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Why not listening to good music while reading? My inspiration for this article about ethical digital is What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong. Play it now!

Ethics and digital keywords

Ethics and digital keywords – Picture by Julie Compagny


Even without realizing it, ethics rule our daily life and give directions about what we should or should not do. As defined by the Oxford Dictionaries, ethics aremoral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity. The Business Dictionary completes this definition by stating that It includes the study of universal values such as the essential equality of all men and women, human or natural rights, obedience to the law of land, concern for health and safety and, increasingly, also for the natural environment”.

What do ethics have to do with digital? Well, it is pretty simple. Throughout the years and centuries, all activities led by humans have been linked to ethics and thus, judged as good or bad. Digital is definitely an important preoccupation for women and men today. Therefore, it is legitimate to wonder: ethics and digital, friend or foe?




There is one thing that we should never forget about digital: it has been created and is still run by human beings. Behind every new digital creation, there is an individual and this precise detail plays an important role in the fact that digital is not necessarily considered as ethical.


When talking about ethics and digital, an obvious topic to tackle is biased algorithms. Why biased? Because humans, when writing them, include preconceptions and personal ideas – called societal bias – which makes algorithms non-neutral, engendering discrimination.

Cathy O’neil – a former Wall Street analyst and writer of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016) – explains in an interview to Le Monde how, for her, algorithms and Big Data determine people’s value. She says that all type of information such as “likes” on social network or requests on Google are collected and used to create profiles to determine who is considered as privileged people and who is not. Those who are will be even more with the help of the algorithms while those are not will deeply feel it too. This is how algorithms create inequalities and as a result, go against the principles of ethics.


Privileged people feeling even better vs not privileged ones feeling worse

Privileged people feeling even better vs not privileged ones feeling worse – Picture: Julie Compagny



Serious cases of biased algorithms were revealed in the last few years. Twitter’s chatbot is a perfect example. In 2016, the social network launched its first AI bot, Tay, which turned out to be an epic fail. In less than a day, everything totally drifted and all of a sudden Tay became racist, misogynist and in favour of Donald Trump. Microsoft announced that relevant public data were used to create the bot; but what are those ‘filtered public data’? and how come the final result goes against ethics?

A second example is the computer program used by courtrooms in the United States. To each new person put in jail, the program attributes a score – called risk assessment – corresponding to the likelihood the convicted commits a new crime once free. A study by Propublica analyzed this system then revealed as biased. Two elements demonstrate it. Firstly, it showed that the higher risk scores are associated with people regarding their profile and not the nature and frequency of their crime(s). As a result, black people have always higher scores than white people. Secondly, it proved that among the 7,000 people arrested in Broward County, Florida, in 2013 and 2014, no more than “20% of the people predicted to commit violent crimes actually went on to do so”. Hard to say it is ethical, uh?


White man vs White man

White man vs White man – Picture: Julie Compagny



Do you know the notion of Dark Patterns? Basically, it is the way websites are designed to strongly lead users to do what companies want them to do. The main objective for companies is to make more profit. Every method is a good one to trick the customers and push them to buy more products, for example, or subscribe to a newsletter or extra services. Collecting private data to make more sells thereafter is also seen as Dark Patterns.

If companies do not perceive it as cheating, it does not make it less unethical. Indeed, users are so influenced that they cannot make their own choices, which is totally against the principles of ethics. Harry Brignull, a UX consultant, created a hall of shame recounting the worst illustrations of Dark Patterns. Here are some of them:








On October 23, 2018, the 40thInternational Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commission was held and the Declaration on Ethics and Data Protection in Artificial Intelligence was adopted. Several countries such as Canada, Argentina, Mexico and the European Union participated in its writing.

Why is it relevant? It starts by stressing the progress made in artificial intelligence and the role it plays in our daily life. That said, it clearly recognizes the risks linked to AI – and digital in general – when it comes to human rights. The resolutions are introduced by the following sentence:

The Conference therefore endorses the following guiding principles, as its core values to preserve human rights in the development of artificial intelligence

Declaring respect and equality as fundamental elements of the good evolution of AI is a very good beginning. Ethics are integrated into digital with this new declaration and, if all countries truly intend to apply the rules, then it is very promising.

Declaration of Ethics and Data Protection in Artificial Intelligence

Declaration of Ethics and Data Protection in Artificial Intelligence – Photo: Julie Compagny


If you have not heard about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it might be because you slept in a cave the whole year. This law – established by the Europe Union – came to effect On May, 25th2018.

Why is it in favour of ethics? It was created to protect European individuals in the entire world from the new possibilities offered with the digital progress. Companies do not have the right anymore to collect personal and sensitive data as they wish, they have to prove it is actually useful for their business. People can ask to access the information companies have on them and if they want it to be deleted, then it has to be done.

This law has been made to ensure equality is respected and companies do not badly take advantage of the digital progress to achieve their ends. It definitely promotes a more ethical way to use data which is encouraging.


So, ethics and digital, friend or foe? Hard to say, uh? I invite you to read more articles on the subject to forge your own opinion. As for me, I want to believe in our capacity to work hard so that digital and ethics become complementary.


Read this article about GDPR and Blockchain by Enzo Rieucau:

To go further, watch this TEDxTalk by Christine Fox about “The ethical dilemma we face on AI and autonomous tech”:

Check my previous article:

About the author


Julie Compagny