Digital communication technologies have become ubiquitous and policymakers are still struggling to respond with appropriate infrastructure and governance models.
It is critical, therefore, to move beyond celebrating greater accessibility and affordability in order to tackle the fundamental questions about ownership and control, regulation, privacy, security and surveillance that are central to conversations about the ethics of digital technologies.
As The Global Risks Report 2017 published by the World Economic Forum notes:
“A new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict. Empowered by sophisticated new technological tools in areas such as surveillance, governments and decision-makers around the world are tightening control over civil society organizations, individuals and other actors.”1
On the positive side, for the first time in the history of communications, people have the chance to seize a form of democratic expression that could improve their lives and livelihoods. And, clearly, when it comes to such lofty ideals as Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, it is clear that this can only be achieved through the simultaneous implementation of communication rights that enable people to express their needs and concerns and to advocate solutions that are locally relevant and appropriate.
Seen from this perspective, Agenda 2030 ought to include taking steps to advance the availability, transparency and accountability of the 21st century’s digital infrastructures. Failure to do so will have political and ethical consequences ranging from the outright subversion of democracy to the spread of misinformation and extremist views to intrusion into and control over peoples’ lives. This may ultimately undermine the legitimacy of digital platforms, as the scandal around privacy practices at Facebook in 2018 has demonstrated.
The Global Risks Report 2017 goes on to warn:
“Technological tools are also being used to increase surveillance and control over citizens, whether for legitimate security concerns or in an attempt to eradicate criticism and opposition. Restricting new opportunities for democratic expression and mobilization, and by consequence the digitally enabled array of civil, political and economic rights (such as the right to work and education; freedom of expression) just as citizens have become more connected and engaged – creates a potentially explosive situation.”
A role for digital communication ethics
Communication ethics is a well-worn academic discipline. Journalism ethics a vital professional discipline. Yet, digital technologies have opened up the proverbial “can of worms” with regard to social ethics – with which today’s youth in particular are struggling. As Allan Luke and Julian Sefton-Green ask in their article in this issue of Media Development:
“How do today’s young people and children deal with right and wrong, truth and falsehood, representation and misrepresentation in their everyday lives online? How do they anticipate and live with and around the real consequences of their online actions and interactions with others? How do they navigate the complexities of their public exchanges and their private lives, and how do they engage with parental and institutional surveillance? Finally, how can they engage and participate as citizens, consumers and workers in the public and political, cultural and economic spheres of the internet?”
It is not just a question of digital media literacy, but of using digital platforms and new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to bring about greater equity and inclusion. This can only occur within a framework of rights that generate genuine opportunities for free and informed participation in order to create more robust societies and meet the sustainable development goals.
Digital communication platforms are vital tools for people to influence political and social policies in favour of their interests, to help communities to organize for positive change, and to foster active citizenship. In this respect, WACC and its partners are urging governments and international institutions to:
As WACC’s own principles make clear:
“Only if communication is participatory can it empower individuals and communities, challenge authoritarian political, economic and cultural structures and help to build a more just and peaceful world.”
1. The Global Risks Report 2017, 12th Edition is published by the World Economic Forum within the framework of The Global Competitiveness and Risks Team.
Currently WACC Deputy Director of Programmes and editor of the international journal Media Development. Recent publications include Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (ed.) (2008), and Public Memory, Public Media and the Politics of Justice (ed.) (2012).