Data privacy survey results defy conventional wisdom

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2017-08-16

When we set out to research the data privacy practices of video service providers in Europe, Latin America and the U.S., we expected to find the most intensive use of personal data from subscribers to pay-TV services in the U.S. In my experience, whenever and wherever data privacy is under discussion, it is automatically assumed U.S. cable and telecom operators use more personal data from their customers than their peers in other jurisdictions. The U.S. is frequently presented as the business-friendly model fostering innovation, and as such much better than the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulations (GDPR).

We asked a sample of video service providers what types of customer data they use in data analytics. Our expectation was to find a more aggressive use of data processing in the U.S. and less so in Europe, where GDPR will come into effect in May 2018. GDPR is perceived in many circles as an invasive piece of regulation with a restrictive impact on data analytics. The U.S. data regulation environment, on the other hand, is seen as more open and flexible, conducive to data-analytics practices.

The results of our survey were counter-intuitive. We found European video service providers processing more types of data than U.S. operators. Out of 14 categories of data types or data applications, at least some EU operators responding to the survey processed 13 types, while U.S. operators adopted only six types. Some types of data EU operators utilize but U.S. operators do not include:

  • Customer input into design of reports/analytics
  • Customer hobbies & interests
  • Credit profile information
  • Age
  • Gender

More importantly, while only 20% of the European operators who responded to the survey agreed they utilize customer data as input into business innovation, none in the U.S. did. This contradicts the stereotypes industry players and policy makers have on the impact of U.S. data regulations on data processing and innovation. We finished our research with a puzzle on our hands: U.S. video service providers, perceived as less regulated and more innovative, report less utilization of data processing than their peers in Europe, where operators are considered more regulated.

The number of respondents was limited both in Europe and the U.S., but sufficient to raise a hypothesis to the effect U.S. operators might, in practice, face more regulatory constraints than it appears. The U.S. data-privacy regulatory framework is certainly more fragmented than in the EU—there is no U.S. general data law cutting across all sectors of the economy. The fragmentation of the regulatory framework itself might explain some of the discrepancy. And perhaps once GDPR comes into effect in May 2018 the picture could change in Europe, making EU operators more cautious. In any case, we want to pursue further research to shed more light on this hypothesis.

We’re thankful to Verimatrix, a California-based video technology innovator, for funding the first phase of this research, which we did with our European partner, Castlebridge. You can find the survey report and its executive summary here.

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