Ethics Washing Is When Ethics is A Substitute for Regulation

Paper. The rise of the ethical technology debate runs in parallel to the increasing resistance to any regulation at all. Assistant professor Ben Wagner is worried that the focus on ethics can be used as a way of getting around regulation. He argues that we need common criteria for ethics or we risk that the many different ethics frameworks become arbitrary, optional or meaningless. 

“As part of a panel on ethics at the Conference on World Affairs 2018, one member of the Google DeepMind ethics team emphasised repeatedly how ethically Google DeepMind was acting, while simultaneous avoiding any responsibility for the data protection scandal at Google DeepMind (Powles and Hodson 2018). In her understanding, Google DeepMind were an ethical company developing ethical products and the fact that the health data of 1.6 Million people was shared without a legal basis was instead the fault of the British government.”

This is an example of ethics washing mentioned in a paper by Dr. Ben Wagner, Assistant Professor and Director of the Privacy & Sustainable Computing Lab at Vienna University of Economics and Business. According to his paper ‘Ethics as an Escape from Regulation: From ethics-washing to ethics-shopping?’ (2018), there are a lot of good approaches to ethical tech development, but there also seem to be ethical approaches to e.g. artificial intelligence serving as a substitute for stricter regulatory approaches, specifically in the corporate world but also in the technology policy world.

He offers 6 basic criteria which we could conform to as a minimum for ethics approaches to be taken seriously:

  1. External Participation: early and regular engagement with all relevant stakeholders.
  2. Provide a mechanism for external independent oversight.
  3. Ensure transparent decision-making procedures on why decisions were taken.
  4. Develop a stable list of non-arbitrary of standards where the selection of certain values, ethics and rights over others can be plausibly justified.
  5. Ensure that ethics do not substitute fundamental rights or human rights.
  6. Provide a clear statement on the relationship between the commitments made and existing legal or regulatory frameworks, in particular on what happens when the two are in conflict.

While this list may seem simple, many existing initiatives are not able to respond to these challenges, he concludes.

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