Data ethics: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

In today’s world, companies need to go beyond simply following the rules on data privacy and understand the vital importance of addressing the gap between what they can do, and what they should do. The importance of data ethics is also backed by a new WFA survey of senior executives at global brand owners, which reveals that 82% would consider leaving their current employer if they felt the approach to data was not ethical.

About 26% of the 147 respondents – representing companies spending a global total of US$55bn on marketing communications – have already felt uncomfortable about the use of data at some time during their careers.

An essential element of using data in an ethical way is the cultural transformation required not just to push it up the corporate ladder, but also to ensure that everyone in the company thinks carefully about where data comes from, whether it is truly representative and if there any issues raised via the use of that data. However, only 48% of respondents to the WFA’s survey said their company had a data ethics policy right now.

As such, the WFA has launched “Data Ethics – The Rise of Morality in Technology”, which outlines four key principles that should underpin a data ethics approach – respect, fairness, accountability and transparency:

- Respect: All data usage should respect the people behind the data and companies need to strive to understand the interests of all parties and use consumer data to improve people’s lives.

- Fairness: Data usage should aim to be inclusive, acknowledge diversity and eliminate bias rather than dividing groups. Brands need to examine their data sets, mindsets and governance approach to ensure they are inclusive in the way they use data.

- Accountability: Consumers expect companies to have open and transparent data practices backed up by robust global and local governance. The same standards should also be applied across partners, suppliers, publishers and platforms.

- Transparency: Although the online advertising ecosystem is complex, brands should apply transparency principles and work towards more open and honest data practices, particularly as AI and machine-learning approaches start to automate decisions.

The guide is based on a year’s work by the WFA’s Data Ethics Board. This comes shortly after a recent WFA research found that 74% of CMOs say data ethics will be more important to their role in the next five years and issues around data collection and privacy have risen up the agenda in light of COVID-19. 

(Read more: CMOs expected to manage 9 distinct areas on average)

Stephan Loerke, CEO of the WFA said the benefits and critical importance of data-enabled tech have been more evident of late than ever before, and the ad industry needs to have a conversation on data that distinguishes ‘the right to do something’ from ‘doing the right thing’. 

Meanwhile, Jamie Barnard, general counsel – global marketing and media, Unilever and author of the report said the lockdown has re-emphasised to all the importance and value of technology. He added that there is no better time to review data ethics and look to design a digital future that enhances people’s lives and protects them in equal measure.

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