What is data ethics?

As large-scale data analytics become entrenched in social, political and economic life, a counter movement dedicated to critically analysing and revising the role of data in society is growing. In recent years, calls for ‘data justice’, ‘data ethics’, ‘data agency’ and ‘data literacies’ have been coming thick and fast from scholars across a range of disciplines. While they differ in scope and application, they are united in finding moral solutions to the issues that emerge from a datafied society. Floridi and Taddeo contribute to the discussion with their short 2016 article ‘What is data ethics?’.

While recent writings (Hintz et al., 2019; Noble, 2018) have been critical of data ethics and its narrow application, Floridi and Taddeo argue that a ‘macroethical’ approach is ‘able to address the whole cycle of information creation, sharing, storage, protection, usage and possible destruction’ (p.3). As they explain, data ethics is the ‘branch of ethics that studies and evaluates moral problems related to data’ (p.3). Unlike the ethics of computers, which focused on the technologies, data ethics has more in common with information ethics, yet focuses more specifically on data.

Floridi and Taddeo argue that there are three axes within data ethics ‘defining a conceptual space within which ethical problems are like points identified by three values’ (p.4). This, they argue, helps to avoid ‘narrow, ad hoc approaches’ enabling them to address the ‘ethical implications of data science with a consistent, holistic and inclusive framework’ (p.4). The three axes are:

  • Ethics of data– focuses on the collection and analysis of large data sets and explores issues ranging from ‘the use of big data in biomedical research and social sciences, to profiling, advertising and data philanthropy’ (p.3).
  • Ethics of algorithms– addresses issues to do with the ‘complexity and autonomy of algorithms’ and calls into question the ‘moral responsibility and accountability of both designers and data scientists with respect to unforeseen and undesired consequences as well as missed opportunities’ (p.3).
  • Ethics of practices– focuses on the practices of those individuals and institutions involved in ‘data processes, strategies and policies’ and seeks to generate frameworks and guidelines that might ‘shape professional codes about responsible innovation, development and usage’ (p.3). Ethics of practice also focus on protecting the rights of individuals and groups.

Most data issues are not confined to a single axis, but instead have dimensions across all three. However, the benefit of the framework is that the diverse implications emerging from data science can be identified and analysed as part of one framework. While data ethics may not address the entrenched, structural issues that have been intensified by datafication, Floridi and Taddeo’s framework provides a practical way of identifying and addressing the moral issues of data.



Floridi, L., & Taddeo, M. (2016). What is data ethics? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 374: 20160360.

Hintz, A., Dencik, L., & Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2019). Digital Citizenship in a Datafied Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Noble, S. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press.