another publication by IMAGE asia

Digital ethics & real ethics – the same thing?

  Bangkok / Boat Lagoon

The human race comprises good and bad, but overall humans have proven time and time again they can’t be trusted with absolute freedom to do as they wish. There is daily evidence aplenty from selfish driving wreaking lives, bullying, toxic environmental practices through to human trafficking, modern slavery, genocidal and acts of gratuitous violence. People are provably irrational to varying degrees.

Humans shouldn’t deceive themselves into thinking humanity has somehow reached a peak of ethical sophistication. This extends to how digitalised systems are being ethically developed and used.

The Covid19 pandemic has brought out the best and worst in society, highlighted the abject failures and weaknesses of states, if operating on any form of democratic principles, empowered by citizens to provide a framework for a peaceful and ordered society with cultural preservation and development part of the objectives of that order.

The same states, democratic, authoritarian, dictatorial and just downright nasty committing genocidal acts in the name of sovereignty or ‘the collective purpose’ against their own citizens, or persons who are considered somehow ‘different’ and therefore ‘unacceptable’, have ‘apparent’ authority to try and ‘regulate the internet’ (now better framed more widely as ‘regulate digital activity’). When each of us was born, states already possessed power which devolved to them from the people over centuries. The power is transferred as new politicians and elite rulers – private and public – take measures to ensure continuing control of the people, sometimes for noble endeavours, but often for self-interest and exploitation.

Apparently, those same states are, to some extent, and by a fairly large segment of apathetic society, entrusted to be the people’s guardian of the digital age. Watching self-congratulatory regional institutions purporting to aspire to a better future for all, fumble over decisions on which vaccine to purchase, how to license, produce and prioritise vaccination, and how to persuade vaccine sceptics to participate is not a confidence-inspiring event, nor a confirmation that world leaders are ready to properly regulate digitalism.

Our ethics are a hugely complex set of emotions and values, which are not always regulated by our brains and are obfuscated by the interaction between humans across spectrums of different cultures, religions, national proclivities, politics and biased beliefs. The philosophical study of ethics, which is neatly summarised in Russ Shafer-Landau’s The Fundamentals of Ethics, reveals just how difficult it is to pinpoint a uniform set of rules that can align values across a spectrum of differing beliefs and backgrounds. Exploring ethics can be revealing as to the embedded hypocrisy and incompetence of policy makers and, when applying the variances in ethics to the treatment of issues in a digital age, the issue is amplified as if a Google Sense Adword had resonated across the strongest algorithm invented.

If we think back to the time when we were slowly replacing land line and super expensive international call charges with dial up modem internet cards to send messages from internet cafés whilst on the move, the type of regulation that could have been envisaged by the general population would have been fairly basic – regulating internet usage fees; the competitiveness of the equipment; universal access rights and the division between ‘public and private internet’. If you read historical analysis of regulation in the 1990s, for example in the US, the understanding of just how extensive digitalism would be in life was understated and way off the mark compared with what has occurred. The visionaries have made their fortunes and changed the way the world communicates, and the general populous have followed the path laid out for them.

Now, digitalism presents a series of challenges which lethargic, inefficient and self-interested states may find it increasingly difficult to keep up with. A critical issue I see, which will continue to hinder a coherent and balanced policy for a global phenomenon which invisibly crosses borders, is the often incoherent and confused differences between understanding of what ethics means, and the acceptance that even with different ethical beliefs, minimum protections against harm may still be implemented.

As a fan of common sense and logic tests, and of judges who write reasoned opinions by reference to real world experience, I also strongly feel that regulation should be reflective of and adaptable to modernising societies. By analogous application, we can see that some behaviours and acts carried out digitally or virtually should not necessarily be differentiated in ethical analysis from physical interaction. There are plenty of grey areas, and it is questionable if irrational exploiting states and irrational citizens have any near-to-perfect solutions to these issues:

For example:

  • Bullying and harassment in person is considered ethically wrong so to what extent should the concept be changed when (a) this happens digitally and/or (b) the wrongful acts are carried out by a state against its citizens? Standing in a group and throwing stones and kicking dirt into somebody’s face is not socially acceptable in 2021, but what about abuse in social media comment forums?
  • Sex education is often tightly scrutinised for content and timing of delivery in institutional educations. It should arguably mirror a particular society’s norms, but access to one niche element of sex – pornography – is global and the content is designed to apply to user preference, ignoring societal ethical norms in the name of freedom. The internet should debatably not be ‘free’ and unregulated in this regard. However, who can be trusted to decide what is and isn’t acceptable – and how is that different to those that already decide what is taught in schools and institutions?
  • Expressing opinions that do not fit with a ‘popular narrative’ has historically courted controversy and ‘persecution’, often by those who superficially denounce persecutory behaviour by virtue signalling. Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, London, UK has been considered by many as an enshrinement of free speech. Many unpopular opinions and unpopular speakers subsequently went on, often posthumously, to be noted for their innovative and challenging smart ideas, but often attacked and humiliated at the time of expression of thought. However, any would-be ‘speakers’ in the ‘Speakers Corner’ areas of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and more mainstream but heavily used ‘communal digital parks’ would likely be hunted down and excluded like virtual lepers, if they were brave enough to constructively criticise the shape of the current International Women’s Day, disagree that racism can only be applied to certain races and not others, propose a new economic approach to poverty mitigation beyond basic fund-raising and inefficient distribution activities, make a strong case for eating meat, call out the hypocrisy of potentially stamping on one part of community to further the interests of others through defective implementation of positive discrimination... and other issues which deserve scrutiny, open discussion, and… ‘free thought’.

Your ethics are not my ethics and your state’s ethics might not be aligned with my state’s ethics; my ancestry’s foundation of ethics may be wildly different from or similar to yours. However, most people are now using digital products and services. Your idea of defamation may be different in another country, your idea of hate speech against an institution or government may also be contradictory, my idea of liberal ideas may be countered by your conservatism. Whilst many states laud and promote their own self-interested efforts in creating a Digital 4.0 or 5.0 platform, they haven’t yet even organised, analysed, updated and self-regulated their own ethical standards, or considered those of others.

Digital convergence of information exchange does not by default result in converging ethical standards; minority voices and opinions still need room to express, be heard and be criticised.

The next time you think or express an issue virtually, what would you change or not change, if you considered the analogous physical interaction; are your ethical standards consistent? Do you want laws which reflect that, and do you trust your governing state to get this right?

By Desmond Hughes, Senior Partner of Hughes Krupica.
Hughes Krupica is a law firm which specialises in Dispute Resolution; Corporate Transnational and Domestic Law; Real Estate; Hospitality; Construction Contract Support; Transnational Structuring and Compliance; Transnational Commercial; and Litigation, operating in Bangkok and Phuket, servicing clients in relation to their business activities in Thailand and in other regions of Asia

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