Advertising, Credit Reporting, and ‘Anti-Objectification’

You need a set of priors that I lack to stay interested in the forthcoming Suffolk University Law Review article, “Selling Consumers, Not Lists: The New World of Digital Decision-Making and the Role of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.” I think the thing animating authors Ed Mierzwinski and Jeff Chester is what I call “anti-objectification,” a desire at the outskirts of the privacy concept. It is bad, anti-objectifiers appear to believe, when a person is treated as a mere object of commerce, observed and communicated with on that basis alone.

Without anti-objectification, I can’t find much of anything wrong in their description of the emerging world of digital data collection and marketing. There is an impressive and complex array of techniques coming online to discover what people want, learn when they want it, and communicate with them in ways that will spur them to act on their desires.

Given the wrongs they perceive in these developments—which, again, I must guess at—Mierzwinski and Chester make a broad pitch to have online marketing drawn under the blanket of Fair Credit Reporting Act regulation. Not only the Federal Trade Commission, but the new, unconstrained Consumer Financial Protection Board, should look at bringing online advertising within the FCRA, they say.

Given the paucity of (apparent) harms to be rectified, one struggles to examine how broadening regulation of the information economy would improve things. But I don’t know why the Fair Credit Reporting Act would be a model anyway. In forty years, the FCRA has not cured the ills that Senator Proxmire (D-WI) recited when he introduced the law—to judge by the words of self-styled consumer advocates, at least. New challenges have emerged, and the FCRA has turned credit bureaus to the government’s use in financial surveillance. The FCRA preempted state common law—you can’t sustain a defamation action against a credit bureau, no matter how wrong its reporting is—replacing it with opaque and unwieldy bureaucratic procedures for those who believe their credit bureau records are inaccurate.

The FCRA already reduces consumer welfare by keeping new entrants out of the credit reporting business. When companies edge toward providing data that might be used for credit decisions, employment screening, housing, and the like, they quickly learn to eschew that market so they can avoid the FCRA’s obligations and regulator inquests. The result? Our economy is making less intelligent decisions about credit, employment, and housing. Efficiences that would lower costs to consumers across the board are not being found.

I drew lessons from the failure of the Fair Credit Reporting Act to fix things in my paper “Reputation under Regulation: The Fair Credit Reporting Act at 40 and Lessons for the Internet Privacy Debate.”