You Don't Need a PhD to Formulate an Ethics Code for Digital

Industry Codes Help, With Religious and Secular Guides, but It's Mostly Common Sense

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  All of us who work in the data-driven marketing world have heard the condemnation of privacy advocates. We've seen the rolled eyes and raised eyebrows of relatives and friends who wonder whether we're tracking them, too. So the odds are good that you've asked yourself whether your work is crossing any ethical lines.

One reasonable response is that ethics are not a relevant consideration. We have laws and regulations governing how we conduct data-driven marketing (some say too few, some, too many), and these legal parameters sufficiently draw the lines of right and wrong. Don't break the law, or violate underlying regulations, and your conscience should be clean.

But in the same way that we seek to exceed baseline expectations for our customers and innovate beyond current practices, is there a higher ethical standard that we can define -- one toward which data-driven marketing can strive?

The answer is yes. The higher standard is embodied in our self-regulatory codes of conduct. These codes reflect the industry's understanding of legal requirements, and often establish a higher bar. For example, the Digital Advertising Alliance code requires enhanced notices for consumers that go well beyond any existing laws or regulations. Still, critics of self-regulation assert that these regulations often descend to the lowest common denominator of conduct acceptable to the self-interested companies that establish them.

If we broaden our perspective, what other ethical traditions can guide our conduct? As individuals we can certainly refer to religious teachings familiar to us. However, such frameworks are far more useful as individual guideposts than as foundations for broader industry standards, for several reasons.

First, we don't all subscribe to the same religious traditions. But even if we did, we wouldn't find a clear ethical roadmap for data-driven marketing. Although all of these traditions espouse general principles that we could try to apply, I've been hard-pressed to find specific theological commentaries on our 21st century line of work. (If you're aware of such commentaries, I'd be interested to hear about them.)

The same goes for secular ethical traditions. You can read from Socrates to Sartre without finding anything that anticipates the unique ethical dimensions of data-driven digital marketing. More general principles, such as Kant's Categorical Imperative, Utilitarianism and even post-structural theory, to name a few, can be used to argue for any variety of positions on data-driven marketing. (In fact, many of our industry's arguments against further regulation originate in the "greatest happiness of the greatest number" goal of Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism.)

Will you need to get a doctorate in comparative philosophy and theology, to formulate an ethical compass by which to operate your business? Fortunately, you won't. Start with an earnest (not just perfunctory) effort to comply with industry self-regulatory standards. And then layer on some good old-fashioned common sense when judgment calls arise as to what types of data segments you're using, what sources you're working with to obtain data or apply it, and how you're sharing or transferring data. With this approach, we can advance the marketing goals of our clients, while at the same time making our business a little less risky.  

Adam Lehman is COO and General Manager at Lotame.
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