Ethics is the new black in Information Management. If you don’t believe me, consider the rise of the debate on data privacy. Internationally, the discussions of where the “creepy line” is in big data analytics increase due to growing concerns about the failure of Internet of “Things-that-are-connected-to-people” vendors to properly design basic security controls to prevent data being harvested, as baby monitors are being turned into surveillance tools.
These discussions are just in the context of privacy and security. Ethical considerations arise in a number of other contexts in information management, where we find ourselves able to acquire data from 3rd parties or engage in detailed analysis and analytics of interactions in ways that would have required significant person-hours to compile and conduct even a decade ago.
Take for example the rise in the use of ad-blocking technologies by people surfing the web. Organizations want to be able to track your interactions and engage in cross-site tracking and remarketing activities. To do that, they need to write cookies to your devices to “tag” you. But consumers have the right to object to this, and don’t necessarily want to be tracked or tagged in this way. So, a few years ago there was debate and discussion of introducing a “Do Not Track” indicator that could be set by individuals in their web browsers. Think of it as kind of like a web-browser equivalent of a “no junk mail” sticker on your mailbox.
This feature was introduced in almost all web browsers by 2013. A March 2013 survey by Forrester found that 18% of internet users they surveyed had turned on the Do Not Track setting in their browsers. So, online advertisers opted to ignore this admittedly optional setting. The result:
- Google searches for “Adblocker” increased significantly from around 2012 onwards (plateauing in 2015 when companies like Apple began enabling ad-blocking tools by default in some products)
- The European Union introduced legislation requiring notice and consent for “non-essential” cookies; a requirement which has ultimately wound up in the standard global terms and conditions for popular website analytics tools like Google Analytics.
I’m not saying that online advertisers are or were unethical. I would just pose the question: what would the outcome have been if a more ethical approach had been taken to designing an on-line advertising ecosystem, and codes of conduct for advertisers were developed that respected the individual and viewed them as an end in themselves—not just a means to an end?
Of course, it’s not just the online advertising market that we need to consider in this context. Publishers in this ecosystem developed business models that are driven by clicks – the more clicks a link gets, the more hits a site gets, and the more valuable it is as an advertising hoarding. So, we wound up with the rise of “click-bait” headlines and content. People click on the clickbait, have cookies written to or read from their device, and have advertising served to them. Based on that, they get paid.
Unless people have adblockers turned on in their browsers:then the hits are worthless. In response, many online publishers are now adopting adblocker blockers that will prevent you from accessing content unless you turn off adblockers and other privacy protection functions in your browsers.
I’m not saying that that is unethical either. However, the double whammy of occasionally misleading clickbait headlines and the removal of individual choice over how people can access content does raise questions about how things might have been different.
For example, what if a few years ago the advertisers had respected Do Not Track, and had opted to push less granularly-targeted generic advertising to people visiting online publishers who had put that “No Junk Mail Please” sticker on their web browser? Would there be an “arms race” in adblockers and adblocker blockers?
Of course, the mechanism used by an adblocker blocker involves reading data from a device connected to a public communications network to read the inventory of plugins enabled in a browser,which falls within the European Union’s definition of a “cookie” in this context. This is why the European Commission (the ‘civil service’ of the EU) has declared that Adblocker blockers are technically illegal in the EU unless there is notice and consent to their use before the web browser is interrogated to determine if there are adblockers installed.
So, the arms race may continue, with adblocker blocker blockers being developed, with regulatory enforcement of unlawful mechanisms being deployed to “get around” the preferences of people in order to sustain business models for online publishers and advertisers. These mechanisms are often technically excellent in achieving the objective that they are set to do, but may do so at the expense of privacy and individual choice – key ethical considerations.
Speaking of business models, it is worth considering the ethical aspects of business models that constrain the choice and freedom of individuals so that the actions and activities of those individuals can create revenue for a third party. People toiling in the fields without free choice to make money for someone else sounds suspiciously like a much older business model when put like that.
These business models exist, and are developing in a variety of areas from social media to fitness trackers to Smart TVs. We are at the beginning of the development of these information industries which increasingly view information that describes and defines the person as a marketable commodity. But there is a fine line between the “Quantified Self” and the “Quantified Serf.” As legislation and regulation often lags technological capabilities, there is ample scope for the development of problematic business models.
If only there was a better way…
An ethical approach to the development of tools and technologies such as online advertising and personal measurement is one such way. We see elements of this kind of approach in concepts such as Privacy by Design and Privacy engineering. It is a “win-win” approach in many respects, where a sensible trade-off is made be made between the identifiability of the data that is being processed and the objectives of the organization that is doing the processing. It requires a shift from a “tick box” approach to complying with laws in the design and implementation of new technology and analytics capabilities towards something more fundamental.
Data Governance methods talk about identifying and defining the core governance principles for an organization. An Ethical Information Management approach requires a shift from a principle of “do the minimum necessary to avoid penalties” to “do what is right to strike the correct balance.”
This requires good governance of information to help ensure that better ethical choices are made. Or, as the great philosophers Bill S. Preston and Theodore “Ted” Logan famously put it:
“Be excellent to one another!”