Coppers and Spooks in cyberspace: une liaison dangereuse

By: Douwe Korff , Emeritus Professor of International Law


The theory: “The same freedoms online as offline”

The Digital Enlightenment Forum is based on the belief, also expressed numerous times in international instruments and declarations, that “people should enjoy the same autonomy and rights and freedoms online that they do offline”. We also generally subscribe to the ideas that individuals should first and foremost be subject to the laws and mores of the country where they live, provided that those laws and mores accord with international human rights standards – that states should refrain from interfering in other states and should generally not apply their laws extraterritorially; but that, conversely, violations of public international law or international human rights law are a legitimate concern of the whole international community.

However, these mantras are not reflected in the responses of many states – including states that often portray themselves as the main advocates of human rights and international law – to “bad” actions in cyberspace. Worse, the excessive and unlawful online behaviour of certain state agencies increasingly also informs their behaviour offline.

This blog simply tries to list the issues involved, to help the debate. Continue reading

Words, words, words!

Epistomologists and  and psycholinguists tell us that in order think of something we need words to describe it. If this is true it means that, as we enter the Digital Age, our language may not be sufficently developed for us to handle our changing perceptions of reality. In our book Digital Enlightenment Now!, Ossi Urchs and I argue that we need a new vocabulary as well as a new set of values.

Thesis 4: Digitalization and networking create new technical, social, cultural and scientific conditions. In order to appreciate these changes fully we first need to categorize them before we can begin to fully describe and understand their new qualities.

We are already at the point where our perceptions of reality have changed in many ways, as have the conditions under which we experience this new reality. Is a computer game less real than a romp through the woods? Is a love affair on Facebook less exciting than a flirt at the hotel bar? Perhaps the realization that digital experiences are based on binary code influences our assumptions; after all, if the only two possible digital conditions are “on” and “off”, then maybe “real” and “unreal” are also just two sides of the same coin. In fact many of us have already learned that digital information can help us to understand the world around us in a more granular and modular way than ever before; without, it is to be hoped, losing sight of their basic unity in the sense of their inherent interconnectedness. Continue reading

Looks real enough to me!

What you see is what you get. But what if what you see isn’t “real” but in fact part of the virtual world? Digitalization and networking are transforming our perception of reality itself, as Ossi Urchs and I maintain in the third of ten theses from our recently published book, Digital Enlightenment Now!

Thesis 3: The digital world is increasingly invading and becoming part of the real world. As a result, both are changing at breathtaking speed and at an unprecedented rate.

Developments in technology and business are forcing change on society and on our personal lives, and we can’t expect things to ever return to “normal“ again. After all, nobody can rewrite history. We are currently experiencing a totally new and remarkable phenomenon, namely the coming together of the digital and the physical worlds which used to be strictly separated. In fact, it is getting more and more difficult to tell the two apart.

Navigation aids were once simply used to show us the way from A to B. As the digital world encroaches on the physical, we now expect our gadgets to use digital information to show us the “right” way. This can be for instance the fastest, or possibly the most scenic route, depending on our individual circumstances. “Augmented Reality” does not simply mean “enriching”. It changes our perception and our understanding of reality itself. Continue reading

Why digitalization changes everything

My latest book, entitled “Digital Enlightenment Now!”, will be available in a few days, and to celebrate, I wanted to share a few basic ideas contained therein. My friend and co-author Ossi Urchs, who sadly didn’t live to see publication of the English version (he died last fall from cancer) thought that every good book about philosophy and society should start with a list of short theses. He was German, so I suppose Martin Luther was very much in his mind…

Anyway, we finally came up with ten of them, and instead of nailing them to a church door I propose to publish them here as a kind of loose series which hopefully will lead to an open debate about their possible merits or weaknesses. So here goes:

Thesis 1: Everything that can be digitalized will be digitalized. Everything that can be connected will be. And that changes everything!

