What is digital ethics?

Internet Ethics: a key part of the digital future

Human rights Internet Transparency

The unstoppable growth of technology has transformed our habits and behaviour and created unprecedented dilemmas which could put our future as a digital society at risk. The solution? A new set of ethics based on the source of this change: the Internet.

The Internet requires a set of ethics that lays down the guidelines for peaceful coexistence and guarantees the rights of all citizens.

Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, robots, cybersecurity... At this stage in the game, nobody doubts that technology has had a positive contribution to society, but it has also generated changes which pose real challenges. For example, our way of relating to one another, our consumption habits and even our personalities are not the same as they were 20 years ago. Now, immediate access to information and the relinquishing of our privacy are part of our day-to-day lives.

And according to the experts, this is just the beginning. "In the next few decades technology will be responsible for more changes than there have been in the past 300 years", says German futurist Gerd Leonhard. This transformation brings with it risks, opportunities and dilemmas which society will need to tackle to ensure that advances in technology benefit everyone. How? The majority of experts agree: with a new set of Internet ethics that lay down the guidelines for peaceful coexistence and guarantee the rights of digital citizens.

Responsible internet use in the digital society

The debate on the meaning and content of these ethics remains open. The current global consensus is that digital ethics is the social code necessary to solve the problems caused by the mass use of the Internet. What are we referring to? Intellectual property rights, security attacks, limits to freedom of expression, regulating big corporations, our ability to switch off from work, social media behaviour and of course, the privacy of our personal data as we become more and more concerned about what might happen to it: who is collecting it and why, and whether it is properly protected.

In this regard, Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard IT law professor and author of the book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it, says that big corporations, present in every aspect of our lives, should adopt what he calls loyalty ethics toward their users. "We need them to see us as more than individuals to whom they want to sell ads. We need them to help us and treat us like people". This is a view shared by many. These debates have grown after several companies have been condemned for security problems in terms of data collection. There is currently a debate as to whether legislation should intervene and if so, whether it will be able to be sustained.

ciudadano digital
Keys to being a citizen responsible digital citizen

The principles of digital ethics

Defining right and wrong in the physical domain has taken centuries and it is still a controversial subject today, so doing this in the virtual domain becomes even more complicated. However, at the last Davos Forum, 40 business leaders signed a Digital Declaration establishing a set of principles to serve as a guide for establishing a set of digital ethics. Some of these principles are summarised below:

Developing digital skills is an integral part of educating citizens across the globe.

 A dynamic digital society
Digital products and services need to continue to innovate and provide invaluable benefits to society.

 Data and privacy
Respecting people's privacy by handling their data responsibly, securely and transparently.

Cooperation to mitigate cyber threats and strengthen people's digital security.

 Cooperation and dialogue
Dialogue and collaboration between all those involved — no matter where or what sector they are from — to further develop the digital future.

Digital ethics for business and organisations 

As part of this collective need to overcome these new challenges, organisations also have a lot to say. "Companies will start to curb efficiency and growth at any cost in order to introduce integrity criteria", says Rachel Bostman, a professor at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. Katie Lawler, chief ethics officer at US Bank, takes a similar stance: "Companies are beginning to take note of their responsibility and are making ethics a central function".

Because of this, many companies are already following in the footsteps of universities like the University of Oxford and Loyola University Chicago, which have created their own digital laboratories to promote dialogue and research to better understand new habits in digital environments. How do these laboratories apply to business? By training heterogeneous and cross-cutting work teams — IT experts, digital communicators, lawyers specialising in IT law, etc. — to explore changes and provide a comprehensive overview of digital ethics in companies.

 Interview with Rosa Kariger

 What is cyberbullying?