Why ethics now?

EPA-EFE/FOCKE STRANGMANN

'EU-DSGVO', the German abbreviation for the 'European Union's General Data Protection Regulation', or GDPR in English. 

Why ethics now?


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Ethics are the principles and values that define human virtue, well-being and responsibility. In their secular and religious aspects, ethics are practical and moral guides to virtue and vice, right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice. Ethics matter. They are the foundations of optimal law, public policy and the professions. They help us find meaning in finite life spans, and cope with the reality of limited resources and naked self-interest. 

Several years ago, as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation began a slow, careful journey towards implementation, European Union Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli began urging greater attention to ethics. Earlier this year an Ethics Advisory Group convened by the Supervisor and chaired by J. Peter Burgess, issued a report, “Towards a Digital Ethics.”  The Report proposed that traditional European values of dignity, personhood and democracy can be carefully rethought and applied in support of data protection in the novelty-filled digital age.

The 40th International Conference of Conference of the Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels has as its theme “Debating Ethics: Dignity and Respect in Data Driven Life.” The October 2018 Conference promises to be a unique opportunity for leaders to come together to explore the ethical implications of how  technology is reshaping social, political and commercial life.  A question of fundamental importance for the Europeans participating in the conference is whether and how in a digital age, traditional European values– presumed to ideally undergird the law, corporate best practices, and professional ethics—continue to define human excellence and serve human welfare. Many of us learned about these values in our families or religious institutions.  European ethical philosophy boasts the contributions of Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, to name a few. Core Enlightenment and Post-World War II human rights ethics are widely shared around the globe. They encompass fundamental principles of respect, dignity, self-determination, community, fairness and equality that are virtually universal.  There is thus something vital at stake for us all in the debates prompted by developments in EU law.

And yet, the focus on ethics in relation to digital life could be a sign of deep trouble. Often when a group of nations, a single nation, or an organization of professionals begins to focus on ethics, it is a sign of a serious problem. It can be a sign of crisis, an indication that something very bad has happened, requiring urgent practical steps to minimize harm and the risk of recurrence.   In the United States, for example, demands for the promulgation of ethical principles, policy and education have followed political scandals; widespread fraud and self-dealing in the financial sector; misconduct or cruelty by health professionals and medical researchers; and dishonesty by the  judges and lawyers entrusted to fairly oversee systems of justice.

So, I have to ask:  what is happening (or not happening) in the field of data protection and privacy to explain the call for attention to ethics? Is it concerns about data breaches, interference with elections, spying on world leaders, non-consensual data collection, big data analytics, profiling or discrimination? Is the call for attention to ethics the result of grave general concerns about the kind of people or societies we are becoming due to applications of artificial intelligence, big data, the “Internet of Things” and social media?

The call for ethics could be a proactive call in advance of the worse ethical disasters imaginable.  I hope, and prefer to think, that the call to ethics is mostly a proactive response to  innovation.   And yet I know we can all cite examples of missteps by governments, businesses and individuals that suggest the ethical challenge is one of correction and not mere prevention.

Either way, we must applaud the EU for the bold move in 2018 to focus on ethical self-understanding. Law is but a means and alone cannot determine right direction.  As a global community, we cannot afford to go mindlessly where ever technology innovators and adapters may choose to drag us. Rather, with skill, knowledge and resources we must strive to be both intentional about the design and use of technologies; and creative in exploiting technology’s powers to advance human good. 

There will be a temptation, to view the conversations ahead in Brussels and elsewhere as a negotiation of sorts between ardent defenders of privacy and data protection, and entities with the strongest interests in profiting from the abandonment of consent and accountability norms.  Ethics cannot entirely escape the dynamics of politics and power.  But we should be slow to agree that ascribing dignity and privacy rights to individuals is unworkable simply because it constrains market or government entities who stand to profit from their abrogation. To paraphrase Supervisor Buttarelli, the benefits of technology must not be gained at the cost of the integrity of values.

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