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  • Jonathan Ebsworth

We need a joined up digital ethics ecosystem


This post addresses the fifth action point raised in techUKs Digital Ethics paper to focus on the urgent need to create a joined-up digital ethics ecosystem through coordination of initiatives and activities.

Previously ….

We have described the current technology revolution: how the debate around Digital Ethics has failed to engage the public. We explored the need for more appropriate language to enable the debate, and for a long-term campaign to bring the issues to life and engage the public We have discussed the need for business to demonstrate they are really serious about ethics, through actions rather than what they say. In our last piece we addressed the need to look at the whole Digital Revolution and not limit ourselves just to Artificial Intelligence (AI).

There are a plethora of public and private bodies addressing aspects of this topic

Within UK Government we have two Government Departments driving the political agenda surrounding technology: the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Between them they run the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), the Office for AI along with the Information Commissioners Office (ICO), which also is vital to this debate.

Beyond government there are many groups addressing aspects of this space; including the Ada Lovelace Institute, TechUK, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), Alan Turing Institute, many University-based bodies like Cambridge University Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, Oxford Internet Institute and the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, Future of Humanity Institute.

There are international bodies like the Future of Life Institute, the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on AI and the World Economic Forum. There is lots of activity, but it is difficult to find a clear, immediate focus for action.

Many voices; significant resources; can we make all the work count?

Substantial amounts of money are being invested in these bodies (I am sure most will say they need more). The issues are complex and there are many perspectives to be explored. While it is difficult to anticipate consequences, each of these groups bring their own perspective to Digital Ethics. There is material overlap and waste. Within the UK, there is a strong case for streamlining across Government with one Department overseeing the core Digital elements of the DCMS and BEIS briefs.

This moment is a critical one for the future of humanity

Digital power is concentrated in a handful of private, mostly unaccountable companies. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon deserve particular focus. They have assembled massive datasets recording details of our behaviour and life. Initially these were limited to the virtual world of the internet, but thanks to the proliferation of smart devices, their insights now reach far into the physical world. They are conducting experiments in human behaviour modification outside the reach of the ethical guidelines that constrain academic research. They are lobbying and influencing the highest seats of political power. They are desensitizing the public to ever more intrusive information capture. Their intent appears to be to herd populations down the most lucrative pathways. This represents a current threat to democratic society. It undermines the foundations of our humanity. They do this knowing that the democratic system still runs at analogue speed. It cannot keep up. Law-makers struggle to understand the societal threats we are facing, let alone knowing how to defend against them. Any regulation that does arrive, will probably be too late, and be too weak to stand up to the digital bullies.

Can these divers groups align to defend free society now?

If the threats are as immediate and significant as we suggest, then the multiplicity of voices need to become far fewer, much louder and more purposeful. There is great goodwill between the various participants in debate, but they lack the urgency that is needed. Most people are trying to do the right thing – but there is a tacit sense of over-confidence infecting discussions, which could ultimately be fatal. UK Government needs to reorganise, to establish a single rallying voice to orchestrate Digital activities across government: forming a focused voice to speak into this space.


The war for digital ethics is further advanced than many of us realise. Governments and their agencies are struggling to understand what is happening and don’t seem to know how to fight back. We need leadership - from government and from the industry, standing up for democracy and a fully human future.

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