The massive trend towards digitalization, as shown in our introduction, has economic root that reach back to something called, rather confusingly, “Moore’s Law”. What Gordon E. Moore, one of the founders of Intel Corporation, actually described back in 1965 was less a law than a hypothesis, albeit one that has remained valid to this day.

Moore’s “law” simply describes the tendency of digital gadgets to double their capacity approximately every two years. This ability to sustain growth that is exponential (a phenomenon that we will hear more about later) also leads to the halving of costs for digital computing power approximately every two years. Continue reading

Established Societal Norms

I read the paper of the Information Accountability Foundation to which Malcolm Crompton referred in his blog below on Digital Ethics of 8 Feb. It is indeed a laudable initiative, but I am a bit worried that it is just another attempt of trying to establish control on our world, its values and compliance to it. And I am afraid the world is too complex to try and control its state.

It is a “classical” approach with as a point of departure: “Established Societal Norms”, but it fails to address two basic questions:

  1. Is there a universal ethics basis. This point is discussed also in the book of Floridi (see the blog below on Informational Ethics of 17 Feb). If the answer is positive, the basis lies certainly must deeper and is much smaller than what is called “established societal norms” in the paper, which are recognised as different in different cultures.
  2. How do “established societal norms” differ between cultures and how do they change over time (incl. under influence of contacts between different cultures). A direct result of accepting dependence on time (which is rather undeniable; just compare norms in western Europe in the middle ages and now), is that it is highly dangerous to try to implement them at any specific moment through static algorithms that could become the static “code” of the future.

Established societal norms Continue reading

Information Ethics

Our lives and our fate is coming increasingly under the control, or at least the influence, of an increasing number of autonomous technical information systems. And at the same time our society reaches through technology development and in particular digitisation, levels of complexity that seem to undermine our democracy and moral rules.

Fighting the decaying of Being could be seen as the basic objective of ethics or the ultimate benchmark for any moral evaluation, and therefore also of “Informational Ethics. This is the approach of Luciano Floridi in his book The Ethics of Information (Oxford Univ Press, 2013). Floridi addresses two important aspects:

  1. Actors in the ethical space are not restricted to human agents and patients, but include all information entities. Hence also non-intelligent objects and creatures, autonomous (intelligent) technical systems, organisations or communities, etc.
  2. Can we develop a basic informational ontology for a global digital world. Can we come to a general theory of ethics that might form a practical basis for global policy development concerning the interaction between all these information entities, to the benefit of humanity.

Continue reading

Life in the digital world – Future challenges: what do you think they are?

This is a practical blog.  I am seeking input.  I will be moderator of the Plenary Panel session “Life in the digital world – Future challenges” at the Digital Enlightenment Forum on 26 March 2015 in Kilkenny, Ireland.

The input?  What should we consider under such a wide ranging heading that is consistent with the objectives and values of the Digital Enlightenment Forum?

As a former Privacy Commissioner of Australia, naturally I see privacy as a major issue (so long as we can define what privacy is…).  But there are also some emerging pragmatic issues that may not be seen primarily as ‘privacy’ issues, such as:

  • Digital haves and have nots
  • Impact on freedom of will, freedom to experiment and concepts of ‘forgive and forget’
  • What is acceptable and what is unacceptable hidden manipulation
  • What is acceptable and what is unacceptable discrimination commercially (note the paper on Big Data and Price Discrimination that has just been released) and by governments
  • Appropriate legal frameworks and protections, including arguments that existing law (for example anti-discrimination law) is sufficient but just needs to be properly applied

Overlaying any discussion is the argument in favour of ‘innovation’ and its encouragement or discouragement by government legislative or economic means.

And remember, DEF has a practical bent:  the discussion should include solutions not just problems, ie what could DEF actually do about the issues raised?

So any thoughts on the theme of the discussion or on what you would like to see discussed and what theme emerge would be very valuable.  The thoughts above only scratch the surface and may not even be heading in the same direction. Please send suggestions as Comments on this blog over the next week or two.