Government Technology, Ethics and Innovation

by Dr Kevin Macnish - Head of Ethics and Sustainability Consulting
| minute read

Unchecked innovation carries with it untold risks of harm to the public. This has long been recognized - from labour laws in the early 20th century and the implementation of safety standards in transport, to, more recently, data protection laws to protect people’s privacy. Technological innovation can benefit society, but only with the correct guardrails in place.

Balancing ethics and innovation

Yet those regulatory guardrails must walk a fine line. Too lax and harms arise. Too stringent and beneficial innovation is stifled, through confusion and fear of inadvertently breaching regulations. This has been notably true of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In itself, GDPR is a good law which has enshrined the right to data protection and privacy for millions. This has been recognized through its many imitators, from the California Consumer Privacy Act in the US to the Personal Information Protection Law in China and the General Data Protection Law (LGDP) in Brazil.

At the same time, GDPR and its offspring are often fiendishly complicated. Larger companies can afford full-time data protection staff to ensure compliance. Smaller companies, though, may struggle to find the confidence that they are in step with the law. Punitive fines of up to 4% of global annual turnover could mean the termination of an otherwise successful business. On the one hand, it is of course right that these businesses should treat personal data with respect. On the other, at least some companies shy away from innovation in emerging areas of technological development, such as machine learning and the internet of things, for fear of overstepping the regulatory mark.

Ethics by design

Regulation needn’t restrict innovation, though. If the goal of legislation is to restrict the innovation of unethical technology, or the unethical development of technology, then it must be possible to develop ethical technology in an ethical manner. One way to do this is to pursue an ethics by design approach.

Ethics by design creates a way to develop technology that is fundamentally ethical. It involves breaking down the design process to its constitutive stages. Each stage is then examined for the ethical challenges that it raises. This extends to the requirements at the start of a project to the manner of developing technology (how, when and where are data collected?) to providing guardrails as to its use (how the technology ought to be applied).

Some may feel that this approach only complicates matters. Doesn't it just multiply ethical quandaries? The simple answer is no. These quandaries exist, whether recognised or not, and will emerge at some point if they are not addressed at the design stage. Furthermore, by breaking down the design process into its constituent phases, the quandaries are made smaller and more manageable.

The governance of ethics

It’s therefore imperative that guardrails and guidelines are introduced to support the ethical development and use of technology. Only then will technology truly serve the public good. At the same time, those guardrails and guidelines must not be excessively complex or punitive, or they risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Heavy regulation risks pushing technology development underground and into the hands of those who do not share our values or our desire to protect the public.



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