Every day comes with another digital security breach, surveillance disclosure and what not. The world seems have grown used to it and continues its business as usual. It doesn’t seem to be bad enough to really act.
Every day comes with new stories about the end of the Middle Class, IT taking over jobs in places where up to very recently that was inconceivable, not in people’s wildest dreams would these jobs disappear. Also this is not so terribly disturbing as the news continues without debates on discussing potential limits of IT development for the sake of job security. Earlier this year I had already concluded in a blog post that there are no 21st century Luddites.
Recently people that work in the IT field, whether from a technical angle or IT law, have uttered that they are disturbed by recent developments, the speed of that development and the potential effects of those developments for the individual and society as a whole. Think of the near endless leaking of personal data to hardly known companies and governments, leading to combinations of data being made that can lead to profiling, with unknown impact on a person(‘s private life). The data that is or soon will be generated by the Internet of Things, including apps, sensors, cameras , etc. attached to a person, his personal devices, his home, car, roads, etc., is going to add to that commercial profiling and governments storing even more data on its citizens.
The question that is in need of asking at the turn of 2014 is: What society do you and I want to live in? It is time to start a fundamental discussion on the ethical side of IT development.
The Digital Revolution
In 2014 the world is in a major transition, if not in the midst of a digital revolution. Things happen because they can happen. The technology is there, the will to invest in the development and/or the deployment of that technology also. Faster and faster researchers and inventors come up with new techniques, faster and better software, the hardware to store it in, the gadget to make them more attractive to users. Entrepreneurs find new ways to deploy, use, analyse and sell the resulting data stream.
On the other hand there are (non-suspecting) consumers and users that adapt so fast to this new world. The younger generation does not know any better and is encapsulated totally in this new world. They live a totally different sort of life than all generations before them. Hardly anyone understood the business model of Google, Facebook, etc. at the start of using these services. Perhaps most still do not. It was there, free and easy to use and consumers started using it and quite rightly so. Changes happen so fast, that there is no time for reflection and those who do are just calling out in a desert. No one seems to hear or understand those calling out.
It won’t come as a surprise to you that in the past years I personally have made the digital transition as well. From PC to cell phone, to an Internet connection, to a laptop, to ADSL, to smart phone, to Internet banking, you can find me on a few, not all, social media, etc. Like most people have, and although I had some doubts concerning digital security, there is no stopping the development. Not as an individual and why should we? Things are much easier, often better than before. But should that keep us from asking some serious questions? I do not think so.
IT in politics
At the ecp Year conference, 20 November 2014, I heard a Dutch parliamentarian quoting an unnamed colleague, also an ICT spokesperson, as having said: “but I know nothing about ICT”, in parliament and added: “Suppose that another colleague would say: “I know nothing about health care””, while being the spokesperson of his or her party for health care. That would be unacceptable, while for IT it is acceptable. And that is sort of unacceptable, isn’t it? IT is the defining topic of this decade and about to change the way humans live at least for a considerable period of time if not for ever. In other words, there is no escaping discussing IT and investments, IT and education, IT and cyber security, IT and surveillance, IT and …., IT and ethics. How can a debate about the consequences of IT ever take place if the spokespersons have hardly or even any knowledge of the topic?
I am not saying that parliament is the only place for a debate. Where are trade unions in this discussion? Where are consumer organisations? To name a few. So far only free speech and digital rights activists are heard mostly. Those from the desert.
It is normal and acceptable to discuss ethics in gen technique, cloning, euthanasia, etc. In fact a debate is started before there is any consensus on anything. Where IT and the changes, we all are in the middle of, IT brings to our personal lives, well-being, etc. is concerned, there is mostly ear-shattering silence. While developments race on at the speed of light. It is time that at different levels in society, including parliament, a debate is started on the topic of robotica, domotica, Internet and privacy, commercial personal data analysis, etc. from an ethical point of view.
Ethics and Internet? It is not too late to have that discussion. It may just be an excellent topic for the upcoming (NL)IGF. The Internet Governance Forum can unite different stakeholders, including those with different interests, in this debate and provide topics to reflect on for future use.
Wout de Natris, De Natris Consult
Leiderdorp, 24 November 2014