Why "ethics" of digital data?

This is the first of three posts leading up to the Ethics of Data Conference at Stanford. I've posted some earlier thoughts here.

In early August, the New York Times ran a "Room for Debate" series about big data. Over the course of a week columns noting the dangers of digital data use ran next to columns extolling the utility of digital data for community improvement. Other columns in the series, which was titled "Is Big Data Spreading Inequality," looked at how data may be used to extend credit to underserved communites, while others noted that data may be limiting job opportunities. One columnist called for due process related to digital data - an idea that has been studied and proposed by other legal scholars.

Clearly, there's a lot of good and bad that can be done with digital data. How we use it, what bounds we put on its use, what rights we protect regarding its use - these are classic ethical questions now being brought to the forefront where large sets of digital data are concerned.

On September 15 the Federal Trade Commission is hosting a conference in DC on "Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?" which will focus on how consumers are affected by the uses of big data.

On September 15 and 16, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society's Digital Civil Society Lab is hosting a conference on the Ethics of Data in Civil Society. We're focused on what the rise of digital data as a resource and digital infrastructure means for private actions with a public benefit.

The questions addressed in the New York Times series and those that the FTC is asking about discrimination certainly matter for civil society. Two key conceptual resources for the Stanford conference can be found here:

We'll be looking at:
  • How data are being used to frame the issues on which nonprofits and voluntary associations work and what civil society can do about it;
  • The realities of association and expression in a digital age and what these changes mean for civil society
  • How scholarship is changing in a digital environment; 
  • The rights of those being served by nonprofits and civil society;
  • Ethical dilemmas for civil society organizations using digital data and how to work through them; 
  • Ethical ways civil society and industry sources of digital data can work together 
Participants include activists, data companies, nonprofits, scholars, and funders. Conference resources are available here and we'll put post-conference materials there as well.


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