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Defining Digitalisation: Defending Ethical Principles in the Digital Age

27 October 2021| doi: 10.5281/zenodo.5603373

The internet is a vast operational domain. States, individuals, and platforms pursue independent goals based on national or self-interest. Creating value and ensuring sustainable civil societies does not possess the same meaning for each of these stakeholders. Ensuring that ethics play an important role in digitalisation has been a key focal point of the international “Ethics of Digitalisation” project initiated by the Network of Centers (NoC) and supported by researchers at the HIIG. At the recent Stakeholder Dialogue event, we went over progress in the field of ethics of digitalisation, further brainstormed how to turn our visions into practice, and discussed how digitalisation can be made to work for everyone. These were the key outcomes.

Framing Digitalisation

Since its founding, the NoC has been tasked with pursuing scientific research on topics related to digitalisation. Over the years, our researchers have noticed that ethical standards have not been made operational for all stakeholders. Since 2020, under the patronage of German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, researchers at the HIIG have therefore been working together with global partners from the NoC on their international project “Ethics of Digitalisation”, which aims to provide answers to challenges regarding the implementation of ethical principles and practices in the digital realm from a global perspective. We concluded that reducing the digital divide, educating citizens about technology and digital self-determination, and understanding and avoiding the discriminatory side effects of algorithmic decisions are all key for a global solution.

The research team involved with the “Ethics of Digitalisation” project was eager to share some of the insights and innovative research methods applied within the project with the German platform governance stakeholder community. In early October, the HIIG invited around 30 representatives and experts from the science, civil society, politics, and public administration fields to Berlin. Here, we created a safe space for the participants to equally and openly exchange their thoughts and experiences in their respective fields in relation to digitalisation. The aim of this intellectual exchange was to take stock of progress in the field of ethics of digitalisation, and define goals for an ethical digitalisation, along with the necessary requirements to reach them. Here is what we discussed.

Visions for “Ethics of Digitalisation”

Where do we picture ourselves in 2040, after 20 more years of digitalisation? During the first session, participants shared their visions for ethics of digitalisation. One particular vision that many could agree on: human rights are key! An ethical digitalisation should put human rights at the core of the entire process. This vision pairs well with that of a digital world which serves the public interest, and aims to eliminate technology-fueled polarisation. However, this requires an understanding of what is discussed when it comes to ethics of digitalisation. We are currently experiencing a worldwide boom on artificial intelligence (AI) guidelines, which are attempting to define and dictate the boundaries of AI. Although these guidelines tend to frequently use the same terms, there is an absence of a common understanding of complex and foundational terms like “AI”. Therefore, one of the visions for how we picture a digitalised world in 20 years, serves as a basis for a common understanding of the key terms of digitalisation. The current issue we are facing when it comes to defining these terms could stem from a separate issue: the goal of digitalisation remains unclear. Comparing it to the climate crisis, the primary goal of all activities is to promote environmental protections and habits, in order to maintain a livable and healthy atmosphere on earth for all of its inhabitants. This common understanding of a primary goal is hard to find in the discourse on an ethics-driven digitalisation.

Conditions for Success

Ethical problems of digitalisation are often only discussed within a small bubble. Although prominently placed in most of the parties ́ policy agendas, digitalisation was a rarely discussed topic during the German federal election campaigns in 2021. In order to change this pattern of avoiding important and necessary discussions on digitalisation, primary stakeholders like members of the scientific community and civil societies could be tasked with combatting this challenge. The scientific community must deliver the foundation for a technical, legal, and communicative perspective on questions of human-machine interaction, and define the terms used in the context of digitalisation. When it came to identifying

important questions to ask, one idea received highly positive feedback: approaching digitalisation from a utopian or dystopian perspective. This was the approach with the HIIG project “twentyforty”, where participating researchers published stories about what could potentially occur up until 2040 with respect to digitalisation. Apart from allowing the researchers to engage with the project in a creative way, the method proved helpful in allowing us to consider what we should focus on, in order to apply the positive scenarios in the story to the real world. A different, yet similar method was also used to inspire participants to change the way they think. Rather than only focusing on positive scenarios and what a “human-centered digitalisation” could entail, participants were asked to discuss the potential characteristics and outcomes of a “machine-centered digitalisation”.

Civil societies were also identified as a primary stakeholder, which could play an important role in defining an ethical digitalisation. Civil societies can contribute to the cause by sharing results acquired from scientific research with the general public in a language that everyone can understand, while also addressing issues that other stakeholders may notice, in an effort to advance the broader discussion on an ethical digitalisation.

What’s Next?

The concluding session focused on the necessary steps to implement the visions of ethics in digitalisation. The ideas that were presented covered all stakeholders of digitalisation. Regulators should introduce a mandatory ethical assessment for all products related to digitalisation. Research formats like twentyforty should be widely introduced, in order to advance a common understanding of key terms in digitalisation. Civil societies should introduce formats such as “Digital Speed-Dating”, where individuals could meet with experts on digitalisation to help advance the public discourse. Increased cooperation between different organisations like digitalezivilgesellschaft.org could help enrich their work. Ministries should be held accountable to maintain consistent communication with representatives from civil societies. However, this accountability should not only apply to ministries. All participants agreed that a diverse group of stakeholders should come together more often to discuss the issues of digitalisation from differing perspectives.

“Ethics of Digitalisation”: Where Do We Go From Here

The Stakeholder Dialogue formed the beginning of the second phase of the “Ethics of Digitalisation” project: the documentation and communication of the findings that 139 fellows from 51 countries produced during eight research sprints and clinics throughout the previous year. German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will host the project’s closing ceremony at Bellevue Palace in February 2022, and the final report on “Ethics of Digitalisation” will be published next summer.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact info@hiig.de.

Nicole Butters

Intern: Science Management

Hanna-Sophie Bollmann

Student assistant: Ethics of Digitalisation & NoC

Vincent Hofmann

Researcher: AI & Society Lab

Matthias C. Kettemann, PD, Mag., Dr., LL.M.

Associated Researcher, Head of Research Group

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