Oct 10 2019
Data and Ethics in The Digital Age – Five Conclusions From Kekst CNC’s Breakfast Panel Discussion

The digital revolution and the rise in smartphones, blockchain and artificial intelligence is reshaping the business world. As a result, we are seeing the emergence of a new trend that is threatening to disrupt these technologies and how we use them – that of data ethics.

Last week, Kekst CNC hosted a breakfast panel to discuss how to bring together communications and ethics in the digital age, and the impact this developing technology will have on marketing, media, privacy and our lives.

In the room were Maurice Lévy, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Publicis Groupe, and Nuala O’Connor, President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington DC. Both are members of the Kekst CNC Advisory Board and were interviewed by Thorold Barker, Editor, Europe, Middle East & Africa, The Wall Street Journal.

Over the course of an hour’s lively discussion, the panel covered a lot of ground. Kekst CNC has taken the opportunity to summarise the five primary conclusions:

1. We need to address the algorithms

O’Connor started off by flagging her recent research that people actually “didn’t mind” about personalized advertising “as long as they don’t feel like they are being discriminated against”.

The issue, she added, was that it was very difficult for individual consumers to work out how their data was being sliced and diced by the algorithm.

Given algorithmic decision-making is “instantaneous and opaque”, she claimed that there is a “clear disparity between what the customer knows and what the machine knows”, putting the customer at an inherent disadvantage.

With this in mind, both O’Connor and Lévy agreed that it would be “completely reasonable” to expect greater legal constraints to be imposed around the use, collection and interpretation of data in order to level the playing field over the coming years.  

2. Regulation alone cannot do the job

These calls for legal constraints on the activities of the big tech companies are intensifying on both sides of the Atlantic, but both panellists agreed that regulation is not the silver bullet.

As Lévy put it, “the speed at which legislators work and the speed at which the internet world is moving are very different”.

By the time new regulation has been discussed and implemented, the debate has moved on, O’Connor added, referring to the time and effort required to enshrine GDPR regulation into European law, and the fact that one year later we are facing new and fresh data privacy issues.

3. CEOs must lead the data ethics charge

In the absence of regulation, Lévy believes the challenge will fall on the shoulders of business leaders to work out what to do with the vast amounts of data they are collecting.

In his view, executives have “a responsibility to society…that is far beyond what we would expect from any CEO” and have to be “extremely mindful” of their business decisions.

Lévy added that this is by no means an easy decision to make, but that companies would have no option but to weigh up profitability and business growth against broader ethical concerns.

4. Advertising firms will have decisions to make

 This ethical burden is also falling on advertising agencies. Lévy noted that advertising firms are facing a complicated moral quandary – how to balance “need for exposure with overall reputational issues”.

His view is that agencies must make the decisions themselves about who they will and won’t advise, not just on the clients they advise but the types of work they recommend and execute. Again, this will be a decisive moment for the future of the industry.

5. It’s time for the people to take control of their data

Both panellists remarked on the sheer speed at which technological change has impacted our lives, but that companies are becoming aware that dealing with the sheer amount of information out there might be “too much of a good thing”. O’Connor views this to be a positive shift in tone.

O’Connor added that it should also fall to individuals to lead the charge in determining where their data is gathered and used. She explained that individuals will increasingly need to take the attitude that data is “an extension of self” and take an interest in it and attachment to it accordingly.

Lévy suggested blockchain as one potential way to ensure data is “well controlled” by individual users.

 “It’s down to us to keep them honest and make sure the people are in power are the people”, Lévy concluded.