The New Data Ethics: building a pathway forward

A data ethics conversation has been growing on a global scale for some time now, but particularly since 2015, when the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) issued an Opinion on the matter and formed a Data Ethics Advisory Group to further consider the issue. Along the way, other countries, such as Canada, have begun formal processes to think about how to implement data ethics at a practical level.

First, the work in Canada. This week WPF is participating in a data ethics multi-stakeholder meeting as part of the Comprehensive Assessment Oversight Dialog: Canadian Data Review Boards Project (Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Project II).

The purpose of the multi-stakeholder meeting is to discuss lessons from research ethics boards in Canada and to obtain an understanding of an Ethical Data Review Board model that might be adopted via laws, implementing rules or industry best practices to enhance trust that data is being used in a legal, fair and just manner. The outcomes of the multi-stakeholder meeting will inform the report to be submitted to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in Canada by March 31, 2018.

WPF is interested in how ethical data review boards might be configured to consider ethical data uses in multiple sectors and circumstances. WPF’s position has consistently been that privacy is a subset of the larger issues of human autonomy, among other issues. Fairness, non-discrimination, and dignity are difficult to fully, globally legislate and implement, which leaves a substantial gap in addressing data issues. To resolve this gap, the growing dialogue emerging around data ethics is encompassing a larger perspective that includes privacy, and also includes fairness and other ideas.

In addition to the data ethics multi-stakeholder work in Canada, the European Data Protection Supervisor has issued a 2015 Opinion, and most recently in January 2018, EDPS released its report on data ethics, Towards a Digital Ethics. This report, published by the EDPS Ethics Advisory Group,  is a must-read for anyone working in privacy and knowledge governance. The idea of the report is to begin to craft the right questions to ask, and to begin the conversation:

The objective of this report is thus not to generate definitive answers, nor to articulate new norms for present and future digital societies but to identify and describe the most crucial questions for the urgent conversation to come. This requires a conversation between legislators and data protection experts, but also society at large – because the issues identified in this report concern us all, not only as citizens but also as individuals. They concern us in our daily lives, whether at home or at work and there isn’t a place we could travel to where they would cease to concern us as members of the human species. Towards a Digital Ethics, introduction

In the EDPS data ethics report, the construction of the analysis begins with “grounding” the ideas of  “the new digital ethics” in a two-part construction:

  • First, the EDPS Opinion Toward A New Digital Ethics (2015) sets privacy and data protection as crucial for the protection of human dignity.
  • Second, in the 2015 Opinion, dignity is cited as the key signpost for the new digital ethics, based on the European Union Charter of Fundamentals Rights.

The 2018 report builds on the 2015 Opinion and does something quite intriguing, in that its meta-analysis finds human values and technology as mutually interactive and dependent, acting upon each other in complex and sometimes unpredictable ways. The 2018 EDPS report called out eight baseline values to consider as important to be protected with the tools of data ethics:

  • Dignity (the signpost for the new digital ethics)
  • Freedom
  • Autonomy
  • Solidarity
  • Equality
  • Democracy
  • Justice
  • Trust

The report offers both breadth and depth of data ethics analysis, giving each of the eight core values a discussion to contextualize the importance of the concepts. The report concludes with a potential baseline set of principles consisting of the following:

  1. The dignity of the person remains inviolable in the digital age;
  2. Personhood and personal data are inseparable from one another;
  3. Digital technologies risk weakening the foundation of democratic governance;
  4. Digitised data processing risks fostering new forms of discrimination;
  5. Data commoditization risks shifting value from persons to personal data.

Again, the idea of the EDPS report is meant to foster discussion. There is much to discuss in the EDPS report, and much to discuss in the larger field of data ethics. The Canadian multi-stakeholder effort and the EDPS report mark the beginning of the curve of attention to this field of inquiry; much more thought and discussion from a variety of cultures, stakeholders, and viewpoints both of groups and individuals will need to be incorporated before any formal policies or ideologies are put into place. But no matter what, the starting bell has been loudly rung now, and the remaining question is: what are your thoughts, and how do you plan on joining the data ethics conversation?

-Pam Dixon


Related Resources:

EDPS, Opinion 4/2015: Towards a New Digital Ethics: Data, dignity, and technology 

EDPS, Report of the Ethics Advisory Board, January 2018: Towards a Digital Ethics