2019 LOOKAHEAD: Towards a ‘Techno-ethics’

International Grand Committee on disinformation and fake news empty-chairs Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg at a November 2018 meeting in the UK. [Gabriel Sainhas [Twitter]

As EURACTIV highlighted in a recent review of the most prominent tech stories in 2018, the year was a tumultuous one for the tech industry.

Following the European Commission’s no-nonsense approach to dealing with the shortfalls of of the tech behemoths in 2018, 2019 is likely to prove the dawn of a ‘Techno-ethics’ in which consumers will expect their rights to be respected in the digital realm as they are in everyday life and legislators will oblige tech giants to play by the same rules as the wider industry.

“Technology can magnify our worst human tendencies,” Apple Chief Tim Cook said at a European Parliament event in October. “It can deepen divisions, incite violence, undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real.”

Fake-news ethics

The spread of fake news in particular will continue to, as Cook says, undermine our sense of what is true or not in the run up to the European Elections in May 2019.

Russia’s highly publicised foray into the dissemination of fake news will continue throughout the year, and, after a interview with an undercover journalist in October, EURACTIV discovered that Russia is almost certainly well into its disinformation campaign targeted at the European elections.

In December, the commission presented its action plan on disinformation that aims to counter the projected swell of fake news in the run up to the vote. As part of the measures, a code of practice against disinformation was proposed, signed up to by a group of tech giants including Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The code is a self-regulatory framework that aims to put pressure on platforms to moderate and manage disinformation. A review of the effectiveness of the code is set to be presented in January 2019.

With social media taking the brunt of the blame for the lack of an ethical framework in the management of fake news, in addition to more general concerns surrounding data protection, many are suggesting that text-based social media platforms will take a hit in 2019, with users instead opting for primarily image-based options such as Instagram or Snapchat.

However, should fake news migrate from one such form to another, expect ‘deepfakes’ (high quality doctored images and videos) to become more prominent in 2019.

Taxation ethics

Another area in which divisions will need to be calmed is in the area of digital taxation. In this field, 2019 may offer up a breakthrough of sorts.

France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire recently announced that France will come up with their own national framework for the taxation of digital giants, while Spain and the UK have already begun formulating their own plans.

Meanwhile, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz has announced that Austria will come up with their own measures that are due to come into force in 2020.

The idea of a unique levy on digital services is not only anathema for the digital giants in itself, but the fact that the tax market is likely to become fragmented as member states across the EU come up with different frameworks will frustrate firms further.  Expect countless trade-offs between regulators and tech giants as the digital tax debate heats up in 2019.

Artificial Intelligence ethics

Ethics will also become a prominent consideration in the field of Artificial Intelligence. In an EU report conducted by a high level expert group at the European Commission published in December, a number of ‘critical concerns’ were highlighted for the future of AI, covering issues surrounding citizen scoring, covert artificial intelligence, facial identification technologies and lethal autonomous weapons systems.

The report will be finalised in March 2019 and expect the recommendations outlined to have a significant impact on how policy will stem the development of AI in 2019.

Still very much in the research and development stage, the path to the wider commercial availability of autonomous vehicles will become clearer in 2019. This will throw up a host of ethical considerations, not least the infamous ‘trolley problem,’ in which a self-driving vehicle will be required to take make moral decisions when confronted with a scenario where two negative outcomes are inevitable.

For example, if a collision is unavoidable, by what moral criteria should the car make its decision on whether to collide with an elderly woman or a child?

Connectivity ethics

At an EU level, a decision still needs to be finalised as part of the Commission’s controversial delegated act on the future regulation of autonomous vehicles. The big question in this regard is whether the EU will back 5G or WiFi connectivity for these vehicles.

An ethical foundation will no doubt contribute to the commission’s final backing, and many regard WiFi as being preferable in this regard, due to its time-critical communications capacity, which will assist with crash avoidance.

Copyright ethics

On another note, artists and content creators of the world will unite in 2019 in a bid to lobby EU negotiators to reach an agreement on the highly contested Copyright reform. Negotiations between the Council and the Parliament are at a final stage, but the directive, which aims to ensure that content creators are remunerated fairly for their work online, has been the cause of much ill-feeling between MEPs.

Advocates of the plans see the measures as a way of safeguarding the future of the creative industries, while opponents say that it could compromise the freedom of the web. Both sides believe this is an ethical contestation that will have far-reaching consequences whatever the conclusion.

The Romanian presidency of the EU will be responsible for tying up talks with Parliamentary counterparts when the negotiations kick off for a last-ditch attempt in January.

2019 will be a year in which ‘Ethics’ take centre stage in almost every digital story. EU policymakers will seek to form a general ethical consensus by which tech giants should abide and citizens across the continent will expect their rights to be protected in the digital domain as they are anywhere else. The momentum of digital policy in EU affairs will be towards a ‘Techno-ethics.’

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