You are at a dinner party, meeting new friends. At some point, one of them will inevitably ask: “So what do you do for a living?” You answer: “I’m a Web/Digital Analyst.” Realizing your new friends’ puzzled faces, you add: “Maybe you have heard of Google Analytics? That’s a tool I work with.” While most will still not know what you are talking about, one of them (probably that odd German guy) may say: “Google Analytics? So you are spying on people?” Ouch. He just spoiled your night. So can you really make the point that Web Analytics is ethically “good”?
I am in this wonderful time between jobs where I finally have a little more time off than I would have during a regular vacation. My new job will be the full-fledged “Digital Analytics” type. So, in this time of soul-searching, I also asked myself: Are you really going to do something that is beneficial to this world, something that is “good” in an ethical sense? I really like Web Analytics, but I did struggle in the past or at least felt uneasy when trying to justify why Web Analytics is “good for this world”.
Justifying my old job was easy
In my old job, that justification was rather easy: My employer, e-fellows.net, basically helped good college students with an “online scholarship”. We earned our money connecting the students to our partner companies, helping them to find jobs, mentors or internships there. An obvious win-win model. Students get something: a scholarship, and a better chance for a decent job. Companies get good graduates. Both sides win. No one loses.
Tracking cookies, collecting data – isn’t this all evil stuff?
Now I have left this place, and I am going to do Digital Analytics eight hours every day, probably more. I am pretty sure I will like the material. But will I morally feel completely at ease with it? That is, indeed, a little harder. Tracking, setting cookies, collecting behavorial data etc. – all these things sound scary to a lot of people, and they have had a bad press in the last years. So how can Web/Digital Analytics be a morally respectable profession?
What is “good”?
So what is an “ethically good job”? Let us superfluously state (superfluously, because I will spare you deeper discussion of highly philosophical terms like “happiness”, “harm” etc.):
a) A good job helps to create happiness, but more than just one-sided happiness. An extreme example of one-sidedness would be a company that earns its money by selling user data against the user’s consent, or a company whose management relies on intimidation and fear (like ever more reports suggest about Groupon Germany).
b) If the job also creates harm (which most jobs do, think of the extreme example of the butcher, or the police that may have to ask you intimate questions in order to find the murderer of your wife), the happiness created needs to massively outweigh the harm.
You do not have to be a nurse or work in an animal shelter for next to nothing in order to have an “ethically good” job. If your job creates financial value – like cost savings or profit gains – that is very fine. Without these, there would be no taxes or donations to pay for the animal shelters or the health care system that pays the nurses. Most people work in jobs that ultimately serve this purpose, and the creation of value and profit is what makes the world go round.
In which ways is Digital Analytics “good”?
So does Digital Analytics create more than just one-sided “happiness”? Certainly.
1. People as well as companies looking to be happy and financially successful set goals and control them. That is Ted Leonsis’ very first recipe for happiness in his inspiring book “The Business of Happiness” (Leonsis is one of the former main executives that made AOL a giant, and now a very happy, resourceful and responsible business and sports team owner). Defining KPIs and measuring if you are on track is THE very nature of Digital Analytics. Digital Analysts make reaching goals easier. Of course, they can hardly influence whether these goals are ethically good or not.
2. Digital Analytics helps website owners/companies create value by reducing costs and increasing revenue. This value created, like in the case of the consultant that helps streamline processes, can be used in ways that make people happier. The company’s CEO/the website owner can invest this extra money in research to improve its products (and that way also stay competitive), she can lower the product prices to make consumers happier, or she can improve the working environment so more people want to work there. Again, it is of course beyond the influence of the Web Analyst whether the money is being used in this way.
3. Digital Analytics creates value for all internet users by helping to improve website usability and content, and making websites, apps etc. more customer-centric. If you find out through your on-site search reports that your website visitors want “yellow shoes” and then offer these shoes in a more prominent spot, your visitors will have a better time on your website. If you find out which fields of your registration form users tend to fill in wrongly, you make users happier – and your company. The “double bottom line”, as former AOL executive Ted Leonsis, the author of “The Business of Happiness”, would say.
4. Digital Analytics creates more justice in organizations by helping to end biases and the rule of the high priests, or “HIPPOs” (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), as Avinash Kaushik has ridiculed them (I think he has done that too excessively because, in my experience, many HIPPOs do have a clue and are eager to know the truth). The “right” position of your main offer on the homepage now no longer depends on the opinion of your boss but on the result of the split test you conduct.
