Via Iskander Smit an interesting editorial on practices in digital ethics landed in my inbox: Translating Principles into Practices of Digital Ethics: Five Risks of Being Unethical, by Luciano Floridi, director of the Digital Ethics lab of Oxford University’s Internet Institute.

It lists 5 groups of practices that subvert (by being distracting or destructive) actual ethical principles being applied in digital technology. They are very recognisable from ethical discussions I’ve been in or witness to. The paper also provides some pointers in how to address them.
I will list and quote the five practices, and add a sixth that I come across regularly in my own work. Together they are digital ethics dark patterns so to speak:

  1. ethics shopping: “the malpractice of choosing, adapting, or revising (“mixing and matching”) ethical principles, guidelines, codes, frameworks, or other similar standards (especially but not only in the ethics of AI), from a variety of available offers, in order to retrofit some pre-existing behaviours (choices, processes, strategies, etc.), and hence justify them a posteriori, instead of implementing or improving new behaviours by benchmarking them against public, ethical standards.
  2. ethics bluewashing: the malpractice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about, or implementing superficial measures in favour of, the ethical values and benefits of digital processes, products, services, or other solutions in order to appear more digitally ethical than one is.
  3. ethics lobbying: the malpractice of exploiting digital ethics to delay, revise, replace, or avoid good and necessary legislation (or its enforcement) about the design, development, and deployment of digital processes, products, services, or other solutions. (can you say big tech?)
  4. ethics dumping: the malpractice of (a) exporting research activities about digital processes, products, services, or other solutions, in other contexts or places (e.g. by European organisations outside the EU) in ways that would be ethically unacceptable in the context or place of origin and (b) importing the outcomes of such unethical research activities.
  5. ethics shirking: the malpractice of (a) exporting research activities about digital processes, products, services, or other solutions, in other contexts or places (e.g. by European organisations outside the EU) in ways that would be ethically unacceptable in the context or place of origin and (b) importing the outcomes of such unethical research activities.
  6. To which I want to add a sixth, based on observations in my work in various organisations, and what pops up ethics-related in my feedreader:

  7. ethics futurising: the malpractice of discussing ethics and even hiring ethics advisors only for technology and processes that are 10 years into the future for the organisation in question. E.g. AI ethics in a company that as yet has nothing to do with AI. At the same time that same ethical soul searching is not applied to currently relevant and used practices, technology or processes. It has a part of ethics bluewashing in it (pattern 2, being seen as ethical rather than being ethical), but there’s something else at play as well, a blind spot to ethical questions being relevant in reflecting on current digital practices, tech choices, processes and e.g. data collection methods, the assumption being that current practice is all right.
  8. I find this sixth one both distracting and destructive: it let’s an organisation believe they are on top of digital ethics issues, but it is all unrelated to their core activities. As a result staff currently involved in real questions are left to their own devices. Which means that for instance data protection officers are lonely figures and often all but ignored by their organisations until after a (legal) issue arises.

8 reactions on “Digital Ethics Dark Patterns

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