The much-anticipated White House report on Big Data may have invented an issue even more problematic to marketers than privacy: Is personalized marketing discriminatory?
“Unfortunately, ‘perfect personalization’ also leaves room for subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination in pricing, services and opportunities,” says the report (downloads as a PDF). “For example, one study found Web searches involving black-identifying names (e.g., ‘Jermaine’) were more likely to display ads with the word “arrest” in them than searches with white-identifying names (e.g., ‘Geoffrey’).”
The discrimination questions raised by the report don’t stop at potentially racist corner cases. The section “Big Data and Discrimination” identifies it as a key finding:
An important conclusion of this study is that Big Data technologies can cause societal harms beyond damages to privacy, such as discrimination against individuals and groups. This discrimination can be the inadvertent outcome of the way Big Data technologies are structured and used. It can also be the result of intent to prey on vulnerable classes.
Now, after that quote, the report goes on to talk about two seemingly innocuous occurrences of inadvertent discrimination. But it soon returns to the topic of predatory discrimination and “differential pricing.”
In fact, the report asserts “Consumers have a legitimate expectation of knowing whether the prices they are offered for goods and services are systematically different than the prices offered to others.” It then calls for expanding the power and expertise of several government agencies to be able to identify and “resolve” cases it interprets as “discriminatory.”
A few paragraphs later, the report says national security, homeland security, law enforcement and intelligence communities should “continue to vigorously experiment with and apply lawful Big Data technology.”
So, once again, it appears marketers are the bogeyman being used to distract Americans from government’s expanding surveillance powers.