What if data ethics didn’t exist?

Fortunately, companies generally handle your data responsibly. Because: data ethics. But what would the world look like if all those online stores didn’t? If data ethics don’t exist and the companies themselves can decide what to do with the data you leave behind? For example, because selling a few of your data already brings about $120.

I wrote a lot about data ethics in a previous article. About what it means, why it is extremely important to us as marketers and businesses. Too much collected data can result in a fine, while with too little data you get nothing out of your marketing. This makes the collection and use of data complex; It seems the easiest way to work is to throw our data ethics overboard. Or not?

A world without data ethics

In recent years, we have experienced several times what a world without data ethics looks like.

Cambridge Analytics
One of the biggest scandals in recent years is Cambridge Analytica. The data company obtained personal data from 87 million Facebook users and then used it to influence President Donald Trump’s presidential election.

Project X – The Hare
On 21 September 2012, the then 16-year-old Merthe wanted to celebrate her birthday in her circle of friends. She invited her friends through a Facebook event, but made the mistake of making the event public instead of private. She quickly deleted her post, but the damage was already done and the consequences were almost surreal: the event was recreated under the name Project X Haren, and tens of thousands of people signed up – with all the threats and risks that entailed.

At first glance, this may seem to have little to do with data ethics and corporate responsibility, but the lack of ethical awareness played a role here. One crucial thing: anyone who went to Haren really knew that this party was not meant for him or her, and that a 16-year-old girl made a mistake. But apparently it is human nature to abuse errors or unexpectedly available data.

The health insurance company pixels
In 2018, it was revealed that 18 major Dutch health insurance companies jointly removed the Facebook pixel from their websites. To the non-marketers among us, this may sound like a fairly innocuous message. However, research by NOS showed that 11 of the 18 also used this pixel on care-specific pages, for example on venereal diseases or depression. At the time, there really wasn’t anything to worry about, and pixels were primarily used for insights and not for marketing. Only the mistrust was so high among consumers that these companies (from a data ethics perspective) spoke out by removing pixels.

In a world where data ethics exist, it should not be a problem if insurance companies want to exclude existing customers from their marketing activities. But in a world where there is no data ethics, the purpose of the pixel can be just the opposite. Imagine insurance companies using this data to exclude certain target groups, such as the chronically ill, from their campaigns? An interesting idea from a commercial point of view: not paying premiums in case of illness means maximum profit. From a data ethics point of view, this is of course unthinkable.

What about legislation?

Data use is still an extremely complicated matter for politicians. For years, the government has struggled with the desire to gain more access to personal data, for example for reasons of national security. Real knowledge often seems to be absent: Recently it emerged that governments usually have no idea about the personal data they pass on to US tech giants.

Furthermore, there is still little legislation for companies on handling collected consumer data. The biggest law that has come into effect in recent years is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This law gives consumers more rights over their personal data. In other words: They can decide for themselves what happens to their data. Briefly, the following is described in the GDPR on privacy:

Permission
A company may collect personal data in order to enter into an agreement or because they are legally obliged to do so. In addition, a company can use personal data if specific permission has been granted for this, which meets the requirements of the Dutch data supervisory authority.

Right to be forgotten
As a consumer, we already had the right to have our data deleted by a company if we specifically request this. Since the arrival of the GDPR, companies are now also required to have the data removed from other companies or organizations with whom this data has been shared.

Right to data portability
Under certain conditions, you as a consumer have the right to receive the personal data that a company has collected from you in a standard format. It’s called data portability.

Digital Services Act

When it comes to data usage, it’s no secret that the EU likes to get a tighter grip. The EU is therefore working on introducing the Digital Services Act (DSA), on top of the GDPR. This law was supposed to give Big Tech (companies like Meta and Amazon) more restrictions on the display and distribution of content on their platforms. There will also be stricter rules for the use of ads and algorithms on these platforms. In the future, for example, Big Tech will have to explain why certain content is listed as a suggestion. In other words: why YouTube finds a suggested video interesting to you, or why you see a certain article in your feed on Facebook.

It’s legislation that doesn’t exactly make it easier for marketers; the restrictions make the work of digital agencies more complex. But in the interest of data ethics, it is a big step forward, and in the end it also keeps our department alive. As I said in my previous blog: If we do not disappoint customers, but serve, together we build a sustainable successful future model for our industry.

So what if data ethics didn’t exist?

Fortunately, we live in a world where (most) companies comply with data ethics. It simply means that we as consumers can be sure that we can safely leave our data with a website. We also know that it can go wrong – and that it can be a deliberate choice by a malicious company or individual – with all the consequences that entails.

When we are asked if we can do without data ethics, we answer a clear ‘none‘. Indeed, the examples earlier on this blog prove that strong legislation should lend such an ethical stance a helping hand. ‘Opportunity makes a thief’ is a popular saying for a reason.

Without data ethics, the number of hacks and cyber attacks will increase. But above all, there is an uneasy feeling when surfing, clicking and (online) buying behavior because we constantly have the feeling that our data is being sold on. Imagine a world where we resort to cash and physical purchases en masse for fear of being hacked or finding our own credit card details ‘on the street’.

About the author: Peter Vonk is Lead Tech & Data at Tomorrowmen.

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