As in all the periods during which humanity has discovered a new world, the question of ethics comes in second phase, when the settlers realize that some rules would help organizing the new land. So is the case for the new land of Data.

Data, the new far-west?

8 mn to readThis phase of maturity for the data land is now upon us, and humanity feels inclined to put some sort of order into what has been done in the past, and regulate what will be done in the future.

Data has changed everything

Obviously, data has changed everything about how a brand manages its relationships with its customers, and digital has had a bigger impact than anyone really thought it would have.

With digital, the world of marketing and media has had to face a double revolution in how consumers interact with those sending out messages. Firstly, the immediate and overpowering right to get an answer, and then, a fragmentation of uses and consumption which has led to unparalleled demand for customisation, like never before.

The right to revert came with the advent of new media – social networks – where tribes of aficionados and detractors gather, bringing their voices together until they have become equal to those who produce the information or content, and are capable of contradicting, destroying, or lauding increasingly decoded and commented brand postures.

In this new world, communication and advertising had transitioned in just a few years from a vertical mass system, controlled by the transmitter, to an individual and egalitarian horizontal system.

In the beginning, brands wanted to take advantage of technology to improve the relevance and customisation of messages as far as they could. After all, that’s what consumers wanted. Media buyers suddenly had to take on the role of orchestra conductor for individualised exposure scenarios, where the relevance of the sollicitations and their individual capping, became key. And to succeed, they had to target. And to target, they had to collect individual data, in all forms, and link them together: a client database had to be connected to a media exposure history and a website browsing, that was all! Brands or Medias could then push the right message, at the right time, to the right person. In fact, to the right profile of person, because everyone involved in the chain had agreed to use only anonymized datas.

Understanding the value of Data

A band of rich, dominant and supranational players quickly understood the value of such data, and what power it could confer. Where they had long said that if information on an audience was to be gleaned, content needed to be produced, these platforms suddenly mutated their business model, monetizing the wealth they had on their servers. Online search engine results or searches on an online hypermarket, dialogues on social networks, and uses from a device became ways of collecting this data.

Obviously, some countries tried to prevent targeting, forcing websites to more or less explicitly receive some kind of consent to be traces from their users. In front of the rejection from Internet user of a still too intrusive advertising, private organisations even invented adblockers, which stopped ads from popping up when browsing. But given the need for publishers to continue monetising their space, these users had to disable them on a massive scale to go on accessing the online content they were now used to consume.

Little by little, users realised that the free internet was only a decoy, and that if any product was actually free, the product was actually the users themselves.

Worse still, serious cases have emerged where countries have been found to control their data, and that all large companies had were little more than sieves to protect the data they have been given. Conversations, banking data and medical data could be all be stored, used and diverted without anyone’s knowledge! And then anti-terrorism Laws had been voted in the Western world, which, although legitimate, worryingly formalised the rights of Authorities to monitor the actions of their citizens.

The digital world, under the pressure of this more mature humanity has now entered a phase where the ethics question is order of the day.

The age of Ethics

Firstly, some countries, and the European Union on the front line, have recently tackled these issues head on. After struggling for many years to try and change the competitive behaviour of the major digital platforms, regulatory bodies began an all-out attack on privacy with the GDPR, in a kind of tsunami, the effects of which are not yet totally felt by all players.

First, this approach reverses the burden of proof, and obliges the players who store or use data as part of their core business to demonstrate due diligence in the protection and safeguarding of the data entrusted to them, but also to self-diagnose the processes that could affect personal confidentiality. Also, to set a precedent, it applies to any player doing business in Europe, even if that business is headquartered in Palo-Alto, Shanghai, or San Francisco. Finally, it establishes a system where the Internet user must now explicitly consent to being tracked. Subsequently, it is now likely that people will be able to approve, reject, or decide to appear or disappear completely from all databases where their personal data is stored. This imposes on economic players and their subcontractors not only a duty to obey, but mainly to inform their users in an extremely painstaking way about what they do with their datas.