In which ways might Digital Analytics be “evil”?
By “evil”, I mean something that harms someone, physically or mentally. Let us try to leave out long-term effects here because they are hard to project (some people might point to the future of a data-mined world where everything is tracked and controlled and nothing is really private anymore).
There are some black sheep
Make no mistake about it, tracking technology, the main technology of the Digital Analyst, can be used for evil purposes. And there are some black sheep in the business (for example, sites like dictionary.com that set over 200 tracking cookies). These, I think, have been responsible for a lot of the bad press that cookies & tracking have gotten in the last years.
So which form of tracking is evil and which is not?
But does collecting personally identifiable information (PII) hurt someone if he does not know about it? Yes. If you steal 20 Euros from my pockets and I don’t notice it because I had forgotten about those 20 Euros, what you do is still evil because I have a right to my possessions, just as I have a right to know what happens with my personal data. Moreover, I would be really mad at you if I found this out. And I am sure you would have a guilty conscience, which is usually a sign that you did something evil. Unfortunately, this is the way the black sheep have worked in the past and damaged the reputation of the entire online marketing industry. Out of sight, out of mind.
What is anonymous? What is PII?
“But this example is trivial and obvious!”, you will say. You are right. Because the really spicy questions are: ”What is personally identifiable data?” IP addresses? Cookies? Or asked the other way round: What is anonymous?
Abiding by the law helps, but don’t “just” abide by the law
Most countries differ in the way they define privacy, the necessary level of anonymity, and the circumstances (which kind of user consent) under which you can collect PII. Abiding by the law usually helps to not be evil. But one of the most irresponsible attitudes, although one of the most common, is to say that you are not doing any harm if you just abide by the law (a form of legal positivism). Do not abide by the law and then switch off your brain. Trying to comply with the law sometimes even makes things just more complicated but hardly improves the user’s real privacy (see the German obsession with IP addresses when cookies, in most cases, can be much more “harmful”).
Use your brain: Would you really feel at ease?
Most of all, use your brain: Ask yourself if you, as a visitor, would really feel at ease with what your website/company/app does with your data? And would you understand the way your website explains to the user how it uses his or her data?
A must for every analyst: the WA’s Code of Ethics
To give your brain some guidelines, the Digital Analytics Association compiled the “Web Analyst’s Code of Ethics” last year that just about says it all: A Web Analyst technically makes sure the private data remains private, he strives for transparency, informs and empowers consumers to be able to control their data, educates his company and holds himself accountable to upholds the customers’ right to privacy.
Establishing measures of self-control: an example
Let us take an example for measures of self-control inside of your organization. For example, if there are ways for your co-workers to access sensitive user data, it is your responsibility as the Digital Analyst to notice the sensitivity of this data, and you should at least bring this to the attention of everyone involved – some people may not realize that this is really sensitive stuff. Even better, try to protocol who views which data, and leave the really sensitive stuff in the hands of very few people who in turn control each other. To give you an example: At e-fellows.net, our co-workers had the possibility to log in as another user. That was meant in part to help people who had some hard-to-detect problems with our website. By logging in as them, we could see the website the way they saw it and fix bugs more easily. So any time a co-worker logged in as someone else, this was protocoled on a page everyone in the company had access to. So no one could do this highly sensitive act without getting noticed.
You can never cover all possible holes of course, but it is irresponsible to leave the most obvious ones wide open. For the other ones, you need ethical people which may be even harder.
So why should I care?
Let me make one final point: It is in your own interest that you comply with this Code of Ethics. First, you are a surfer yourself. Would you like other websites to do nasty things with your private data? And second and most importantly, it is (I am repeating this, I know!) the intransparency of many an online marketer that has led to the current excessive scrutiny of the whole online marketing industry and its heavy reputational damage (see the European Cookie Directive for example).
Conclusion: It’s the people, stupid!
This may seem unsatisfying, but it comes down to this: Digital Analysts, like Web Developers, Database Administrators and other people working with sensitive data, need to be especially responsible and ethical people. Digital Analytics, in its roots, is a job of a very productive, value- and happiness-creating nature. But the job’s technology can be mishandled easily, that is why it should be a substantial part of the Digital Analyst’s self-image that this does not happen. So next time that friend at your dinner party asks you if you are a spy, you may answer: Digital Analytics is not evil at all, there are just some “Evil Analysts”. Just like there are in most other professions.
Discuss: what would be your answer?
Now I am eager to hear your opinion: If someone tells asks you if Web Analytics means spying on people, what would you answer?