Digital and its discontents

EPA-EFE/WU HONG

A Chinese traffic warden walks past shadows cast by trees and a surveillance camera on a red wall in western China.

Digital and its discontents


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We are living in a pivotal moment in the rapid evolution of data driven technology.  Just over 50 per cent of humanity is connected to the internet. This connectivity is uneven, with men benefiting much more than women especially in poorer parts of the world, according to the International Telecommunications Union.  As well as figuring out how to connect the rest of the world, we are also questioning whether the current model of digitization of society is worth the cost to human freedom and dignity which it appears to be entailing.

There are clear winners and losers and the present society does not know how to adjudicate because of the lack of a consensus on ethics in the digital sphere, not in Europe, and certainly not on a global scale.

Take the United Nations last month which was unable to reach agreement even on whether to start discussions on how to ban killer drones – machines, automated objects without human agency, which can take the life of a human being.  Or Myanmar, where the UN has reported, in horrifying detail, genocide and mass gang rapes aided and abetted by bad actors and unaccountable algorithmic decision making by a social media platform which, according to the report, ‘for most users …is the Internet’.

We are becoming sensitised to the deliberate attempts to design applications and devices so as to inculcate addiction, especially in children, to harvest attention as well as data.

Our leisure time is spent on what machines determine we should see: autoplay and recommendations – opaque, automated, algorithmic decisions – are responsible for 70% of online video viewing, according to YouTube itself. For many low-wage workers on which the one-click, one-day delivery of almost anything depends, their every move is tracked, recorded and guided by from shelf to shelf according to a logic which makes sense only to a machine. The rights of today’s robotized humans should be a more urgent priority than those of a putative future race of human-like robots.

Big data, surveillance and AI are being deployed by powerful states to control and coerce whole populations, with particular attention now focusing for example on the situation of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province, China.  Biometric identification, one of the most intrusive methods in terms of privacy, has rapidly become the means by which over one billion people in India get access to their social entitlements. 

So many of these practices which harm people, society and the environment, which offend basic notions of human dignity, are often not illegal as such. Those responsible for the practices may be well-intentioned, and they probably believe that they are complying with local laws.

But the ethics are deeply questionable.

This is why the European Data Protection Supervisor chose digital ethics as the theme of the public session of the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners.

Over 1,000 participants are now registered to meet October 24-25 in the Hemicycle of the European Parliament, the legislative chamber responsible in recent years for trailblazing rules on digital rights, notably the General Data Protection Regulation.

There will be keynote speeches from Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, philosopher Anita Allen, Sir Tim Berners-Lee inventor of the world wide web, former Chief Justice of India Jagdish Singh Khehar, European Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova, and Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. We will have expert speakers from the field of bioethics, Silicon Valley technologists, journalists from the front line of conflict zone and civil society advocates.  A panel of data protection commissioners from each continent will then consider what should be their role in the governance of digital ethics in the decades to come.   

For now, technology is still predominantly designed and deployed by humans for purposes defined by humans. But we are approaching a period where design, deployment and control are delegated to machines.  We should not allow that to happen without at least a clear and sustainable moral code to govern this brave new world.

Ethics comes before, during and after the law. It informs how laws are drafted, interpreted and revised. Ethics fills the gaps where the law appears to be silent and is the basis for challenging laws. Ethics is the framework for grappling with real-life dilemmas, in medicine and social policy.

What we must avoid is allowing ethics to be reduced to a worthless marketing slogan. What we intend to gain from this conference is a more informed understanding of how digital technology is being developed and deployed, and a firmer grasp of how ethical questions can be resolved equably and sustainably.

We will be able to examine calls, for instance, for a digital Nuremberg code or Hippocratic oath to ascertain and to govern what is right and wrong when approaching people’s digital lives. What is certain is that there are no easy fixes, but that there are helpful precedents.  It is an urgent debate which will and must continue in the years to come.

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