Market research and the ethics of big data

Daniel Nunan

University of Reading

MariaLaura Di Domenico

University of Surrey


We never, ever in the history of mankind have had access to so much information so quickly and so easily.

(Vint Cerf, ‘father of the internet’, quoted in Silva 2009)

Concerns over privacy, and the collection and use of personal information, have been closely associated with the growing influence of technology in society (Garson 1988; Zuboff 1988). As long ago as 1890, legal scholars raised concerns over the commercial application of new photographic technologies in the newspaper industry. In their now famous paper on the potential impacts of the future use of information technologies in commerce, Warren and Brandeis made the prescient observation: ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops’ (Warren & Brandeis 1890). These concerns have grown significantly since commercial use of the internet first became widespread in the mid-1990s (Bush et al. 2000). For many people, the question of how personal data are used for marketing purposes has become a defining social feature of the internet (Nissenbaum 2004). Yet the same technology has also created significant new opportunities for market researchers to collect and analyse information to generate more timely and relevant insights (Christiansen 2011). To date, these two perspectives have existed side by side, albeit sometimes uneasily, with market researchers able to leverage the internet as an important research tool within the framework of existing ethical approaches. However, the trend towards ‘big data’ presents a number of challenges in terms of both the ways that personal information is collected and consumer relationships with this information.