Why opt-out policies should be outlawed

In today's SF Chronicle, David Lazarus takes Wells Fargo to task for assuming that it's okay to share customer personal information with other companies unless the customer tells them not to (by "opting out"). Wells Fargo is by no means the only company that does this, but the article does provide an opportunity to comment on the problem.

Companies such as banks, credit card companies, credit bureaus, phone companies, etc., justify the selling of customer information and opt-out policies by relying on a number of bad assumptions:

1. Customer information is the property of the company.

This is what allows companies to buy, sell, trade, barter, or give away ("share") your information. They think it belongs to them. They are wrong. My name, address, phone number, social security number, annual income, credit report, etc. is my information. The company does not own it - they are only custodians of it, so the company and the customer can do proper business with each other. Beyond that, the company should have no right whatsoever to do anything else with a customer's information.

I might be willing to consider allowing customer information to be shared if two conditions are met: a) In addition to the customer data, the same information must be provided for every owner, stockholder, executive, and employee in the company. b) The information must be provided in such a way that for any particular data record, it is not apparent whether the record belongs to someone associated with the company or to a customer. Yeah, like that would ever happen.

Another alternative: When a customer's information is shared, that same information for the owners, stockholders, executives, and employees of the company would have to be provided to the customers.

2. Sharing customer information is in the best interest of the company's customers.

A company's duty is first to its owners/shareholders, the business itself second, then the employees. The customers come after all of those. Any company that presumes to act in the interest of its customers (especially without asking them) is being extremely arrogant and somewhat dishonest. The only person who knows what's in my best interest is me. When a company says they are doing something in my best interest, my instinct is to hold my wallet tight and read the fine print to see what the catch is. (There is always a catch.)

3. Companies complain that if they asked customers to opt in, the customers might never see the opt-in notice, and then the customers would miss out on new discounts and values that the companies offer.

Oh, boo hoo! Those poor customers!

Seriously, customers tend to overlook both opt-out and opt-in notices for a number of reasons: a) Companies mail so much crap as it is that the notices get lost in the pile. b) The notices are printed in legal-ese, so sometimes it's hard to determine exactly what it is, what it means, or what the company wants. c) Many companies require that the notices be signed and mailed back to the company (at the customer's expense) instead of providing a toll-free phone number or a web site that the customer can use to inform the company of their wishes.

As far as missing out on the new products, discounts, and values, this would actually be a good thing. Over 90% of what is marketed is over-priced or crap. These offers are just some new way to get customers to part with even more of their money. The "value" of these offers exists solely in the imagination of the company's executives and marketing department.

Companies want to be able to share customer information for a couple of reasons:

1. Companies can make more money by sharing its customer information.

Companies do need to make money, but this isn't one of the ways that should be an option. The information that is being shared belongs to the customers, and the customers are not compensated at all for each and every time their information is shared. It is often questionable whether the company even has explicit permission to share a customer's information (as is the case with an opt-out policy).

2. A marketer's job is made much easier by gaining access to shared customer information.

It is much easier to get a shared list of names, addresses, phone numbers, etc., than to have to work to get that information yourself. Considering the poor ethics of marketers and the sheer volume of crap they try to sell, I am not very sympathetic to them and if they were to complain that their job would be harder or even impossible without being able to get shared customer information, my reply would be, "So?".

Companies have done a good job of convincing people that customer information sharing is essential to their business. I don't buy it and never have. Companies are trading in information that does not belong to them just to turn a buck. They make it hard for customers to have their information excluded from being shared, and once it is, it is virtually impossible to track down all the places where the information has gone and have it deleted.

Sharing of customer information should be illegal, plain and simple. Whatever difficulties this would pose to companies, they would have to just deal with them. I do not see any "right" for them to make money or to make their job easier by trafficking in my personal information.