On October 30, the FTC hosted a workshop on online lead generation titled “Follow the Lead.” The workshop focused on lead generation in the mortgage and education lending space and consisted of a number of discussion panels composed of industry representatives, consumer advocates, and FTC regulators.

The first panel was primarily an overview of how web-based advertising is executed and how leads are generated using a variety of methods. Also discussed were the data analytics used to validate and assign value to the data collected. It was also noted that large media companies, such as Google and Facebook, have enacted policies restricting advertisements by participants in certain industries.

The second and third panels focused on online lead generation policies and practices in consumer and education lending, respectively. Industry participants and consumer advocates discussed varying policy viewpoints with respect to the practice of buying and selling data of consumers viewing a particular type of website to participants in a different industry. For instance, lead generators gathering data from consumers searching for jobs and then selling that data to providers of educational services. The panelists generally agreed that this practice was not inherently abusive, but could be harmful when implemented with intent to mislead. All generally agreed that guidance from the FTC and other government agencies would be useful to the extent that standards of conduct and transparency could be more clearly proscribed.

The fourth panel focused on consumer protections and the legal landscape of the lead generation industry. Consumer advocates noted that the process is often opaque and that consumers are generally unaware that their data may be sold multiple times and is often dispersed much further than they intended by seeking information about or applying for a specific product or service. It was also noted that consumer data is an asset for the entity that collected it and the pressure to monetize these assets results in the data being sold to anyone willing to pay for it, including those with an intent to commit fraud. Finally, the issue was raised that collected data exists forever, with the only restriction on the longevity of the information generally being that fact that information loses value as it becomes less current.

The panelists generally agreed that more transparency about the policies of the information collecting entity would be beneficial, with one noting that consumers will not read long policy disclosures, and therefore short statements notifying consumers of the potential uses of their data be provided at the point that data is collected. The panelists also generally agreed that the sellers of data should more carefully vet the buyers of that data and, conversely, data buyers should also more carefully vet the sellers. All panelists repeated the general theme that more guidance from agencies such as the FTC with respect to lead generation and data collection policies and best practices would be welcomed.