Big Data comes with Big Responsibility

As I tried to enter the Upper East Side mansion where the Financial Times' 125th anniversary party was taking place a couple of weeks ago the room was so busy I literally couldn't get through the door.

As I tried to enter the Upper East Side mansion where the Financial Times' 125th anniversary party was taking place a couple of weeks ago the room was so busy I literally couldn't get through the door.

The reason soon became clear. Late as usual, I had arrived just as New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was leaving the building. The mayor was dwarfed by his security men as he was whisked away to his next engagement having just addressed the audience along with FT CEO John Ridding.

Eventually inside, I learned Ridding and Bloomberg had shared some banter about the longstanding rumor that the latter had more than a passing interest in the FT. Ridding joked he had heard Bloomberg wanted to acquire the FT and told him he could buy a copy for $2.50 on a newspaper stand on 6th Avenue.

I asked one fellow guest, Mark Thompson, relatively newly installed president and CEO of The New York Times Company, whether Bloomberg buying the FT would not be a conflict of interest, given his ownership of the Bloomberg Professional data service that is a staple tool for finance professionals. He brushed off the suggestion, noting that such conflict is commonplace in many media organizations.

Indeed, FT Publishing, another piece of the Pearson empire of which the FT is a part, also includes a range of professional financial online services and fund management resources such as Mergermarket. The Wall Street Journal is part of Dow Jones & Company, another financial information supplier. And within Thomson Reuters a financial information business and news wire service coexist.

Thompson quickly moved on to talk to someone far more interesting than me and I thought nothing more of it. Nothing that is, until I saw the stories about Bloomberg News journalists accessing Bloomberg data terminals to spy on clients' logon activity and the resulting potential for legal and regulatory fallout.

The revelation came to light when Goldman Sachs was contacted about layoffs and Bloomberg reporters referred to the fact that certain analysts' terminals had “gone dark.” There are mixed reports over whether this was a commonplace activity that had happened for years and inadvertently been discovered, or whether it was an isolated incident.

Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler may say the practice is “inexcusable,” but the consensus seems to be it is one of those tools reporters use and everyone has turned a blind eye to up to now. Noone knows whether similar things have happened at Dow or Reuters, or even Pearson. Either way, the Bloomberg News reporters had crossed the Chinese walls Bloomberg Data clients assumed existed between the two arms of the Bloomberg empire.

It has certainly damaged the reputation of the Bloomberg data service, especially as it is positioned as a premium product that attracts a higher price point than its competitors. No doubt there will be a lot of firefighting as the company attempts to assuage the concerns of its clients, especially those high-profile players in the financial sector.

The Bloomberg furor came in the same week that the Justice Department subpoenaed details of two months' worth of calls from more than 20 phones of journalists at the Associated Press. And in a week when the IRS was outed for screening data and targeting conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status.

In this era of Big Data and an absolute snowstorm of information from an almost infinite number of sources, the lesson for those in marketing and communications is that with Big Data comes Big Responsibility if reputation, ethics, and legality are to be maintained.

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