The ethics of data: care, respect and human dignity in the digital age

Business ethicsWe live in the age of the customer and we live in the age of data. I guess there must be a link between both. Of course there is. People like to be valued and served in a way that takes their true needs into account. They like to be respected. What does this have to do with data? A lot.

With the digital devices, channels and tools people have – generating content and data – they like to be more in control. Not just for the sake of control (alone) but mainly because they have been let down. By businesses, governments, organizations. By decades of dictating them how to buy, consume, communicate, look like, behave and be.

The backlash of that attitude is felt by brands across the globe. After years of looking at customers as service tickets, email addresses and passive receivers, they feel the effect of today’s “consumer” behavior. They need to enter the ‘age of the customer’ to use Forrester’s description. They need to be more customer-centric. They need to digitally transform around customers and stakeholders. That’s what everyone tells them.

Are we truly empowered?

Why didn’t anyone think about that need to utterly focus on customers and human needs and emotions before? Well, we did of course.

It was – and is too often – just not the kind of message C-level execs and boards like to hear, it was not how businesses were organized and it simply went – and still goes – against the essential self-centred mentality we all have and the – hierarchical – ways we conduct business with our silos, ivory towers, personal agendas and turf wars.

No more. “We don’t want to see it, we want you to care”. That’s what consumers, people, say. And show with their wallets. Still, how empowered are they truly? And are we really adapting ourselves – with all the focus on the customer experience and digital transformation – to be more in line with what people really want? You know the answer.

Respect matters: caring about data and its amazing potential

Here is a truth: consumers might feel empowered but at the same time they don’t. Distrust is high. And if you believe that consumers really like to share their data because they think it will make everything better and they “love” you, think again: many have simply given up when it boils down to their data, let alone, their privacy. They feel powerless, not empowered, because they know they really don’t know what happens with their data and can’t control it.

Source - towards a new digital ethics - PDF opens
Source – towards a new digital ethics – PDF opens

It’s the trade-off fallacy. And, on top of respect, it’s the very reason why transparency and truly respecting and caring about data matters. Moreover, it makes business sense. As the Annenberg School for Communication found: “people who know more about the ways marketers can use their information are more likely rather than less likely to accept discounts in exchange for data.” As I write in a piece on the trade-off fallacy and the research, data belongs to the consumer.

Mind you: I love data. We all love data. There would be no technology, no media, no nothing without it. In fact, digital transformation is a matter of data and the right information.

The things we can achieve with data are amazing. Data-driven marketing can lead to the most possible relevant and creative outcomes. Data – and the insights and knowledge we turn into value – can make customer service truly work. Heck, data even saves lives, enables us to explore the world and can make our lives so much more fun.

Yet, there is another side. Once we knew what happened with all the data we shared. More or less. The days of simple permission marketing:” I tell you who I am and how you can reach me and you send me what you promise”.

Debates and thoughts to have in today’s data prehistory

Today no one knows what (personal) data is gathered or processed and what happens to it. Not a single ‘consumer’. Not you. Not me. 

And it’s getting worse. Because here’s the thing: despite living in the age of data, we still live in the prehistory of data. The amazing things we see arriving under the umbrella of the Internet of Things is just a drop in the ocean of what’s yet to come.

Your data and data overall are priceless and businesses will need to wake up and see it or face – yet another – backlash.

Attitudes regarding privacy and data are not the same everywhere. There are individual and also geographical differences but one thing is for sure: everything is dynamic and, while we might well care less one day, I hope we care more and continue to.

 

Different regional attitudes around data security privacy - source Umbel infographic
Different regional attitudes around data security privacy – source: Umbel infographic

Legislation is under the way. In the EU we’re at the verge of the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which wants to better ensure personal data processing in line with rules regarding consent, purpose of processing, aggregation, types of data and much more. It’s the furthest reaching legislation ever on the use of data. The impact will be felt in ALL industries and areas where data comes into play: everywhere. And then we haven’t even mentioned the ePrivacy Regulation.

And it’s needed, whether you like it or not. Because we owe it to consumers, to people, to respect their data and make the right use of it for the right reasons and paying all the care to it that it deserves. Because data are about people and for people. Because people are not data, just as they aren’t email addresses, service tickets or cases.

Privacy and data protection are part of the solution, not the problem. For the time being, technology is controlled by humans. It is not easy to classify neatly these potential developments as good or bad, desirable or harmful, advantageous or detrimental, even less so when a number of potential trends have to be seen in context. Policy makers, technology developers, business developers and all of us must seriously consider if and how we want to influence the development of technology and its application. But equally important is that the we consider urgently the ethics and the place for human dignity in the technologies of the future.

 

People are the lifeblood of business and society

The future of the digital economy depends on how we will deal with and communicate about personal data processing in the most possible transparent way.

Sure, nothing ever is fool proof. But just leaving it all to self-regulation of industries using data? We know better than that. Will legislation and government bodies make it all happen? No. So, I guess a mix of ALL stakeholders in the data and privacy debate will need to be present and also control each other, as always. That’s how a democracy works. And that’s how we deal with challenges: a mix of self-policing, education, regulation, openness and communication. And, yes, in the case of GDPR serious fines and penalties.

Great. We need to care about data and use data to care. But is care and protection enough? What about ethics? Human dignity?

Giovanni Buttarelli - Twitter
Giovanni Buttarelli – Twitter

European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) Giovanni Buttarelli released an opinion piece a few days ago: “Towards a new digital ethics – Data, dignity and technology”. The Register was rather sarcastic about it. I would love you to read it (download the PDF or check the SlideShare version below), forget about politics, really think and comment. I know, it’s a lot.

A few more thoughts and reminders before letting you off the hook (thanks for reading so far). So, data is the lifeblood of today’s digital business and society. That’s what everyone says and, yes, it’s true. Yet, people ARE not data. THEY are the lifeblood of the present and the future of business and society. They matter and we use data because they matter to us.

We need to care (more) about data because we care about people. People of flesh and blood, with amazing dreams, thoughts and emotions and zero bits and bytes.

People first, always.

 

 

Top image purchased under license from Shutterstock