American Society of Magazine Editors

White House Releases Reports on “Big Data” Practices

In early May, the White House released a pair of reports centered on “big data” issues.  The first report, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values,” focused on how big data can provide key benefits to the government and the public, but also a measure of risk for consumers.  A complementary second report (“Big Data and Privacy: A Technological Perspective”) compiled by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), focused more narrowly on technology issues and solutions.   

The reports, commissioned by President Obama in January, were the byproduct of a working group led by White House counselor John Podesta, who was tasked with leading a 90-day study of “big data practices and their implications for government and the public.”

Focused primarily on true “big data” – large complex data sets compiled from a host of different sources – the report contains an engaging analysis and conversation on the benefits and harms of big data, noting that many of the “risks” of big data are borne by the consumer.  Among the enumerated risks is a concern with a lack of transparency in the data broker industry and other parties with whom consumers do not have a direct relationship.  

An interesting point in the report is speculation on what the proper notice and consent framework for use of consumer data should be in the big data economy. Noting that the current consumer-driven notice and choice system works well in the “small data” world (e.g. between consumers and first parties), in the “big data” economy, perhaps the burden of responsible data use should be shifted from consumer to user of data, with important consideration given to the context of use.   The PCAST report echoes the call for heightened respect for context. Given the close first party relationships between magazine readers and magazine companies, MPA supports this important distinction and inclination to not seek “one size fits all” solutions.  

Both reports conclude with policy recommendations, the most notable of which are a call to enact the Obama Administration’s 2012 “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” and a call for passage of national data breach legislation.  As a follow up, shortly after the release of the report, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) published a request for public comment on the impact of big data on the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.  Though the reports and NTIA review may provide some momentum for action, the likelihood of either effort moving forward Congressionally this year remains slim.