Ethics and the Internet

The world has seen a series of revolutions in communication. Each has expanded the speed and reach of how we talk to each other. And each has produced new ethical problems for users and societies.

The first revolution in the technology of communication – leaving aside the invention of writing itself – came in 1440 with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press circa. Prior to the printing press, people communicated orally or, for the few who could read and write, by laboriously writing out their messages and delivering them to the intended recipient. Because words didn’t travel far, society wasn’t much concerned with the ethics of what people said and wrote, provided they stayed within the bounds of accepted religious belief.

The printing press, which allowed thousands of copies of messages to be made and distributed broadly and anonymously changed that. Abetted by an increase in literacy, it vastly amplified the reach of speech. Suddenly, speech could work serious and widespread harm.  Ethics and the law responded. Countries passed laws proscribing seditious or heretical speech. The law of defamation developed to deal with falsehoods that harmed reputation. Prohibitions on hate speech eventually emerged. Our present law reflects these ethical concerns.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, a second revolution in communication was born – the digital revolution. If the printing press amplified the reach of words, the digital revolution did this on steroids. It allowed anyone to send any message anywhere in the world to a vast and unknown audience anonymously and without constraint. This marked a great expansion in the ability of humans to communicate, a good thing.

But the digital revolution has a dark side. The digital revolution not only amplifies good speech – it amplifies harmful speech – hate speech, racism, pornography, bullying, and disinformation capable of distorting political processes. The silo effect – the tendency of users to focus on sites that reflect their own beliefs and opinions – has further amplified the impact of these harms and sent conspiracy theories viral. Instead of being confronted with a variety of viewpoints, people in the digital age double down on what they believe. We used to speak of a search for the truth; for many in the digital era, the search is only for what they want to hear.

The dark side of the digital revolution raises a host of new ethical concerns – concerns that are proving much more difficult to deal with than those created by the invention of the printing press. Digital platforms operate largely outside the reach of law, driven not by ethical concerns but by algorithms designed to maximize advertising revenue, regardless of the content of the messages they distribute. Even if platforms were to try to prevent internet harms, the challenge is immense given the volume of the distribution and the fact that harmful speech can gain vast distribution before it can be pulled back. Not to mention counter-concerns of censorship and undue impingement on freedom of expression.

The ethical implications of the digital revolution are enormous and complex. Countries around the world, including Canada, are seeking ways to manage them. Some, like Germany, have introduced tale-down laws – forcing platforms to take down offensive messages. But leaving aside the spectre of state censorship – itself raising ethical concerns – many query the effectiveness of this approach; how precisely, can a take-down regime be policed and enforced in a world swirling with billions of messages?

An alternative approach – one recommended in a recent report of the Canadian Public Policy Forum – is a systemic approach that would focus on increasing the transparency of how platforms and their algorithms transmit messages and increasing the power of users through education and awareness.  The hope is that a systemic approach, coupled with enforcement of existing laws against harmful speech by the state and more pro-active policies by platforms, may go some distance to meeting the ethical challenges posed by the digital revolution.

We are right to be concerned with the ethical implications of the digital era. And we need to find solutions.

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Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin

  • Mentor 2020
The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin (P.C., C.C., CStJ., B.A., M.A., LL.B. (University of Alberta)) is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of…