WSIS 2023 ethic panel

Global digital community examines ethical dimensions of technology development

When the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) adopted its Geneva Declaration of Principles back in 2003, it put ethical concerns at the forefront.

“Ethics today has taken a front seat of any future discussion of digital development,” said Tawfik Jelassi, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), at this week’s WSIS Forum 2023. “We do not want digital platforms to become the global online wild west — full of misinformation, hate speech, online harassment, conspiracy theories and cyberbullying.”

UNESCO is advocating for digital development that is respectful of human rights and dignity, accessible to all, and governed through an inclusive approach for multiple stakeholders.

The growing phenomenon of the metaverse as “a clone of our environment” creates risks of addiction and “cyber loneliness,” said Prof. Alfredo Ronchi, General Secretary of the European Commission–MEDICI Framework. Social science and humanities must both come into play to define a sustainable role for humans.

“Cyber loneliness… is a kind of addiction to this parallel life, training users to shift from real to meta life,” so that behaviours tested in the metaverse “might be accepted in real life as well,” he said.

Embedding ethics from the start

Moira de Roche, Vice President of the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), said the industry needed a cohesive, widely accepted ethical code, with training for engineers and software developers to ensure responsible design and implementation for technologies like artificial intelligence (AI). This could incorporate human rights as a basic design principle for certified AI design professionals.

“Creators of AI platforms and products should [all] abide by the same code of ethics,” she added. “We must guard against having too many codes. It dilutes the concept and allows people to pick and choose.”

Values and ethics have become a central concern for the industry, agreed Luis Neves, CEO and Managing Director at GeSI, the global initiative for enabling digital sustainability.

“Companies should embed sustainability in their corporate strategy,” he said. “While they have corporate social responsibility in their communication departments, they now need to embed sustainability as a purpose in every single unit of their operations.”

Machines, likewise, can be designed with a purpose, with the underlying ethical considerations expanding beyond governance, justice, and accountability to also include hospitality and diversity.

“Ethics is a glue for regulatory systems,” Karamjit S. Gill, Professor Emeritus at the University of Brighton, UK, and Editor-in-Chief of AI & Society. “As we mix hard and soft glues to mend a broken piece of glass, we mix ethics and culture to fix the broken aspects of the digital divide.”

Bringing everyone online is still an imperative

Portuguese regulators have defined inclusive Internet access as an ethical imperative. “Our goal is to guarantee optical fibre and mobile broadband coverage in isolated areas, and submarine cables linking islands to the mainland, with sensors to facilitate research on climate change,” said João Cadete Matos, Chairman of ANACOM, the national communications authority.

For many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic initially stalled digital infrastructure investments. But public health measures to contain the virus made digital access imperative for social and economic life.

“Least developed countries in Africa suffered the most, since the only accessible tool was social distancing,” said Henri Monceau, Director of Digital and Economic Department at the Francophonie (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie). “Companies not connected prior to the pandemic, without e-commerce, did not survive the crisis.”

Cambodia, aiming to become a high-income country by 2050, has invested rapidly in digital infrastructure. Internet access now reaches more than 90 per cent of the population, with affordable rates below 5 per cent of disposable income each month, said Sok Puthyvuth, the country’s Secretary of State for Post and Telecommunications.

But the new generative AI platforms that have taken the world by storm this year are not directly available to most Cambodians. ChatGPT, for example, is only accessible via a virtual private network (VPN), said Puthyvuth, adding: “Chat GPT has definitely put ethics at front stage in today’s discussions.”

Addressing gender inequality

Digital transformation has also raised ethical issues in Pakistan, where the Smart Village concept outlined by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) seeks to bridge digital divides — including the gender digital divide — in rural and remote areas.

The Smart Village approach, designed with the whole of government and whole of society in mind, promotes digital education, health, agriculture, and business. So far, about 90 per cent of active participants in three communities have been women, said Aisha Humera, Additional Secretary at Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoIT&T).

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