Debating Ethics in the digital age

Giovanni Buttarelli

Technology is changing how we think, talk and act. How do we decide what is right and wrong in an age of connected people and machines? How do we hold powerful companies and governments to account? How should technology be developed and deployed in areas where the law seems to be silent or disputed? In other words, what is ethics in the digital age?

In two weeks’ time, the public session of this year’s International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners will open. It will not focus on privacy or data protection or specific laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), or even on laws in general. Rather, through Debating Ethics: Dignity and Respect in Data Driven Life, we want to stimulate an honest and informed discussion about what digital technology has done and is doing to us as individuals and as societies, and to consider future scenarios.

To help us do this, we will be joined by some very special speakers from around the world. We will have keynotes from the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, from founder of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee, from a prominent philosopher Anita Allen, from former Chief Justice of India Jagdish Singh Khehar and from the European Commissioner for Justice Vera Jourova and for Competition, Margrethe Vestager. There will be an interview with the President of the European Court of Human Rights, Guido Raimondi and video messages from Google’s Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and even King Felipe VI of Spain. We will hear from technologists such as Jaron Lanier and Pascale Fung, from former big tech insiders like Tristan Harris and Julia Angwin, and from frontline witnesses like Ray Serrato and Maya Wang who have seen how tech is deployed to repress or oppress populations. Malavika Jayaram from the Digital Asia Hub will speak about the ethical issues raised by the rapid roll out of biometrics to over one billion people in India, and Clement Chen of Hong Kong University will address the ethical framework which informs China’s Social Credit System. Monique Goyens of the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, Barry Lynn of the Open Markets Institute and Valeria Milanes of the Argentine Civil Rights Association will tackle the impact on consumers, workers and businesses of today’s concentrated digital markets.

The conference is an opportunity to learn about ethics as a philosophical notion. So we have a panel of philosophers to discuss how consensus about moral emerges in different disciplines and regions of the world.  Considering the response to the ethical challenges presented by digital technology, we will have a panel of data protection commissioner from each continent, representing the authorities in the Canada, the Philippines, South Africa as well as the Chair of the EDPB herself, Andrea Jelinek, plus experts from civil society, industry and other regulators.  That such a panoply of esteemed experts are willing to contribute testifies to the urgency and importance of this debate.

What do we mean by ethics? Simply put, ethics is about defining right and wrong, both in theory and in practice, generally and in specific circumstances. It is a well-established concept in many fields, such as medicine. While it is not an alternative to the law, it informs laws as they are being drafted, interpreted and revised. It can also help guide people and organisations in deciding whether or not to act in an area where the law is contested. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) itself, for example, may be considered to be drawing on the concept of ethics when it declares that the processing of personal data should be designed to serve mankind.       

Right now, however, there is no consensus on what is right and wrong in the development of digital technology. Just last month, the UN was unable to agree on whether to open discussions on banning weapons controlled by Artificial Intelligence.  It demonstrates how urgently a common digital ethics is now needed. The internet is more centralised than ever, with a handful of companies mediating our online interactions and determining what we see, which inevitably has an impact on choice and freedom of expression. These powerful players need to operate within a clearer set of ethical boundaries.

While it is true that many technological developments have brought benefits, we are confronting a range of new problems and challenges.

For example, new devices and software very often seem to be designed to induce an unhealthy addiction. Teenagers are spending between six and nine hours a week on social media, with studies showing a clear correlation between screen time and insomnia, depression and even suicide in this age group.  Child safety online is also a concern. Autoplay and algorithm-determined recommendations for online videos, for example, mean that eccentric yet harmless content can quickly lead to disturbing, or extreme or abusive, material.  Meanwhile, children and other vulnerable groups, such as migrants, asylum seekers, ethnic minorities and low wage workers, are also more likely to be the main targets of new surveillance and censorship technologies, including facial recognition and the scanning of private communications.

Threats to democracy and social cohesion are now enabled by digital technology. Much more disturbing that the ‘fake news’ controversy of the last two years, social media platforms are becoming tools for propaganda and incitement of appalling acts of violence against ethnic groups in Myanmar, India and elsewhere.  The social and environmental footprint left by technology also raises ethical questions. This ranges from the child labour used to mine the cobalt needed for the lithium batteries that power connected cars and phones, to the already huge and growing carbon footprint of devices, data servers and communication networks, estimated no current trends to rise to half of the entire world transportation sector by 2040.

Everywhere, the digital dividend between those who benefit from technology and those who are harmed by it seems to be increasingly unfair. We need to start thinking about the kind of world we want to live in and acting to ensure that the values we hold dear are adequately protected. All of these issues, whether behavioural, social, economic, environmental or political, point to profound questions of the sustainability of the current rate and nature of expansion of digital technologies.

‘Debating Ethics’ is a way to kick-start this debate and instil a sense of responsibility and commitment in those who are shaping our new world through the development of new technologies. It is a way to explore the differences between how the world currently is and how it should be, through identifying the values at risk and what must be done to preserve them. Debating digital ethics is ensuring that human beings, not technology, remain our primary consideration in this digital era.

So make sure you join CEOs, regulators, philosophers, technologists, data protection experts and many others from all over the world to get #DebatingEthics trending. I look forward to welcoming you to the European Parliament in Brussels on 24-25 October 2018 for a data protection conference like no other.