A Byte For Your Thoughts: Ditching ethics, embracing rights
By Jean Quéralt March 11, 2022
- To base our tech on ethics is a fool’s errand & a very dangerous one at that
- Solution: Find minimum common denominator that is universally applicable
The world – in general – is multicultural, it’s full of wars and destruction, so it wouldn’t be wise to import all of this into our societies.
Jordan B. Peterson
Ethics here, ethics there, ethics everywhere. When you start hearing a word a bit too much you can make a safe bet that someone is over-abusing it, not understanding what it means, subscribing to a buzzword or a combination of all those. Not to say that concern and interest aren’t legitimate options, just that they are less common.
Technologists have been having a field day with Ethics. All relevant organizations have been issuing their own Code of Ethics (IEEE, ITU, ISO, ISOC, IETF, you name it). Some have also issued recommendations in the form of actual “standards”, such as RFC 1087. The term has also impressively spiked in the past 5 years.
So… what are Ethics? Here are some definitions:
"[..] the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong."
"A system of accepted beliefs that control behaviour, especially such a system based on morals."
"A set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values."
See the problem already? Ethics are moral-driven, which in turn are derived from cultural elements, very different from one another by their own nature: you differentiate between cultures because of those differences. Moreover, morals change over time as societies face new challenges.
So which “ethical” system should be chosen, in the context of technology? And from which period in time? The one where honor is paramount (and suicide is regarded as an appropriate exit clause) or the one that rewards honor killings?
I hope you see what I did there.
Consider your digital twins, moving across platforms that adhere to different ethical systems. How can you be sure that they will be treated with the same level of “respect” if source and destination adhere to different ethical systems?
Is anyone expecting China, North Korea, Russia or Iran (to name a few) to have exactly the same interests in protecting citizen’s data as the EU? Is that even happening with mainstream Big Tech platforms in Western cultures, to begin with? Ask Snowden.
One quick example extracted from RFC 1087, where the Internet Activities Board (IAB) expresses their repudiation of “unethical and unacceptable any activity which purposely: [...] (e) compromises the privacy of users.”
That’s coming from an organization with dozens of engineers working for Big Tech, which invests all energies in extracting citizens’ data by any means possible.
Now think of AI and all the buzz around Ethics. I am forever perplexed at this one.
To base our technology on ethics is a fool’s errand and a very dangerous one at that. We need to be reminded that technology is morally agnostic and that it is largely unaffected by traditional borders. It is however built by people so their role as NextGen Rights Defenders can’t be understated.
More concerning even, these (assumedly) well intentioned yet confusing set of ethical propositions say nothing about how to implement them so we are confronted into further segmentation, even inside a given ethical adherence.
The solution: finding a minimum common denominator that is universally applicable to people anywhere in the world. In other words: Ethics must give way to Rights.
Despite having different levels of implementation (International, national, local), the main quality of Rights is that they usually tackle universal features of human existence. I’ll get into more details in the next episode though let’s quickly say that all humans can benefit from things such as Freedom of Expression or Freedom of Movement, regardless of your cultural milieu because their absence inevitably leads to their demise. You don’t get to talk, you can’t express your needs, you’ll end up dying. You can’t move to where the food and safety is, you’ll end up dying. It very much is that simple.
Instead of building our digital societies around ethical systems, potentially plagued by antagonistic concepts and with not clear implementation guidelines, which will inevitably lead us to unmanageable disasters, we should instead invest in changing our perception on the nature of data and architect digital societies around Data-Centric Digital Rights. In other words, compliance with local legislations should be transparent to the citizen and done on the basis of universally critical considerations of protection over their lives and that of their digital twins.
That said, let’s please all remember that there are no Rights without Responsibilities.
We, plumbers, programmers, business developers, lawmakers, career politicians, educators, as citizens all of us (and ultimately digital citizens) have the inescapable duty to work together towards maintaining the Rights that we enjoy through the exercise of our Responsibilities.
The protection of our digital twins though frameworks such as the Universal Declaration of Digital Rights (UDDR) will not magically happen, they will be the result of changes of paradigms in the understanding of the nature of data and the architecture of digital platforms around the protection of the survival of our digital twins through the observance of their Digital Rights. Most importantly, it will need the mobilization of technologists as first line defenders of all these Rights.
“Do we have good examples of technologists taking a side?”, you may ask. Take a peek at the history of encryption in communication protocols. We can and we did.
So what’s next?
In the next episode we’ll have a peek at how Rights could be implemented and what would be the different stakeholders and flow of it all.
The best part? You’ve already been doing it… only not for technology.
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