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New Report: With Digital Ethics European Values Need Rethought

Report. The Ethics Advisory Group (EAG) to the European Data Protection Supervisor  (EDPS) has identified the most crucial digital ethics dilemmas confronting humans in the wake of new technology. The report ‘Towards A Digital Ethics’ describes how we in Europe understand dignity, freedom, autonomy, solidarity, equality, democracy, justice and trust, and that these core values have to be rethought, re-articulated and re-purposed.

“If we accept the idea of a new digital reality, we also accept that it brings with it changing conditions of being human. It invites a new ethical evaluation, a new interpretation of some of the fundamental notions in ethics, and invites us to test the conditions of their validity for the new realities that present themselves,” the report states.

EAG has posed following important questions that need focus in the coming years:

  • how to link new data technologies to European values
  • the meaning and consequences of human interactions with machines
  • dignity in situations of declining autonomy
  • the market’s power to define what it means to be human
  • the dilemma of the multitude of choices provided by a digital ecosystem that is controlled by new forms of automation
  • new challenges brought to traditional understandings of ownership and property rights applied to personal data
  • responsible innovation in the digital ecosystem

Five Directions

The report does not override the GDPR, but proposes arguments to support and advance data protection as a project of European values. It describes the way traditional concepts of value may be rethought, re-articulated and re-purposed in order to assure the continuity of legitimate practices and anticipate an unseen future.

This task can, the report concludes, be condensed into five significant ‘directions’ of thought;

1. The dignity of the person remains inviolable in the digital age. Life in the digital age is close to a confrontation with the basic principle of personhood: dignity. Digital experience reshapes our understanding of personal identity, human experience and social interactions. Digital life will need to be compatible with the inviolable nature of human dignity.

2. Personhood and personal data are inseparable from one another. Personhood — understanding oneself as a person endowed with moral qualities, rights and responsibilities — is inseparable from the information produced by, and pertaining to that person.

3. Digital technologies risk weakening the foundation of democratic governance. The freedom of choice of each person is a fundamental principle of democratic self-governance. Automated, big data-based interaction with political decision-making may be incompatible with democratic processes.  Nudging is a good example. It  can be used together with forms of artificial intelligence and large quantities of data to promote particular interests or values and influence perceptions, choices and behaviors of persons.

4. Digitised data processing risks fostering new forms of discrimination. Profiling is part of everyday cognition and judgment. Digitally generated profiles based on very large quantities of data are powerful and increasingly unaccountable. One example is predictive policing. “The aim of criminal justice remains the same: to provide security within society while at the same time adhering to high standards of human rights and the rule of law. However, the shift that marks one of the main backdrops of the digital age and calls for a new digital ethics is that of trying to predict criminal behaviour in advance,” according to the report.

5. Data commoditisation risks shifting value from persons to personal data. The market value of personal data is not intrinsic but stems from its relationship to the person or persons who give rise to it. Ethical tensions can arise where human value and market value intersect.

Read the full report