The Data Broker Industry Is Spending Big Bucks on Lobbying Efforts

Alfred Ng and Maddy Varner, the Markup:

All in all, we found 25 companies whose combined spending on federal lobbying totaled $29 million in 2020. Many of the top spenders were not pure data brokers but companies that nonetheless have massive data operations. Oracle, which has spent the past decade acquiring companies that collect data, spent the most by far, with disclosure documents showing $9,570,000 spent on federal lobbying.

For comparison, of the Big Tech firms with heavy lobbying presences, Facebook spent $19,680,000, Amazon $18,725,000, and Google $8,850,000 in the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, found that Big Tech spent $108 million collectively on lobbying in 2020.

Oracle has its own data collection arm but has also built its portfolio by buying up companies like DataRaker, Compendium, and Crosswise. The companies, which were acquired in 2012, 2013, and 2016, respectively, take data from a variety of sources. DataRaker gets data from millions of smart meters and sensors for utilities companies, while Compendium delivers targeted ads. Crosswise allows Oracle to track people across devices, claiming to process data from billions of devices every month.

The data broker industry is not new to frequent readers of this website, but it does not receive nearly as much public attention as Facebook and Google. That is probably because data brokers deliberately avoid a public presence, while Facebook and Google have many public-facing products.

Another feature of the data broker industry is its ubiquity. While it is extraordinarily difficult to opt out of Facebook and Google’s tracking mechanisms, it is effectively impossible to eliminate yourself from the data broker industry — especially in the United States. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada put together a great 2019 report on the data brokers in Canada:

The data brokerage industry occupies in a region of the economy that is opaque to consumers, its objects of commerce. It is difficult for consumers to appreciate the mechanisms by which data brokers collect, use and trade in consumers’ personal information, and so the usual mechanisms by which markets discipline businesses are not in place. The industry is complex, with multiple kinds of actors collecting, processing, and aggregating data to create and use consumer profiles. Reporting by [the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic] and others on the activities of the industry are insufficient to overcome this difficulty.

This report recommended more investigation and oversight, but it has limited effect. At the very least, Canadians’ personal information has some national and “substantially similar” provincial protections through legislation; in the United States, a 2014 report found, this is not the case, so far more private data is collected, traded, combined, and sold.