What is Data Ethics?

A lot of confusion about the term’s roots, history and disciplinary approaches is clouding the current debate. Is it “ethics washing”? Is it misappropriation of a term? Who “owns” the term?

The popularity of the term “data ethics” exploded in the late 2010s. In fact before 2016 it was only used in connection with “big” (“big data ethics”) and did not exist as just “data ethics” (trust me, we searched for the term back in 2015 and were really surprised about this!). 

Of course, this is all just semantics. The notion that information, technology, and computerized data systems have ethical and social implications has long traditions within different sciences and disciplines.  Thus, there are a range of theories, practices and methods within applied ethics, legal studies and cultural studies, social and political sciences, as well as a movement within policy, civil society organisations and even the industry, that are, and have been for a long time, shaping what we today refer to as “data ethics”.

Theoretical framing of “data ethics”

One important framing is here the relation between data and systems of power. In the highlighted section of this 2019 article, “data ethics” is delineated as the cross-disciplinary study of the distribution of societal powers in the socio-technical systems that form the fabric of the “Big Data Society”. Internet Policy Review – Making sense of data ethics. The powers behind the data ethics debate in European policymaking – 2019-06-14

DataEhicsEU and “data ethics”

In DataEthics.eu we also define “data ethics”. Not in order to reinvent and surpass existing knowledge or legal framings of the balance of power between citizens/individuals/human beings and the institutions and corporations in power in society. In fact, we position “data ethics” in a very clear fundamental rights and GDPR framework. We do this to help translate these very delicate power relations into the context of data intensive technologies and in ways that any organisation, person, business, engineer can understand. See DataEthicsEUs data ethics principles here.

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