A Groundswell Moment for the Ethics of Data
Last year, right before Thanksgiving, I asked whether the ethics of data collection and use was the next critical challenge for businesses to grapple with. At the time, we were a few months out from Zuckerberg versus Congress round one, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal (harnessing Facebook data to manipulate users) unleashed a firestorm.
Since then, it’s been quite the busy year. Each month of 2019 has brought more signals that the ethics of data is a major challenge and a critical opportunity that technologists and humanists must grapple with to secure the future of their businesses.
Here’s a summary of the activity in 2019 highlighting the importance of ethics and data across the many stakeholder groups pushing efforts forward:
- Elizabeth Warren wants to break up big tech and turn platforms into regulated utilities.
- Pete Buttigieg is running on his experience making South Bend, IN run better with a data-centric city government.
- Andrew Yang is determined to make data a property right.
- Among others, two institutions I’m closely involved with, Notre Dame and Stanford, each launched interdisciplinary ethics and technology initiatives of study and support.
- Notre Dame created the Tech Ethics Center and will recruit 15 faculty to support research, teaching and advisory to startups and corporations.
- Stanford’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence are both creating community and scholarship right in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Public sector institutions and NGOs
- The World Economic Forum raised tech ethics to a core agenda item through its Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They published eye opening research in partnership with Salesforce.
- The Omidyar Network and the Institute of the Future worked together to create the Ethical OS framework that some startups and accelerators are using to guide critical discussions.
- Venture Capitalist and early Facebook investor Roger McNamee wrote Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe telling a clear eyed story about the new risks at hand.
- Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote a similarly stinging call to breakup Facebook as a major editorial for the New York Times.
- Executives of leading companies created the Business Roundtable to back the idea of evolving the “purpose” of a company toward all stakeholder needs not just shareholder profits.
- Mark Zuckerberg was back in front of Congress several times for issues around data, bias, security, foreign election interference and most recently a new financial system.
- Major data breaches continue, with Forbes estimating that 4 billion records were exposed in the first half of the year alone. Capital One’s breach seems to have been the scariest.
- More and more startups are choosing to orient themselves around first-party-data by default. The customer data infrastructure platform Segment is one great example.
- Many went ahead and rebuilt their UI/UX assuming GDPR regulations for all users. Websites now have clunky pop-ups and “click-to-agree” explanations of cookies. Companies are receiving – and learning to comply with – user deletion requests.
Based on this sheer volume of initiatives, I’m feeling optimistic about a groundswell of more action as we move into 2020.
If you consider yourself a future-focused leader of insights or strategy, now is the time to think about the impact that ethics and data can have on your business. Begin a dialog about how your organization’s purpose and values might guide your data strategies. Get out there and learn about your customers, specifically when it comes to issues like data collection, ownership, and privacy. Build alignment by sharing your findings with key stakeholders. Start consciously designing for the customer experience of data.
What are you willing to stand up for next year?