ProQuo Gives Consumers New Power Over Marketers

If you’re like me, you probably don’t think that much about junk mail anymore except when you get fed up periodically with having to recycle all the paper. But hiding in all that paper is a shadowy industry of direct marketers and data brokers who are buying and selling all kinds of data about you so they can send you… junk mail. A La Jolla startup tonight is launching a service aimed at stemming that flow of data and paper, but ProQuo has much more in mind when it comes to managing our personal information both offline and online.

ProQuo's free Web site lets people choose which paper junk mail to stop from many sources, most of which you may never have heard of or didn't realize were targeting you based on your personal information: Choicepoint, Acxiom, MoneyMailer, ValPack, ShopWise, Publishers Clearinghouse, and many more. (You might remember that Choicepoint, among others, was involved in data breaches a couple of years ago.) On the site, you can register and then opt out of several databases of these companies (though not all of them, because some don't let you opt out), usually just with a click. (In some cases, you have to print out a form or visit the company's site to opt out.)

ProQuo CEO Steven Gal, a veteran in identity management and information privacy at companies such as ID Analytics, says his company's service offers several benefits to consumers: the ability to control their personal information, to reduce their junk mail by 50% to 90% within three months, and to protect themselves from potential identity theft.

Starting late this year, ProQuo plans to make money by letting you choose specific coupons or offers you actually want to see, for which it would get paid by marketers for sending you their way. That would seem to set up the same incentive to blanket you with pitches that you would be trying to escape in using ProQuo. But Gal says he specifically set up ProQuo to be an agent of consumers, with at least some of the legal requirements such a relationship entails--for instance, he won't sell the personal data to anyone without explicit consent of the consumer. People can also delete all their data in ProQuo's system if they choose.

Gal says he's "gearing up for a battle" with data brokers over his service, because it has the potential to limit their sources of data just as the Do Not Call program did for telemarketers. He thinks they'll eventually come around if his service takes off, because if millions of people opt out of these databases and lists, those brokers lose money. They may then resign themselves to working with companies like ProQuo to target pitches only to those who really want them, which would be a win for everyone anyway.

Personally, I'd like to continue to receive some so-called junk mail, especially local mailers for my favorite pizza joint or dry cleaner. Gal says he hopes that data brokers will offer that kind of granularity over time.

Down the road, ProQuo plans to extend its services to email as well, ultimately hoping to create "your trusted identity agent." In that, he will have company in the form of companies such as Sxip Identity that are focused on online identity management. And there are other companies such as TrustedID (on whose board Gal currently sits) that offer paid services aimed at preventing identity theft.

ProQuo raised $5 million last year in a round led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson and is looking to raise a somewhat larger round soon.

"Consumers have no idea what's being done with their data," says Gal. "When they're told, they get angry." And now they'll have a way they don't have to take it anymore.

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