DiPP - Ethics goes digital: who’s calling the shots?

30 May 2016
8:30 AM – 10:00 AM CEST
14 Rue de la Science (7th floor), 1040 Brussels

Widespread ICT-induced empowerment of individuals has proved a game-changer across the board, and that includes ethics. Governments, industry and civil society struggle with a wealth of novel issues whose solution, rooted in ethical choices, will shape our future.


  • Luciano Floridi

    Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information, Director of ResearchOxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

  • Lee Hibbard

    Coordinator for Information Society and Internet Governance, Council of Europe

  • Martin Abrams

    Executive Director, Information Accountability Foundation


  • John Higgins

    Director General at DIGITALEUROPE

Whoever reads the headlines lately must be forgiven for thinking business is calling the shots. And the layman would probably argue that citizens should be the ones afforded this prerogative in a democratic society. As to governments, they are nowhere to be seen yet, only trying to catch a train that has long left the station. It was not meant to be that way on the outset. The digital era certainly started on a different foot, with governments, particular in the US, playing a critical role. Therefore, they have little patience on realizing that they are increasingly sidelined.

Meanwhile, consumers appropriate digital technology faster and faster with each new generation. Those who live on line literally get ICT under their skin as opposed to those who would live with TV.

Anyway the ‘infosphere’ is a fact of life. There is no way back. So governments should catch this train as soon as possible and boost the very engine of developments that spell bonanza for our global world. Indeed, there are basically three breeds of players: those who do it, like the many industries involved and ICT-enabled consumers turned producers, not to forget academia which played a major role from the outset and keeps on helping this occasionally uncharted territory (though it is less of a terra incognita as one might think); the others who find it hard to admit that they can’t step aside; and governments, whose remit has always included foresight and an ability to anticipate. The last thing governments should do is to delude themselves with the idea that they can stop this train and rewind the bad road-movie of disruption. Nobody would agree lightly to leave the wealth of data that builds up by the day stay idle and to forego an environment which is smart across the board: cars, phones, watches, computers, cars and other devices that ‘think’ in their stead.

A suggested recipe to ride the digital wave successfully will blend the optimism of the will with the frustration of reason. Ethics is there to afford us a granular vision of how we understand society.

Closer to the ground, what’s cooking in the kitchens of governments or intergovernmental organisations will no doubt affect business. Since no one fancies endless fights in court, better feed policy makers with the facts and figures of the digital transformation and vice-versa feed business with the basic requirements of policy making than think and decide in isolation. Therefore, business is welcome to engage with governments and other stakeholders in the context of EuroDIG, for instance. But business is also welcome anytime at the CoE headquarters in Strasbourg, which allows them to address 47 governments in one swoop.

Business should think of intergovernmental organisations as deliverable-driven talking shops. It works well as exemplified by the 2008 CoE guidelines for ISPs and online game developers.

Just like industry goes by business plans, likewise governments have agendas agreed and executed individually or collectively. In the digital era, at least one concern offers an obvious overlap: trust, which is fast eluding governments as well as business.  As most of our personal experiences would tell, delivery, transparency and accountability are often seen as the holy trinity of building blocks to inspire trust. The next not-so-low-hanging fruit could see a definition agreed of what experience exactly the much-vaunted global access leads to.  In a nutshell, a joint approach can only result in a win-win: the CoE is ready to this effect when business is ready.

This reading is recommended to whoever wants to grasp how important consent is in data collection and management. Consent reconciles the main three clusters of stakeholders: government, industry and users.

Among interesting concepts or perspectives to toy with:

– data is vital to a fully operative world in the 21st century. This data is used well beyond our ability to understand or even imagine. Therefore, we can’t possibly be the active governor of that data and process. That’s where we begin to look beyond privacy as a Constitution-guaranteed value to data protection as a process.

– it may be interesting to portray data users as data stewards who can’t act only on their own behalf.  They have also to act in others’ best interests from both a legal and ethical standpoint. This takes us beyond the bounds of compliance on to the world of ethics. Compliant organisations are obligated to follow the law; ethical players must look at impact on others.

– In the simplest terms, ethical stewardship begins with the understanding that the organisation as the steward needs to understand the risks created for others, the benefits that come when creating those risks, how the risks will be mitigated, the residual risks to people, and whether the use of data in the end serves those the data is about.

– actually ethics is never as compelling as when there is a risk of failure. You can see it as a resource allocation issue. Data protection both reflects and enshrines the real value of personal data. Somehow ethics sets business free to create trust. Once trust is secured, you can turn your treasure trove of data into valuable insight, knowledge, concepts for interested minds to run with. The end bargain for companies is without an ethical process they can’t think with data. There is no limit in the US as to how far companies can go on thinking with data. This affords them a competitive advantage. On the flip-side, if the ethical basis is created in Europe it may enhance the value of business here.

– Europe is almost arguing that your personal data are like your lungs, i.e. an integral part of you; in the US they compare more to underwear: you can trade them. Pushing the metaphor one step further, one may ask: why can we donate our lungs and not our data in Europe? This issue contrasts with hate speech which can fairly be counted as low-hanging fruit likely to draw relatively easy consensus, at least within the same region of the world.

– people are growing uneasy with the notion that the grand total of their data might predestine their future in such a way that they cannot behave differently or be a different person to what AI predicts.

It’s called freedom vs the myth of predestination. From a more mundane perspective, you could panic someone to death or at least ruin her life by putting her of the list of next victims to a heart attack.

– a basic consideration to keep in mind on rebalancing the power play between government, industry and civil society is that governments are accountable to society. Business is not unless you would consider that consumers voting with their feet is enough of a rule of the game for trading products or services. One should hasten to add that governments and intergovernmental organisations are prone to make mistakes too.

– health is probably the area where the most urgent issues will pop up first. It covers the whole gamut from bio-ethics essentially informed by human dignity to the education of myriad app developers. Incidentally, self- and co-regulation whose trustworthiness is anchored in reliable Codes of conduct are a considered step towards workable ethics standards in the digital era.

At the end of the day, identifying who calls the shots at this precise moment in time matters less than ‘doing it together’ as suggested by an expert on the panel. EuroDIG, Annual Colloquia on Fundamental Rights are some of many opportunities for policy makers, business and civil society to compare notes and perspectives on a set of issues that concern us all.

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