Data collectors reject assertions they are ‘data brokers,’ as Congress looks to impose rules

Some of the country’s largest collectors of personal data are rejecting assertions from critics that they are data brokers, as members of Congress, including Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, seek to regulate the lucrative brokering industry.

Earlier this year, Markey and other lawmakers, under the auspices of a bipartisan congressional caucus on privacy, queried nine data-collecting companies, including the country’s largest credit reporting firms. The move was part of a fact-finding process that could lead to new consumer protection rules.

“The data brokers’ responses offer only a glimpse of the practices of an industry that has operated in the shadows for years,” said the lawmakers in a joint statement from the caucus, co-chaired by Markey and Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas.

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“Many questions about how these data brokers operate have been left unanswered, particularly how they analyze personal information to categorize and rate consumers. This and other practices could affect the lives of nearly all Americans, including children and teens,” the statement continued.

All but one of the companies rejected notions that they were data brokers, characterizing themselves as “data providers” or companies that merely “analyze” information.

One of the companies, Acxiom, did not specifically reject calling itself a data broker—and suggested that the lawmakers need to find the proper balance between privacy and commerce.

“We urge the caucus to gain a broader understanding of information use, including its very important benefits, not just the privacy implications,” said the company’s response.

Acxiom said it provides consumers the opportunity to check their files and seek corrections, if necessary. Of the 190 million people it has information on, only about 150 consumers have sought access to those records in the past two years, the company said.

The rise of the Internet, including social media sites such as Facebook, has allowed data brokers to collect a wealth of information, creating dossiers on individual Americans based on where they shop, what they buy, and websites they visit.

“We want to work with the data broker industry so that it is more open about how it collects, uses, and sells Americans’ information,” the lawmakers said. “Until then, we will continue our efforts to learn more about this industry and will push for whatever steps are necessary to make sure Americans know how this industry operates and are granted control over their own information.”