Moral Philosophy

Toward a Framework for Ethical Data Use


As Head of Data Ethics for Acxiom, Jordan Abbott has made a case for industry self-regulation of the of data use comprising data privacy as well as enterprise governance, protection and ethical sourcing of data. The need for this is clear since companies face regulatory pressure all over the world at the same time they must keep “on the front foot” with respect to innovations that will continue to stretch far ahead of existing or soon to be enacted regulations.  Examples abound but obvious cases in point are the rapid adoption of IoT technologies like Amazon Alexa and Apple Watch. I think I can say Abbott and I agree that stakeholders including corporate leadership, governments and consumers all need to think about and try to reach consensus on one or more ethical frameworks that can be used to guide actions proactively and rationally. Abbott says at base, the framework and ethics program for a company must at least cover these three fundamental criteria: Is our data use legal, fair and just?  While the goal of making the framework simple to describe is laudable, and in principle these three criteria sound reasonable, I have issues with the Acxiom framework that will be described at a high level below and followed up with additional analysis and proposals for how to frame ethical treatment of information.

Acxiom recently published a white paper (Nov 2018) by Jennifer Glasgow and Sheila Colclasure entitled, “The New Code of Conduct: Guiding Principles for the Ethical Use of Data.”  The paper begins as follows:

“No need to brush up on your Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. The Social Contract theory made one simple observation: that we live in a world of “interconnected individuals” who are required to adhere to a set of rules mutually agreed upon by those individuals. This is not a set-up for a history lesson on the Age of Enlightenment. However, this preface serves as a reminder that a discussion on what it means to live in a connected society is not new. Debates over the proper wielding of power and the definition of ethics are as ancient as civilization itself and are as relevant now as they have ever been, perhaps more.“

I appreciate that Glasgow, Colclasure and Abbot want to express important issues succinctly and compellingly while highlighting Acxiom and LiveRamp as ethical players.  At the same time, if there is to be a serious debate about data ethics and frameworks we can’t pass over the history and ideas that under-gird our understanding or set the table for rational choice this easily. Moreover, much of what has been written in ethics challenges us to be careful with the use of language and overturns the easy acceptance of terms for which we may lack common definitions.

An overview of some basic concepts and history that need to be considered in any ethical framework will follow, along with some suggestions on their implications for the environment we now face with respect to the use of data.  I will attempt to be concise in this review and point towards more scholarly, thoroughgoing approaches that I think are necessary but which can’t be presented in blogpost form.  I will then return to Abbott’s three criteria and offer a short explanation of why I think they aren’t workable or complete and what might be a way forward in arriving at a framework or frameworks for ethical decision making.

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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