Big tech’s ‘ethical guidelines’ are no substitute for real regulation

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Data ethics is now a cause célèbre.

“Digital ethics and privacy” shot into research and advisory company Gartner’s top ten strategic technology trends for 2019. Before that it barely raised a mention.

In the past year governments, corporations and policy and technology think tanks have published data ethics guides. An entire cohort of expert data ethicists have magically materialized.

Why this sudden interest in data ethics? What is data ethics? Whose interests are the guidelines designed to serve?

To understand what is going on, it’s necessary to take a step back and look at how the information landscape has unfolded.

The picture that emerges is of an industry immune from the regulatory constraints that apply to everyone else.

The shine has gone

Over the past few years the information industry has lost its luster.

The Snowden revelations, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, social media’s enabling of hate speech, the weaponization of information and its role in undermining democratic institutions have all contributed.

The business model that monetizes personal information to sell advertising is now seen as a faustian bargain – perhaps the sacrifice is not worth it, after all. From 2017 to 2018 there was a 6% drop in Facebook users