Ethical Transactions

Jerry Jones delineates the responsible management of personal data

Acxiom Corporation probably knows a lot about you. As chief ethics and legal officer and executive vice president for the analytics and software company, Jerry Jones is responsible for guiding how Acxiom uses what it knows. The company collects personally identifiable information (PII) from a wide variety of sources, such as public records and surveys about consumer buying habits, which provide data and insights that enable better marketing decisions. Jones, a former trial lawyer, joined Acxiom in 1999 and changed his title to ethics and legal in 2012 to emphasize the importance of setting the right responsible tone for the company. “It’s not enough to focus on the law without thinking about what’s right,” he says. As an expert on the topic, Jones shares six things every lawyer needs to know about ethical data use.

Define privacy
We all have notions of what constitutes private information, making it difficult for a business to divine the sweet spots in data use. Jones suggests starting from the premise that good comes from sharing information if done within an ethical framework. With a vast array of information becoming available almost daily as technology improves, it is easier for companies to collect, parse, and share their data. The key is to not go too far. “Technology changes faster than the law does,” Jones says. “If we just rely on a legal or regulatory framework to govern behavior, that puts us behind the times. By looking at data from an ethical framework, we can do a better job of protecting people’s interests, and ultimately the interests of the company.”

With knowledge comes responsibility
Acxiom operates on the principle that its associates are stewards of PII and are aware that inappropriate use can be detrimental to the company’s long-term success. “We have a tremendous amount of predictive information, which, to some people, can be a bit creepy,” Jones says. “If we get too close to the creepiness factor, people will be uncomfortable.” For instance, if a retailer has customer data indicating a teenager is shopping for baby items and sends marketing materials to the home based on the likelihood of pregnancy, that is a step too far because of the person’s age. “We have to apply the concept of respect for the individual at all times.”

Show what you know
Jones believes in giving consumers as much information as possible about how Acxiom does business. To that end, in September 2013, the company unveiled a portal called; the first of its kind, it allows people to view and edit publicly available marketing data the company has about them. “If someone wants to give us a better perspective, they can,” Jones says. “They also have the ability to opt out of the data we use for marketing information.” The site has been well-received by consumers and is setting a new standard for the industry. “We think it’s important to bring a higher level of transparency to the business. People have the right to see the information that is collected about them and how marketing decisions are made.”

Privacy is a job
Acxiom created a position for chief privacy officer in 1991, making it one of the first companies to create a C-level position for this work. All associates, including the CEO, take an annual certification on ethical principles and rules governing data use. “We really build these concepts into the fabric of our business,” Jones says. This paradigm also applies to product development, in which questions of ethics and legality are debated well before any new prototype rollout. “‘We can do it legally, but should we?’ It’s a question we ask all the time,” Jones says. “Ethical use of data is a filter we always apply, and we put that filter on early in the process.”

Listen to the critics
There are plenty of people who don’t agree with Acxiom’s mission, and Jones understands their concerns. He thinks it’s fair to entertain arguments from the other side of the privacy debate, and it can definitely be educational. The company has regular conversations with privacy advocates and, in some cases, has changed behavior based on those discussions. “I was a trial lawyer, and if I didn’t listen to my opponent’s point of view, it was hopeless,” he says. “As a business, we need to hear opposing points of view.”

Lead by the example
Acxiom hosts a conference on ethical use of data as a forum to meet with industry peers and discuss trends, challenges, and potential solutions. For instance, Jones says the industry needs to move beyond the ubiquitous “terms and conditions” paragraph—the fine print people breeze through and sign off, allowing companies access to their personal data. “Is this really the best way to inform people about how their data will be used?” he asks. “This is the type of issue the industry should be discussing.” It’s also worth considering how US data paradigms compare to those of other countries. In Europe, companies can’t use PII without an individual’s express written consent. “In a global economy, this creates a conflict as we try to determine whose laws should apply. For instance, what data protection regime covers the cloud if the cloud is located in India? There are myriad issues that need to be addressed.”