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Ethical online data collection needs to be a default, not a choice

data
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

We are living through a data explosion and with the continued shift online showing no signs of slowing, it’s imperative that businesses are using emerging technologies ethically. One of the fastest growing sectors in this domain is publicly available data collection, with many companies benefiting from the insights this can provide. But what about the technology behind the data collection process, how can businesses be sure they are using ethical providers and not harming a fragile eco-system?

We now live in an era where the law alone fails to provide adequate guidance on publicly available data collection issues. The rapid rate of technological development, especially in the data collection domain, has outstripped the ability of regulators and lawmakers to keep pace with it. What’s more, and this is a matter all data collection operations face today, legal instruments often lack the clarity that is needed to make tough, ethical decisions that all businesses or data collection operators address daily.

About the author

Or Lenchner is CEO at Luminati Networks

Data-driven revolution

Much has been said about our data-driven economy, especially during 2020 when online data was the key source of many prominent business strategies. However, very little has been said about the ethical questions we all address when shopping for that fast delivery of critical, effective online data sourcing.

Yes, the World Wide Web was meant to be an endless source of information accessible to all, but that’s not the reality today, especially when it comes to businesses. What is accessible to an individual based in Toronto, Canada, will not be accessible to someone based in Cardiff, UK.

For this reason, many rely on web information providers. But what should businesses specifically be looking for in the right kind of online data collection provider? And why is it important to pay attention to these elements sooner rather than later? Let’s start with the most important element of all: transparency.

For a winning strategy, seek transparency in every step of your data collection. Look through the entire process and check how the provider sources the data, including what the network is based on. It’s not always easy to spot the good guys from the bad actors. A good place to start is by checking how transparent and open the provider that you are considering is. Evaluate how forthcoming they are with their network set-up, data sourcing process, and compliance procedures as well as with how they address security concerns. What business cases do they accept and why – what guides this provider overall?

How in-depth should your investigation be? The following aspects will help guide you:

Consent:
Hand in hand with transparency is the element of consent. Full, clearly stated, and detailed consent must always be required for individuals or customers to opt in to the data collection network. Every extensive data collection network relies on IP addresses of real individuals. However, not all of them require using responsible, well-defined methods. You must always ask for full consent in return for an actual benefit. The terms of opting in must be clearly stated. Similarly, opting out should also be as easy as joining, if not easier. Furthermore, it is important that the opted-in users are fully aware of what their IP addresses are being used for and how their devices are being used. As mentioned, any user or peer who is contributing their IP address to become part of this data collection network must knowingly agree to join the proxy network.

The stringency of compliance measures:
A reminder, the web was meant to be transparent. That transparency is what all providers should aim for. Online data should serve the goal of promoting web-transparency and providing businesses equal access to the web. The provider should promote such business cases and be open about their compliance and ethics guidelines. This should serve as an integral part of their value proposition to their customers, including clearly stating cases that have been allowed or refused in the past and reasons for refusal. Compliance is not just a nice element to have or a quick process that one must go through to use the much-desired data collection network. It should be a precise process that looks into the reason and legitimacy for collecting online data. Compliance should also ensure that the network remains clean and secure from those who wish to use it for fraudulent or illegitimate activities, which can compromise your operation in the process.

Continuous monitoring:
The data collector should be able to articulate how they actively monitor any users that are attempting illegitimate actions, such as fake engagement on social media channels and more. They should illustrate and, if possible, have specific and recent audit reports that demonstrate the safety and security of the network. This is essential. Data is a powerful and critical tool – it must be always protected and never compromised.

Compliance with all major regulations:
GRPR and CCPA compliance is an absolute must, and the company should be able to prove that they are adherent to these laws as well as to future emerging laws.

As well as being a focus for individual users, the industry also needs to take steps to ensure the right framework is in place for the business community, the public sector as well as the academic community and more to follow. An encouraging development was made towards this earlier this year when a first-of-its-kind committee that will address all of these concerns was launched. To overcome challenges the industry must be aware of them and use its collective force to adapt in the correct way – and this is an important first step.

The power of data

Data has never been so powerful and in the past 12 months we have seen it is the backbone for businesses as it has helped anticipate consumer demand and fuel innovation. It’s the element most businesses cannot live without. That being said, avoiding asking the tough ethical questions makes this entire sector open to risks that we will all have to address later on at a much greater cost.

Therefore, users and providers alike must be proactive in addressing potentially critical concerns to avoid trouble in the future. There is only so long the can is able to be kicked along the road on this one and thanks to the data revolution we are living in – the time to act must be now. So, ask these questions and carefully explore the answers. After all, your business decision and future strategy greatly rely on this specific information. Select the avenues of continuous success based on an ethical and responsible data collection path.