Facebook, Google, Amazon and other internet behemoths are involved in a form of technological innovation that is acting as a “wrecking ball”, the president of the European parliament declared in Brussels this week.
“The aim is not just to play with the way society is organised, but instead to demolish the existing order and build something new in its place,” said Martin Schulz. “The internet lost its innocence long ago.”
Digitisation brings undoubted benefits, but if we want to prevent becoming “remote-controlled ‘data cows’ who live in a world ruled over by a handful of multinational companies,” he said, “we cannot leave debating ‘internet issues’ to the nerds. It is a debate in which all must have their say.”
Schulz’s challenge is profound. What is at stake is pluralism, autonomy and choice. It’s about democracy in the face of “intelligence and businesses’ insatiable appetite for information about every single aspect of our lives”. It’s about ensuring that “not just the happy few benefit from the digital revolution”, and that “those who want to stay off-grid are also protected”.
Culture and ethics beyond law
But Schulz’s challenge also risks being lost. He was preaching to the choir: an annual festival of data protection and privacy experts; people steeped in the increasingly discomfiting reality of trying to control data online – bits in a tornado. How could his message resonate more widely?
European politicians want the new General Data Protection Regulation – the most-debated piece of EU legislation ever – to be part of the solution, along with the remainder of Europe’s pioneering fundamental rights framework. But law is not, and cannot be, the whole. Mostly, it’s about culture and ethics.
One European institution wants to seize this broader challenge. The European data protection supervisor, or EDPS, is the EU’s smallest entity but also one of its most ambitious, and immediately followed Schulz’s address by announcing a new ethics advisory group.
EDPS hopes this group will lead an inclusive debate on human rights, technology, markets and business models in the 21st century from an ethical perspective.
Six individuals have been selected to spearhead what is initially a two-year investigative, consultative and report-writing initiative: iconoclastic American computer scientist and writer Jaron Lanier; Dutch data analytics consultant Aurélie Pols; and four philosophers, Peter Burgess, Antoinette Rouvroy, Luciano Floridi and Jeroen van den Hoven, who bring experience in political and legal philosophy, logic, and the ethics and philosophy of technology.
Technology needs a moral compass
Bringing ethics into the data debate is essential. And EPDS, which oversees how European institutions apply data rules and provides global vision and intellectual leadership on this subject, is an apt steward. However, there are two caveats.
First, ethics is a discipline of rigour – not a marketing tool. Second, the frame of reference must not conflate the possible with the inevitable: despite media saturation with drones, driverless cars, artificial intelligence and smart cities, the world of data is very much up for grabs. Our compass must clearly be about more than keeping data miners and data protection authorities in business.
In fact, our compass must be moral. So what is ethics and what should we expect this group to do?
A common misconception is that ethics is only a matter of opinions. Certainly, we all have intuitions about what is right and wrong, and anyone can contribute to moral debates. But ethicists bring clarity and richness in argumentation, distinctions and nuance – they go beyond the generic “right” and “wrong” to explore what is permissible or impermissible, obligatory or supererogatory (desirable but beyond the call of duty).
Ethicists bring knowledge, impartiality and experience that increase our chances of making better decisions. Because opinions are one thing, but ethical consequences bite: some choices make the world a better place by enhancing people’s wellbeing, and others do not. Making wrong ethical choices can create much unnecessary suffering.
The first step for any ethics committee is diagnosis: identifying possible moral problems that might be overlooked if seen from other perspectives, whether legal, economic, security-focused, or otherwise. Next, ethicists must establish what the stakes are for different interest groups and for the common good. From this, the most viable courses of action can be explored, tracking consequences and implications, putting them in a balance, and recommending alternatives that will help build the kind of society we would like to live in.
One may wonder if an ethics advisory group can have a tangible impact – whether anyone will listen to them. Medical ethics provides a reason for optimism. Ethical recommendations such as the Nuremberg code, the Declaration of Helsinki, and the Belmont report have been fundamental in shaping the medical profession. Debated and resolved by experts from around the world, they have inspired action and laws and introduced crucial standards that we now take for granted, such as informed consent and respect for autonomy.
Ethics is an antidote to technological determinism
As opposed to other kinds of reasoning, which typically appeal to what is, moral reasoning appeals to what should be – it’s all about counterfactuals. Ethics is about having the vision to imagine the many possible worlds we could bring to life with the decisions we make. As such, ethics can work as an antidote against technological determinism.
Recourse to fatalism – the idea that we are heading towards an unavoidable future – is powerful. It tempts us to embrace what is advertised as unavoidable, to surrender before the fight begins; it subsumes us into passivity.
But we must never forget that what was once thought to be inevitable has turned out not to be so. The proletariat revolution was not to be, the Titanic did sink, cinemas did not disappear with TVs, Google Glass did not become mainstream.
Technology enthusiasts and corporate giants want us to believe that their vision of the future is not a mere wish but a foretelling. Nowhere is this more true than in projections about our data-driven future, and in the spectacular narrowing of imagination about innovation to a suite of smartphone and sensor-mediated services.
Ethics is here to insist that the future is full of open possibilities, that we are free to reject those technologies or processes that will worsen our lives, and that if we do reject them, they will fail. The new European data rules and ethics initiative represent a tremendous opportunity.
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