Sir Tim Berners-Lee on digital ethics and socio-technical systems at ICDPPC 2018

4 min read

At the ongoing 40th ICDPPC, International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners conference, Sir Tim Berners-Lee spoke on ethics and the Internet. The ICDPPC conference which is taking place in Brussels this week brings together an international audience on digital ethics, a topic the European Data Protection Supervisor initiated in 2015.

Some high profile speakers and their presentations include Giovanni Buttarelli, European Data Protection Supervisor on ‘Choose Humanity: Putting Dignity back into Digital’; Video interview with Guido Raimondi, President of the European Court of Human Rights; Tim Cook, CEO Apple on personal data and user privacy; ‘What is Ethics?’ by Anita Allen, Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania among others.

Per Techcrunch, Tim Berners-Lee has urged tech industries and experts to pay continuous attention to the world their software is consuming as they go about connecting humanity through technology.

“Ethics, like technology, is design. As we’re designing the system, we’re designing society. Ethical rules that we choose to put in that design [impact the society]… Nothing is self-evident. Everything has to be put out there as something that we think will be a good idea as a component of our society.” he told the delegates present at the conference.

He also described digital platforms as “socio-technical systems” — meaning “it’s not just about the technology when you click on the link it is about the motivation someone has, to make such a great thing and get excited just knowing that other people are reading the things that they have written”.

“We must consciously decide on both of these, both the social side and the technical side,” he said. “The tech platforms are anthropogenic. They’re made by people. They’re coded by people. And the people who code them are constantly trying to figure out how to make them better.”

According to Techcrunch, he also touched on the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal as an illustration of how sociotechnical systems are exploding simple notions of individual rights. “You data is being taken and mixed with that of millions of other people, billions of other people in fact, and then used to manipulate everybody. Privacy is not just about not wanting your own data to be exposed — it’s not just not wanting the pictures you took of yourself to be distributed publicly. But that is important too.”

He also revealed new plans about his startup, Inrupt, which was launched last month to change the web for the better. His major goal with Inrupt is to decentralize the web and to get rid of gigantic tech monopolies’ (Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc) stronghold over user data. He hopes to achieve this with Inrupt’s new open source-project, Solid, a platform built using the existing web format.

He explained that his platform can put people in control of their own data. The app, he explains, asks you where you want to put your data. So you can run your photo app or take pictures on your phone and say I want to store them on Dropbox, and I will store them on my own home computer. And it does this with a new technology which provides interoperability between any app and any store.”

“The platform turns the privacy world upside down — or, I should say, it turns the privacy world right side up. You are in control of you data life… Wherever you store it you can control and get access to it.”

He concluded saying that “We have to get commitments from companies to make their platforms constructive and we have to get commitments from governments to look at whenever they see that a new technology allows people to be taken advantage of, allows a new form of crime to get onto it by producing new forms of the law. And to make sure that the policies that they do are thought about in respect to every new technology as they come out.”

The day before yesterday, The Public Voice Coalition, an organization that promotes public participation in decisions regarding the future of the Internet, came out with guidelines for AI, namely, Universal Guidelines on Artificial Intelligence at ICDPPC.

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