business models,” said Fienberg.

“The average research study required multiple organisations that divide the labour,” he explained. “The only way to plausibly conduct research while complying with this part of the draft bill would be to conduct all aspects of a research study within one big all-inclusive research company.”

Fienberg made his comments in a submission to the bill’s authors, representatives Rick Boucher and Cliff Stearns (pictured). A copy of the bill can be downloaded here.