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The Privacy Advisor | ESOMAR summit talks GDPR's impact on evidence-based decision making Related reading: Why the GDPR is good for business


On Jan. 24, ESOMAR, a market-research association, hosted its first European Insights Summit to celebrate the value of research and launch a transparency initiative called Research Choices, an online platform informing the public about online audience measurement research and offering a central repository of research companies’ privacy policies. It offers a point-of-contact to answer public queries about these collection practices and signposts for individual companies’ control options for individuals. The platform is supported by leading global market research companies comScore, GfK, Ipsos, Kantar and Nielsen.

The summit highlighted the importance of evidence-based decision making and how the new European data protection framework will impact those providing the evidence. The event attracted policy makers from the European Commission, European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the United Nations, national data protection authorities, industry and advocacy groups, social scientists, research practitioners and technologists.

It also featured a high-level panel discussing new requirements for market, social and opinion research as part of the distinct research legal framework established by the General Data Protection Regulation. The importance of all research for society was acknowledged, but there were also clear warnings that research providers and users should be proactive in defining the line between scientific research and other types of research used directly in marketing, in particular activities where individuals may be targeted.

Here are some brief highlights: 

  • Paul Nemitz, director, Fundamental Rights and Union Citizenship at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Justice and Consumers, stressed that companies providing services into Europe also need to adapt their business models, and confirmed that talks to clarify trans-border data flows with countries like Japan and Korea have already started to ensure they can fulfill the adequacy agreement.
  • Joe McNamee of European Digital Rights added that transparency is needed for trust. “We are in the midst of a revolution as with big data, combining individual bits of data can lead to new information that neither the individual nor the data collection might anticipate,”  he said. Critical towards third parties that collect and sell web-traffic data designing privacy statements to obfuscate what is being done with the data, he urged researchers to bring consumers into the equation to build trust.
  • But while researchers want and need to maintain this trust, this is not always easy, which was also echoed by Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Data Protection Supervisor, saying, “Whilst the aim is to encourage cutting-edge research and to harness the power of big data, researchers must remember that consumers feel a growing lack of control about the personal data that is being processed which will only increase as connected objects and machine learning are adapted more widely.”
  • Professor Raimund Wildner of GfK Verein, a think tank studying the future of market research, said the new ICC/ESOMAR International Code reflects the future direction of the sector. He added that the speed of change is increasing and the business model is changing with it. Researchers used to define a universe and what a representative sample would be, then, using a questionnaire, they could make a statement about that universe. Falling response rates, however, have made this more difficult.
  • The GDPR has scope for sectors to draft codes of conduct to interpret how laws should apply. Nemitz encouraged the research sector to develop such a code to benefit from the special conditions for research and offered his help and support in developing a code. He also encouraged researchers to innovate by building privacy by design into their data processing set up, saying that any players involved in targeting should build compliance into their software and automated processes to avoid errors and huge fines.
  • Wildner explained that a recent GfK study of 32 professions in 28 countries found that trust in market research has stayed fairly constant because researchers understood the need to maintain confidence. They seek consent when possible, and otherwise the data must be unidentifiable to fall under the research umbrella. If identifiable data is to be shared, consent is needed before data collection begins.
  • Judith Passingham, CEO of Global Operations at Ipsos, agreed that companies need to build effective relationships with respondents and that this is increasingly challenging especially when doing multi-country work. Running more than 50 million interviews a year and using a range of platforms calls for huge development resources. Many respondents prefer to be accessed by mobile, and this impacts questionnaire-length and cuts down on the time to explain what is being done and what market research is. These issues are made more complex with the rise of new competitors, where research is just one of the things they do, and smaller companies that might not apply the same standards of rigor or belong to an association like ESOMAR.
  • The Summit thus clearly signaled the need for having an enabling environment for research, while also noting the importance of ethical and safe processing of personal data. This message was in particular highlighted by MEP Victor Negrescu, winner of the MEP Awards on Digital Agenda in 2015. He made the plea that legislators, industry and digital right groups should come together to understand how data can be used in an ethical and secure way to create a thriving economy.

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