Editor’s note: This commentary is by Christopher Minott, who is the director of marketing at SBBNet, a small business with an office in Burlington. SBBNet is a member of the Connected Commerce Council (3C), a nonprofit membership organization that promotes small businesses’ access to essential digital technologies and tools.
Small businesses employ 60 percent of Vermont’s workforce, and businesses of 49 employees or fewer represent 96 percent of Vermont’s private sector. Many of those small businesses, including the one I work for, rely heavily on targeted advertising tools, cloud-based software and digital marketing automation tools to grow, hire new staff and increase profits. But recent proposals aiming to “rein in” large technology firms and enterprise data entities, have the potential to make those tools less affordable, less effective and more cumbersome.
As a small business with an office in Burlington, we have thrived. Vermonters understand the value of supporting small businesses and respect the innovators who are willing to take a chance on starting their own company. At SBBNet, we reciprocate our customers’ respect and value the trust they place in us. That’s why we only use consumer data in ways that allow us to better serve our customers. We utilize digital marketing tools like targeted Google and Facebook ads to reach potential new customers and rely heavily on services in the Cloud to responsibly manage and store our own and customer data.
In recent years, there has been growing pressure on state and federal lawmakers to pass consumer-oriented data protection laws. Consumers’ concerns about how their data is used and shared are valid and deserve lawmakers’ attention. But any public policies crafted to address these concerns must also take into account the concerns and needs of the many businesses who depend on data and digital tools.
Just this year, Vermont became the first state in the country to enact a data broker privacy law. The law requires data brokers to register annually with the Vermont Secretary of State, and to provide annual disclosure reports. Data brokers must develop and implement security systems to protect consumers’ “personally identifiable information.” The law also bans the acquisition and use of consumer data through fraud, or for illicit purposes. These are mostly commonsense regulations that allow data-dependent businesses to function and will simultaneously protecting consumers. But it will require careful and long-term research to find out how the law will impact small businesses in the state, which often rely on technology platforms to reach customers inside and outside of their very limited and rural footprints in Vermont. Technology has helped businesses like SBBNet reach more customers across the state and the rest of the world in order to grow.
New proposed legislation — from a federal and state perspective — will likely be more aggressive than Vermont’s new law, and there is still room for Vermont lawmakers to implement further restrictions. For small businesses that depend on targeted advertising and cloud-based software, a rushed, haphazardly constructed federal or state law that does not consider the digital needs of small businesses and has the potential to do serious damage. Nearly 84 percent of small businesses in the United States use at least one major digital platform to connect with customers, and the benefits of using these digital tools are substantial. Digitally-powered small businesses bring in twice as much revenue as businesses that aren’t connected to the digital economy, and are three times as likely to create jobs.
Despite small businesses’ reliance on digital tools and platforms, stricter data rules, especially federal regulations, would largely be constructed with corporate giants in mind. These rules will disproportionately affect the small businesses that depend on responsible data collection and usage to compete in the digital economy.
Lawmakers across the country pride themselves on their commitment to helping small businesses succeed. Now is the time for those small businesses to use their political power, speak up and get involved with policy that will impact their ability to engage with digital tools and services.
I urge our state and federal representatives to heed the call of digitally-powered small businesses, and to construct data protection laws with small businesses in mind. If small businesses like mine want to have continued success in the modern economy, we need access to these important tools. Responsible data usage and consumer protection are an important priority, but a balance must be met between the needs of consumers and the needs of businesses. Our lawmakers must construct data laws that protect America’s digitally-powered small businesses.
Written by Christopher Minott