The approach shows to what extent public Authorities have now become fully aware of their duty to protect and supervise a form of self-regulation that until that point had been imperfect.

Having crossed swords for years with the major digital platforms for one or other issue like abusing from their dominant position or like tax territoriality, and having questioned citizens and various marketing professionals on these occasions, public Authorities have learned, cogitated, and become very aware of how data can be and is abused.

In parallel, the French state has just published four unparalleled decrees, aimed at imposing transparency on digital platforms, again with a view to improving the transparency of the information provided to the public on their business model, and the use that is made of the data collected. Game over. Implicit obligations where users had no choice but to accept the conditions if they wanted to access specific content are now a thing of the past. Today, governments fully assumes their role of referee and ethics warden, leaving the various players to work out how they can self-regulate under these constraints. Internet users have all the power, if they want it!

But the question of ethics takes on a new dimension when thinking about the implementation of such regulations : if the cornerstone of data ethics is the collection, documentation and management of the users consent, how can we avoid relying once again on the goodwill of these same digital platforms whose governments are trying to moralise the practices? They are both umpire and player here, as they are on the definition of their opaque algorithmes. And all together, they hold 95% of all world’s personal data. How can they be considered able to take part in this self-regulation that would directly harm their own business?

Who will control the ethics?

So who should do it? Governments? Those same leaders who fail to impose decent taxation on the platforms? The very people who have access, now legislated, to the most sensitive personal data in their fight against terrorism? Some of the very ones who the Snowden case reveals they have opaque links with the platforms they are supposed to regulate ? No. Their job is to write the rules of ethics, but isn’t it better that peers organise and manage their consent among themselves, rather than leaving it to the heathens? Or to a new body that doesn’t have a vested interest? The world of Data needs trusted third parties now more than ever, and it’s time to figure out who could play that role.

At first glance, Research institutes may be the obvious answer. After all, they have always been used to segmenting, collecting and protecting individual data. This role would require them to design more comprehensive panels, therefore integrating all of the profiles that visit one website or another, by means of questionnaires to ensure that Internet users consent to their data being collected, while reassuring them about the fact that they will be in expert and trustworthy hands. In that aspect, data brings the world of digital and the world of research closer than ever. At the moment, all the major institutes are in the midst of their digital transformation, and on the quest for internationalisation now necessary on this new global playing field. Still a lot to do…

Meanwhile, it is highly likely that the blockchain will be able to play a major role this self-regulation for the world of marketing and customer relations.

Indeed, none of the players in a chain can carry out all the obligations imposed by the GDPR alone because each is only one link. While individual players can commit themselves, they have no power over their subcontractors or clients. It is also hard to imagine how to transition from principle to reality if users must explicitly give their consent to all the players in all the chains where their data is traced. It is physically impossible, and legally unrealistic.

Blockchain is the missing element

We believe then, that the blockchain will be the missing element for this self-regulation to be effective. Stakeholders will join consortia, share their data and rely on Block chaines externalized technology to manage Internet user consent centrally. As it is currently widespread in healthcare and banking, it is highly likely that the next broad area of application for the blockchain will be customer relations, and more generally, marketing, under the impetus of regulations such as GDPR. Strangely, perhaps for the first time ever, potentially competing economic players are forced to pool their strengths and their data stores to fight on behalf of governments against digital platforms that they failed to control, implementing the et his principles such government have enacted.

With digital, citizens have never had so much power in their relationship with brands.

They first asked for more personalisation, and now they want to keep control over the very thing that make personalisation possible: their data. They have pushed governments to take up the role of protector once again, and are now pushing market players to sort this and respect their digital identity. A kneejerk reaction could have been to disconnect from the internet, and then, cut everything off at the source. But no. History shows that the more points of contact are added, the more they are consumed. People want everything, right now, but in full respect of their identity. That’s the moral of this new chapter of human history.