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Ethical Design Nudging Supports Autonomy and Transparency

Privacy Nudging 3. Do we have an obligation to support users of digital systems in critical situations? In decisions where individuals tend to choose an alternative against their preferences, nudges can support individuals to align their behavior with their intention. To do so, digital privacy nudges should be designed in an ethical way. Supporting individuals’ autonomy and transparency can be a starting point.

The concept of nudging has received great attention from academics and practitioners and has found its way into the digital environment. The underlying idea of digital nudging is that the alternative and behavior that is chosen often depends on how the choice is presented. Thus, some might argue that choice architects almost have an obligation to support their users in critical situations. In particular, in decisions where individuals tend to choose an alternative against their preferences, nudges can or should support individuals to align their behavior with their intention.

Nudges should be designed to make an individual’s life safer, easier and of greater benefit. However, beyond the potential of digital nudging for the greater good, i.e., improving the privacy behavior of individuals when using information systems, the concept and underlying mechanisms of digital nudging are oftentimes used for other purposes. Many individuals are nudged in a direction that supports the needs of a company, but not necessarily the needs of users. For instance, in the online shopping environment, nudges can be advantageous from the seller’s point of view but manipulate an individual to unintentionally enter into a contract, to accept cookies or an excessive price.

This is the third article in a mini-series on privacy nudging. The first is Privacy Nudging Can Stop Irrational Decision-Making The second is Capturing the Complexity of Digital Privacy Nudging

The design of digital nudges has become more and more popular. Therefore, it is crucial to reflect and discuss future directions how innovative information systems and digital nudges should be designed. Many argue that nudges should be designed in an ethical way. To do so, researchers and practitioners came up with various tools, such as checklists for ethical nudge designs supporting designers. They state as a core component, nudge designers should ensure that the nudge element should be beneficial for the nudge receiver. This would be the case when the nudge was positively judged by the receiver themselves. Other studies focus on the effects of control, trust, risk and self-disclosure, differences between privacy concerns and perceived privacy risks or whether the choice architecture affects users to actively make a choice. Changes in the decision environment and so called choice architecture affect individual decision making. Thus, it is crucial that there are many concepts and components to consider.

An interesting perspective when looking at how to design digital privacy nudges can be derived from the concept of legitimacy. Legitimacy considers that dealings between different entities are fair. Formally legitimacy can be defined as a “generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed systems of norms, values, beliefs and definitions”. If nudges are not legitimately designed, some could argue that these nudges can be manipulative.

This is important, as offline and online environments offer no neutral way of presenting choices, for instance even the wording of the question or the order of presenting alternatives can guide our evaluation and decision-making behavior. When choice architecture cannot be neutral, they especially should not be manipulative and for instance undermine an individual’s autonomy. A prominent example is the framing of decisions to accept internet cookies. Framing can be done in two ways: To support the collection of user data, or to protect user data by framing the legal and ethically compliant alternative. Although data-protection-friendly defaults are set in accordance with legal requirements, more and more internet platforms are framing the decision in such a way that it is easier for users to agree to additional cookies than to keep the actual default. Thus, legitimate nudge designs should urgently promote individuals’ autonomy and transparent disclosure of the used and implemented nudges in digital work systems
Extra read: Get Gid Of the Green Buttons. They Are Pure Manipulation

Autonomy and Transparency
This mentioned approach would bring up two important concepts to consider:
(1) the autonomy of the user and
(2) the transparency of the choice architecture.

Addressing the principle of individuals’ autonomy can be seen as one of the core ethical and human right concerns. Ensuring autonomy can mean that we give “weight to an individual’s freedom to choose and to determine, for themselves, how to live their own life”. From this, the necessity for the moral principle of transparency and transparent design of choice architectures and digital nudges arises. Some can argue that an action is considered manipulative if it is not transparent. Therefore the question arises what level of transparency would be sufficient? Addressing this question, John Rawl’s publicity principle can offer a starting point of guidance. According to this principle, transparency is sufficiently ensured if nudges that are implemented can be publicly defended by the nudge architect. Through Rawls’ publicity principle, the respect for the individual would be preserved. However, it must be said that analyzing the underlying mechanisms of how nudges work can provide further aspects of finding a right level of transparency. Some nudges would address the automatic or reflective thinking modes and would therefore be differently transparent to the user.

On the same note, many choice architects believe that individuals should be informed about such interventions in order to preserve their autonomy and to protect them from abuse by nudges. Accordingly, nudges should be designed in a way that it is possible for anyone who is paying attention to notice the nudge and the intention of the decision architecture.

As nudges can trigger behavior that is sometimes in line with specific stakeholders interests, for instance a specific company, but not necessarily in line with the individual’s preferences, these nudges would not be fair. Thus, as in many projects, considering the affected stakeholders is crucial. To do this, nudge designers should take a perspective coming from the individual level and then consider all stakeholder interests that are impacted, weigh them in a fair way and then design the nudge.

It must be said that designing digital nudges can be complex and there is probably no one size fits all solution. Some digital nudge designs are very context dependent. This means that some nudges can work in one specific context but cannot necessarily be transferred to another. Oftentimes designers have to thoughtfully weigh specific concepts against each other. However, to offer a starting point for thoughts and discussions, this article has proposed three perspectives to consider when designing privacy nudges.
Legitimate nudges design should thus support choice architectures’ transparency, ensure individuals’ autonomy, and consider all stakeholders’ interests that are impacted by the implementation of digital privacy nudges.

Parts of this post were first published in:
Barev, Torben Jan; Schöbel, Sofia; Janson, Andreas & Leimeister, Jan Marco: DELEN – A Process Model for the Systematic Development of Legitimate Digital Nudges. 2021. – International Conference on Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology (DESRIST). – Kristiansand, Norway.