Let’s have a heated debate! Data ethics, GDPR, and what marketers need now

Kate Downer

On Monday I dragged my colleague/ dear friend, Andrew Wood, to a debating group session at the House of Commons. The motion was data: specifically, that marketers must adopt an ethical data framework, in order to engender trust with consumers.

If that sounds a bit heavy going for a sunny Monday evening, I’ll admit that it’s EXCITING for an average peasant like me and get to go inside Westminster. There are portcullises on the chairs, massive oil paintings, and a gift shop where you can buy mugs on the theme of universal suffrage. Last time I went, I washed my hands at the sink next to Caroline Lucas!

Now, Andrew’s not only our Head of Compliance at Breaking Blue; he’s also a talented researcher, GDPR enthusiast, and Mr Logical. Why on earth wouldn’t we want marketers to adopt an ethical data framework, we both wondered, with our consumer research hats on.

Well, because we already have one, the debating group decided. GDPR might be a set of laws, but it also doubles up as an ethical framework, and unless we’re well dodge, we all abide by it already.

It was a cracking debate, the motion was defeated (it was close though), and then we all went to the pub.

I’m not writing this to give you a blow-by-blow account, but because I thought I’d have my own little data ethics debate. I’m the proposition and the opposition, and the audience is, err, Google. As Mrs. Merton would say, “Let’s have a heated debate!”


Data ethics are important: 230,000,000 results
That’s reassuring. All the results are pretty serious, many of them are from academic sources, and I can buy any number of books on the subject of data ethics. The list of related searches tells me that there are whole other worlds of search results that would tell me about the importance of treating data ethically in modern data science, data analytics, big data, qualitative and quantitative consumer research like the stuff that pays our mortgages … and so on.

(I also Googled ‘Data ethics are not important’ for completeness. Clicking through the first 2 or 3 pages, the only result that seems genuinely to be arguing against the importance of ethics is 12 years old. On closer inspection, it wasn’t arguing that at all, and it wasn’t about data ethics).


GDPR is a legal framework: 5,350,000 results
Yes it is. It’s a legal framework, it’s a framework for data protection laws. Not really a point of contention, but reassuring to see more than 5 million web pages out there agree.


GDPR is an ethical framework: 833,000 results
This is interesting. I didn’t use quotation marks so this isn’t a number of results that use the exact phrase, but it does tell us a bit about the way GDPR is framed and interpreted. Interesting, but not surprising: we all know that GDPR is ‘the law’ and not a set of suggestions for how to be nice with consumers’ data.

By the way, if you do use quotation marks, Google gives you exactly 2 results, which link back to the same Twitter account.


Data ethics is boring: 11,900,000 results
Sure it is. Until you go to jail.


I love GDPR: 179,000,000 results
This is more like it. More results than the serious searches about what GDPR actually is and does. Image results (I’d buy Andrew an “I heart GDPR” mug but he’s already got one). The top result is a SPOTIFY PLAYLIST by Popjustice, for goodness’ sake (“The story of GDPR, brought to life through the miracle of song”). I didn’t Google ‘GDPR is good’ or ‘I quite like GDPR’ because this isn’t an empirical exercise in online data analytics, and because I haven’t got all day.


So, what have we learned from today’s pseudo-debate/ skate through some Google search results by a qualitative consumer researcher? I’ll let the numbers talk. Data ethics is important, people love GDPR, but most relevantly, it’s thought of exclusively as a legal framework rather than a set of ethical consumer guidelines.

I’m going to buy myself an ‘I heart GDPR’ tea towel and listen to the 5 different tracks called ‘Don’t go’ listed by Popjustice, while I think about the best way to rebrand GDPR so we don’t see it solely as a set of laws, but as a set of laws and values that can work together to engender consumer trust.