Personal privacy and confidentiality – how important are these issues in market research?

Google has recently modified, or unified rather, its privacy policy, giving rise to numerous discussions and critiques on the Web. Similarly, Facebook is another technological giant that has subject to sharp debates relating to the impact of changes in its interface on the confidentiality of its users’ data. It is clear that data confidentiality has become a very sensitive issue for internet users.

At the same time, this is an area which is difficult for organizations to master given the many changes which impinge both on the technology and user behavior. The TechCrunch blog has published an interesting article on this subject. It clearly illustrates the issue from Facebook’s perspective.  The Web is no longer simply a read-only medium, but a medium through which everybody can publish, and in which identifiable users have been replaced by anonymous ones. On the other hand, it is important to distinguish between public dissemination of group discussions and strictly private ones. Even when social media allow for such distinction, frequently users make errors and publish confidential information for all to see.

The market research world is certainly not excluded from this debate, particularly as its survey activities are increasingly conducted over the Internet. Organizations such as MRS (The Market Research Society) and CASRO (Council of American Survey Research Organizations) recently addressed this issue, and a series of recommendations concerning research on social media (Social Media Research Guidelines) is in the process of discussion.

To say the least, the opinion of research professionals seems to be very divided on this subject, as shown by the report on a Web round table in the blog. They note the need to regain public confidence and to respect applicable legislation, but also the disparities that exist between the desire to establish rules and the operational realities of Web 2.0 and Social Media. The final summary contains three important points.

Firstly, it is very difficult to make sense of the forest of different laws and multiple privacy policies on different sites, let alone figure out how they might be interpreted by judges and lawyers in the event of legal conflict. Many laws deal with these aspects previous to the Internet and Social Media. Their application in this new context is extremely difficult to evaluate.

Secondly, we observe that even if many users may find it difficult to understand the implications of what they are disseminating on social media, the content which they are publishing is nevertheless their responsibility, and it is up to them to choose the appropriate settings when they use the media.

Thirdly, it should not be forgotten that the Web crosses frontiers and spans multiple laws which a far from being uniform and which are sometimes even conflicting. Can organizations settle for a least common denominator of simple basic rules? There is no easy answer to this question, unfortunately, other than a definition of them.

On the other hand, what is clear from this study, published in April 2012 is that any breakdown in trust bears severe consequences: more than two thirds of the 1,000 British consumers who were surveyed broke off relations with an organization which misused their private information. The issues surrounding personal privacy and the confidentiality of information should never be underestimated.

The Voxco Team

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