This is a more complex question than it might sound. We know that ICT already gives a platform for freedom of speech, opening up new economic and social opportunities as well as enhancing democratic accountability. But it can also be the platform for crime, including horrific things like child sexual abuse; and there are clearly implications for data protection, given the vast amount of personal data that can be found online and in information systems. In the future, ICT could have a radical impact on our world, as it becomes ever more pervasive and ever more useful to our daily lives: but what would that mean for privacy or personal behaviour—even the nature of human interaction or society itself?
Back in March 2011, President Barroso asked the European Group on Ethics in Science and Technology (EGE) for their views. They’ve now given their opinion: and yesterday I was delighted to meet the authors and talk about their views in more detail.
They highlighted both where we come from, where we stand, and what challenges lie ahead, leaving no aspects of individual or collective life untouched. That’s great. Because although this technology is “new”, it needs to fit in with principles and values which are timeless: like those laid down in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights that guarantees human dignity, respect of freedom, democracy, autonomy, justice and solidarity. The challenge for regulation and policy is to make these two things fit together.
This means we need to protect ICT users’ own rights, both with respect to other users and to the state. And we need to safeguard a ‘decent’ civil cyberspace. Of course, we need to dedicate special attention and protection to the more vulnerable, like children, and teenagers: but on the other hand we should recognise that they are the “digital natives” – in their own way, experts who we should listen to, and who can take us towards a whole new kind of digital literacy.
Here’s one development in particular EGE looked at: the ‘Internet of Things’. That could bring smart devices everywhere: from the fridge in your home, to sensors in your car; even in your body. Those applications can be a great plus for users, helping them save energy, enhance comfort, get better healthcare and increased independence. In short it could mean happier, healthier lives. But those sensors also collect huge amounts of data, which brings ethical challenges—particularly when it comes to privacy and identity. So I also welcome that the EGE group recommends that we should invest in education and research into the ethical, legal, social and environmental areas of ICT. And indeed, this is exactly what we have put in our proposal on Horizon 2020.
More broadly, this group has given me food for thought across the spectrum of the digital agenda, both policy and research. Whether it’s the issues above, or Internet Governance, online behavioural advertising, e-health, radio frequency identification, or e-government: these are all areas we work on which will benefit from the EGE’s ideas; and I’ll be taking those forward.
Because they are right when they say that the digital society raises questions not just technological or political – but “philosophical, social, legal, ethical and psychological”. It is not always easy to connect those longer term issues with day-to-day policy making: but I want to try.
And that’s one of the aims of our Digital Futures project. One component of this, the “Onlife Initiative”, is looking at how we can put philosophy into practice by looking at what new technology means for various everyday concepts: things like privacy, identity, the notion of a “good life” and of “public space”. So please if you have ideas on this – let us know what you think!