Do better: Making businesses and product designs ethical

Nina Müller

This episode explores how to operationalise responsibility in online retail, and how starting today can make a difference in how we interact online in the future.


Cennydd Bowles is an expert in digital product design and a technology ethicist. He is the author of Future Ethics and a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art.

Cennydd’s views have been published in Forbes, Wired and The Wall Street Journal, and he is currently a consultant at the ICO, the British Data Protection Authority.


In this episode, Cennydd and I talk about business ethics in the context of data privacy, the usefulness of cookie banners and transparency in personal data collection.

Cennydd emphasises we should work towards a genuine value exchange: data for other values, but in a clear and transparent way. Even though GDPR is a lawful basis, when it comes to legitimate interest it is hard to defend. The interest is only on the business side, and the user does not know what is going on, especially when it is buried in a privacy notice which is not only unethical but difficult to understand with legal jargon. Instead, he reminds us how consent must be freely given, specific and informed, in a clear affirmative act. This is made easier (or more difficult!) through specific designs which are often persuasive in one direction. Instead, it could be made fair, understandable and simple if you don't use cookies at all. The act of implementing GDPR correctly and transparently is an ethical act in itself.

Whichever way, cookie banners will probably never be clear enough which is why Cennydd thinks they are not here to stay, but instead browsers will have to offer some built-in consent options, like Do Not Track (DNT).

Using zero cookies is not a popular option for many businesses, particularly from a marketers’ perspective, as they gather most insights and analytics from data. But with more people opting to block tracking and reject all cookies, data-driven marketing becomes a more difficult task. 


How can we face this dilemma? The answer is not new, sounds very simple and is yet so hard to achieve: It all comes back to trust. Earning trust through transparency (as required by GDPR) in your publishing principles, declaring your values but mostly through your actions. There are plenty of technical options and privacy-enhancing technologies to support this, such as on-device processing or encryption and others.

Additionally, companies can turn to guidance from the ICO and other national DP regulators about transparency and design.

Another big issue marketers and brands face is that giving up collecting and processing lots of personal data means a reduction in insights and analytics which will eventually result in being less competitive and falling behind your competition. A valid concern, Cennydd acknowledges, but it is just as equally important to recognise the fact that the age of nonconsensual tracking is over. As he explains, many have relied too heavily on data, transforming it into a crutch. 

Instead, data with more value can be gathered from higher quality data in attitudes and habits, rather than in the sheer quantity. Good old fashioned market research and UX research are examples of more helpful and privacy-friendly alternatives. 

Having said that, we agree that all industries have responsibility: Are you helping to build an Internet that we trust? Or contributing to worries of exploitation and deception?

Hit play and find out!

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