A Penny For Your Bytes: Programmers Must Not Play at Digital God

  • Train programmers to change their current day-to-day paradigm
  • Start with comprehensive reform of programming educational pipeline

A Penny For Your Bytes: Programmers Must Not Play at Digital God

Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.

                                                                                               Groucho Marx

A Penny For Your Bytes: Programmers Must Not Play at Digital GodIn the last article, I introduced the notion that technologists at large and programmers in particular are the Next Generation of Rights Defenders and that we as a society need to provide them with all the necessary knowledge and tools to embrace this new (and somewhat intimidating) role. Most of all, we need to inspire them so that the transition is both understood and undertaken.

For the purposes of The IO Foundation’s (TIOF) DCDR advocacy, we will concentrate here on programmers (DCDR is Data Centric-Digital Rights).

An actual, meaningful change would involve a comprehensive reform of the programming educational pipeline, starting with a proper upgrade on the understanding of the nature of data, a full analysis of the lifecycle of data structures, their Digital Harms and thus their Digital Rights as well as the application of all these in actual architectures.

Admittedly, this is a bit too much for an overnight reform that is nonetheless necessary and overdue. Much to our chagrin, we are going to have to undertake this long process if we ever want to stand a chance in the face of the perils of misunderstanding digital technologies.

In the shorter term, a more reasonable approach would be attempting to guide programmers in changing their current day-to-day paradigm, giving them some quick-to-reach tools that may help them in steering the wheel towards a more protective software by design. Picture Jiminy Cricket (a Disney character who is a helpful individual with a strong moral compass) being a bro by reminding you that protecting citizens is a good thing and it’s not hard to do.

At TIOF we knew that elaborating long, complex principles would be ineffective and potentially counterproductive. We took to the task of elaborating brief, easy to understand principles that anyone could relate to.


Principle I - I am my data

Jiminy jumping onto your shoulder would proclaim: "Treat their data as you'd want to be treated."

Indeed, if we are our data then it comes to no surprise that the way we manipulate it is akin to the way we would treat its source entity. In other words we want to protect our fellow citizens by handling their digital twins with care and respect. Just as you’d like to be treated, dear programmer.


Principle II - End Remedy

Jiminy pointing at your source code would ask you to "Adopt designs that minimize grievances."

Derived from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the idea is exceedingly simple: proactively design architectures that avoid having to resort to remedial solutions. In other words, wouldn’t you prefer that a platform effectively deletes your data instead of you only having the option to sue them if (and only if) you discover one day that they didn’t honor your request?


Principle III - Rights by Design

Bouncing on top of your screen, Jiminy would encourage you to "Leave no policy uncoded behind."

Think about it: What’s the best way to give citizens peace of mind? Easy: Implementing, transparently and by design, all the policies that protect them mandated by existing regulations. Isn’t that what we do for pretty much anything else?

Now, taking the challenge one step further, could we turn the above into a pledge, a Digital Hippocratic Oath of sorts? Something along the lines of:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect my fellow citizens, for their problems and data, which is them in essence, are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a digital twin, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to erase a digital twin; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own technical prowess. Above all, I must not play at Digital God.

I will remember that I do not treat a dataset, a schema, but a citizen and their authentic digital twins, whose improper manipulation may affect the citizen’s family’s safety and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for people’s data.

I will strive to design architectures and to implement technology that embeds all existing protections whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with access to technology and those who don’t.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of building digital spaces that encourage societal growth while ensuring safety by design.

Fancy this version? How would you improve it?

So what’s next?

The next step in making sure that tech paradigms worldwide are aligned is ensuring that they all follow the same goal. Easy to say yet hard to achieve since everyone seems hell bent on this near-magica word of “Ethics” that simply means different things for different people. Let’s see if we can find an alternative to that conundrum.

A Malaysian based entrepreneur, Jean F. Quéralt founded The IO Foundation in 2018 as an organisation dedicated to promote, protect and provide solutions for Digital Rights.

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