So, what about ethics?
The “ethical” side of digitalization is an area that we don’t spend much time thinking about. If we go back to our university years, digitalization would be the coolest student on campus and ethics would be the lonely student buried deep in the library.
We all certainly benefit from the wonders of the internet of things (IoT), robotics, biometrical technology, artificial intelligence, digital and social platforms, while we are also all concerned about privacy of personal data, right to a personal choice autonomy and personal security. The question is, where does ethics start and where does it end in the largely digital lives we lead today?
Most of the work carried out in this field focuses on the privacy of personal data. The IoT and Big Data Analysis are considered as particularly serious threats in connection with sharing and collecting personal data. When we share the privacy of our home and personal data with various software applications, our curtains open at the hour of our choosing, our coffee is warmed on its own, Xbox says “hello” to us, Alexa understands us very well, and we only encounter the films that we love most on Netflix.. In return, we waive our right to different options and the freedom of choosing from them.
Meanwhile, biometrical technology, which is used for public security and our personal security, doesn’t stop at the point of identifying who we are; it also codes how we feel and erodes our emotional privacy1 , making facial recognition one of the most commonly used methods in consumer research.
While digitalization offers new alternatives to consumers with disruptive technologies and innovations, it may also lead to monopolization and lawlessness. In a 2016 article, Lauren Henry Scholz underlines that while platforms such as Uber and Airbnb developed a business model established on disruption, she argues that the key to the commercial success of these platforms is the fact that the person renting his apartment through Airbnb doesn’t get any licensing for this service and Uber drivers work under minimum wage.2
A growing number of individuals feel that social platforms know us better than our friends and resent that our “likes” are packaged and sold like commodities, and our political tendencies are increasingly being manipulated.
While some social scientists believe that corporations are responsible for this dark face of digitalization3, others say that it is the responsibility of policy makers to put an end to “data obesity”.4 The European Union (EU) is a notable defender of the second opinion. The EU has imposed heavy burdens on data collectors since the 2016 Data Protection Law, which puts the personal rights of citizens under protection from exploitive use by Big Data. The EU took an important step towards addressing fundamental shortcomings by approving a 7 billion euro fund for regulating the field of artificial intelligence.
It is obvious that setting up the rules and guard rails for digitalization will not be cheap, and many questions remain about the most effective way to approach it. It is clear that policy makers cannot catch up with data scientists; technology, particularly artificial intelligence algorithms, progress almost independently from the institutions they belong to. Under these circumstances, “legislating” digitalization may not be sufficient on its own..
We need to make digitalization “ethical”, meaning that we should develop a different perspective on the usage of data. As data collectors, consumers and policy makers, we can certainly end this dark side of digitalization, as long as we are not lost in the lust of profitability or fall under the magic spell of technology, and stick to good old ethical principles.
In brief, we all want to be that cool student on campus, but we all need to also stop by the library from time to time.
1 Janssen, A., Kool, L., & Timmer, J. (2015). Dicht op de huid. Gezichts-en emotieherkenning in Nederland. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut.
2 Scholz, L. H. (2016). Algorithmic contracts. Stanford Technology Law Review.
3 Podesta, J. Pritzker, P. Moniz, E., Holdren, J., & Zients, J. (2014). Big Data: Seizing opportunities, preserving values. Washington: Executive Office of the President.
4 Hildenbrandt, M. (2016). Law as information in the era of data-driven agency. The Modern Law Review, 79(1), 1-30.
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