In the last few weeks the disconnect between the world of digital technology and the data and insight industry has been thrown into sharp relief. First the unethical data practices and lax protection processes highlighted by the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica situation, have been features of rolling news on both sides of the Atlantic. Then this week the news broke that YouTube may also have been remiss in its data protection obligations, and been failing to comply with child protection laws.
For many who have spent even a short time working in the data, market research and insights sector, this is a complete anathema. Anyone that has engaged with the industry and has been a member of an industry body – be that ESOMAR, the Insights Association or any other national association – will hear about these allegations and recognise the behaviour as fundamentally wrong, and having no place in the data and research industry.
As Mark Zuckerburg testifies before Congress, the discussion of regulation now rages through the media, and whilst this is warranted, much of the discussion is misguided.
Associations such as ESOMAR and the Insights Association have spent decades working with practitioners, legislators and lawmakers to build practical codes and guidelines for our members to follow, which ensure the trust and privacy of people who take part in research, and which are adopted in more than 50 countries globally. Our profession lobbies constantly to demonstrate we are collecting data ethically and transparently. This professional rigour does not appear overnight, but has been achieved through a long history of understanding the value and privilege of collecting people’s personal data. Indeed, no member of ESOMAR has EVER seen a breach of good practices, such as we are now witnessing.
As data becomes more plentiful – and indeed, more available – it is easy for it to become commoditised, for commercial opportunities to take precedence, and for ethics to be forgotten. Indeed, many observers of our profession have even gone so far as to state that our codes and guidelines are hindrances to innovation, instead of facilitators.
Well, Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and YouTube have now successfully countered that argument for us! Membership of ESOMAR would very easily have prevented this situation from arising.
While we as an industry can stand up and prove our success in regulating our profession, the more significant challenge is that for lawmakers and governments, data collection is data collection; it makes no difference whether a breach comes from one industry or another. It is therefore imperative that we now provide (and demonstrate) a united front- irrespective of whether that’s advertising and media or research and insights – and ensure we engage with the tech industries to align with best practices developed over 70 years, so as to secure a future for a self-regulated industry.
This month the Advertising Research Foundation, who are concerned about the current data protection landscape, are holding a Town Hall meeting to discuss the need for an ‘industry wide’ set of codes and guidelines for data protection. This is understandable, as the ARF does not espouse a Code itself. But it is important to recognise that industry-wide Codes already exist – honed and refined through 70 years of experience, globally applied, and constantly monitored and updated – which provide guidance to collectors and users of data, whilst maintaining trust and privacy amongst participants. The issue here is NOT whether we have a code or create a new set of codes and guidelines…it would be much better to convince the digital players to adhere to the already proven code.
I will be attending this meeting, and I urge other Association leaders to attend, to support the ARF in this initiative to convert the digital community to supporting and adhere to the existing code(s).
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we are at a crossroads and our choice of direction will have a far ranging and lasting impact on our industry. We have discussed and embraced technology, as a way of providing data, working with the insights profession to enable the “translation” of that data to the enormous benefit of businesses, governments and society. In the current media storm surrounding regulation, we must never forget that our experience and rigour will help us to manage the convergence of technology and insight – and we must use that knowledge to work together for a better future.