Digital ethics to support future business innovation

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Driverless cars and drones dominate headlines on technology and ethics, but the more salient challenges in the field are ubiquitous and powerfully pervasive and embedded.

While the rise of digital technologies, platforms and information has been rapid, the growth in regulation, policy and public debate has been slower. As the UK launches a number of key initiatives directed at these very issues, Innovate UK has an important role to play in supporting digital ethics related opportunities.

What is ‘digital ethics’?

Digital ethics covers a range of cyber, computer and information issues. There is no clear consensus about its definition which reflects the emerging and evolving nature of the field.

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However, while by no means exhaustive, Innovate UK’s focus on digital ethics currently covers the following (sometimes overlapping) areas:

Terms such as digital platforms and technology cover areas familiar like:

  • social media
  • online games
  • smart phones.

Other categories are less visible day-to-day but raise important questions about risk and privacy. For example, our genetic information in its analogue form remains hidden coded in DNA and RNA relationships, but as digital information it can be visible and distributed.

Not just a list of technologies

What is key is that digital ethics is not just a list of technologies (however important) but involves asking questions about:

  • privacy
  • autonomy
  • security
  • dignity
  • justice
  • power.

It focused our attention on our relationships between ourselves and technology, and between each other.

Recent digital ethics issues include:

We’re at a crucial point in the development in digital ethics because much within the field is not yet agreed upon.

The ‘big business’ failures that put the spotlight on digital ethics

Digital ethics is not just about ‘tech giants’ but nonetheless it was the corporate scandals involving internationally recognised brands that helped to galvanise attention around digital ethics. A digital technology example was the 2018 case of Cambridge Analytica where individuals Facebook data was improperly harvested without their consent.

A digital information-related failure occurred in 2015 when Volkswagen modified their vehicles to allow them to pass US emissions tests. While technology wasn’t the cause, digital information made it possible for the company to manipulate emissions reading and scale up the mistake. Both instances brought calls for:

  • policy and practice changes
  • clear, consistent, and transparent terms of use
  • enhanced community engagement
  • greater management digital ethics accountability.

So why has action been well, slow?

Digital ethics is important because technology evolves at greater speed and at greater scope than our ability to understand it fully. This is despite how salient ‘the digital’ now is a megatrend accelerated further by the pandemic.

Different disciplines offer a range of reasons for the tepid response to date. For example anthropologists such as Pierre Bourdieu would argue that ‘the digital’ is embedded in the banal and every day. Because of this we accept its orientation as natural and unchallenged, part of our routines and expectations of life.

Social psychologist Sonia Livingstone’s work around the complexities of parenting in the digital age supports this analysis. Her studies reference the mundane practicalities of living with “tsunami” of digital stuff entering the home, “screens that parents’ trip over literally and metaphorically”.

Economics explains the inertia around digital ethics by way of the Collingridge dilemma explaining that we face a double-bind problem. This is because impacts cannot be easily predicted until a specific technology is extensively developed and widely used, but technology cannot be controlled or changed once it has become entrenched.

And finally in psychology the privacy paradox explains the contradiction between the high value we place on privacy yet many of us continue to use the services that undermine this privacy.

Problems of access but not as we know it

Digitisation has brought an undeniable range of compelling economic and social benefits. This includes democratising our services and allowing us all to access more information more easily. But with this has brought an increased level of exposure to misinformation and potential harm.

The irony is that it is the accessibility of many of our technology devices that have created unintended digital ethics problems.

For example, the simplicity in an iPhone design, particularly its ‘swipes and presses’ at the user interface means it’s relatively easy even for young children to use. But if not configured properly such users can be exposed to mature subject matter online.

Other potentially vulnerable or less sophisticated digital technology users such as elderly populations are also now exposed to new types of digital scams and marketing.

These concerns caused countries such as Australia to call for a tech industry seatbelt moment. The manifesto behind this call was that the current online world as we know it is not built for safety.

Australia was correct to point out that in digital ethics there are a range of different stakeholders whose interests do not align. In fact, sometimes even identifying stakeholders is difficult as virtual identities much more malleable and transformable than face to face interactions. But the key challenge is ensuring safety online without a slowdown in innovation.

What is the UK doing to address digital ethics issues?

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There are a number of recent and upcoming initiatives designed to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression.

This includes:

In parallel the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) sets out new regulation to boost UK innovation. In parallel TIGRR continues to honour the UK’s firm commitments to set the highest standards in protecting workers, consumers and the environment.

The role of Innovate UK

The regulation to innovation linkage or Porter hypothesis shows us that regulation is likely to reshape business’ innovation priorities. When properly designed and implemented regulation stimulates innovation, improving productivity and competitiveness, helping firms to identify resource inefficiency and stimulate the adoption of best practice technologies.

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This is where Innovate UK has a key role in play in facilitating reflexivity by:

  1. Aiding the work and business engaged in digital ethics to inform the regulations and policies.
  2. Helping businesses make the most of these new digital ethics structures.

Innovate UK is supporting businesses engaged with this new regulation, working to encourage businesses to create and scale up solutions that engage with consumers, and mitigate digital ethics risks.

We’re working to provide the foundation and energy for businesses to make the most of upcoming opportunities. It’s the leaders and trailblazers who will help deliver public confidence around issues of digital ethics whilst also being commercially successful. And in doing so digital ethics will support Innovate UK’s action plan, driving our economic recovery whilst keeping everybody in the UK healthy and safe.

Innovate UK is ideally positioned to support the implementation of digital ethics regulation, in both the demand and supply sides of affected sectors. For example, on the supply side Innovate UK are supporting initiatives around privacy enhancing technologies (PETs) (PDF, 3.1MB).

PETs are a set of technologies that use different computational and mathematical approaches to extract data value. In doing so PETs unleash the commercial, scientific and social potential of data, without jeopardising privacy and security.

To this end we are creating our future vision for digital ethics. This will provide a blueprint for innovation in digital ethics. It’s not just about emerging technologies or when things go wrong in tech, but helping to create a digital world fit for us all. Watch this space!

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