Do Civil Society’s Data Practices Call for New Ethical Guidelines?

DigitalCivilSociety
May 17, 2016 · 23 min read
Image: dirkcuys (CC BY-SA 2.0)

1. Are Civil Society’s Data Practices Distinct Enough to Warrant Their Own Ethical Guidelines?

At first blush, it may seem obvious that a nonprofit’s data practices require different ethical guidelines than those that guide a for-profit organization. The nonprofit is likely to have different incentives and different aims for whatever data it collects than a for-profit organization. Crisis Text Line, for example, has very different aims for the data it collects from those of a commercial online service, like Pinterest or Facebook. In fact, Crisis Text Line would be unlikely to offer the same service on a for-profit basis, either because of insufficient revenue or low levels of trust from users, or both; the non-profit nature of the organization is essential to its service. Unlike most commercial services, Crisis Text Line almost exclusively handles extremely sensitive material. The fact that teenagers choose to use Crisis Text Line, whose very service is premised on privacy, suggests that they do not want to share this information with anyone they know.[11] Facebook, by contrast, is designed with the opposite goal in mind — sharing information with people you know.


2. Are Civil Society’s Data Practices Uniform Enough for One Set of Ethical Guidelines?

A second challenge to developing a set of ethical guidelines for data use by civil society is the enormous diversity within civil society. A humanitarian organization involved in the digital mapping of crisis zones has different ethical concerns from a food bank, a micro-loan cooperative, or a political action committee. These different entities may vary in their size, makeup, constituency, methods, goals, and much more. Each of these features may influence the data practices — and the ethical challenges — of the organization.


3. Given How Quickly Today’s Data Collection, Analysis, and Norms Are Evolving, Civil Society Should Move Cautiously and Adopt Flexible Rule Design

There is an urgency to today’s debates about the ethics of data use and misuse.[14] Reading accounts of these debates, one gets a sense that new rules are needed as soon as possible.[15] Technology is changing so quickly, the argument often goes, and the stakes for privacy and security are so high, that strong guidelines must be developed immediately. The new technological and analytic tools at our disposal facilitate innovations that outstrip the old rule regime, thereby necessitating new rules.


4. Civil Society Need Not Start Anew: Civil Society Should Adapt Existing Ethical Data Principles Rather Than Create New Ones

It would be foolhardy to attempt to devise completely new ethical standards for civil society’s data practices, given that a number of ethical standards already exist. Instead, what is needed is a thoughtful review of how existing standards apply specially to different civil society organizations and how to make those standards enforceable. For example, there is wide agreement about the values represented in the guidelines developed in 1980 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).[22] Civil society groups should determine to how to implement OECD guidelines in practice, rather than attempting to devise their own set of ethical standards from scratch.

Conclusion

Civil society’s collection and analysis of data is on the rise, just as it is in other sectors. Civil society’s data practices raise grave ethical concerns, to be sure, but they are largely the same concerns that arise as a result of corporate data practices and government data practices. This essay has attempted to shift the burden of proof away from a default expectation that civil society go it alone — that is, develop its own distinct ethical guidelines for data use — and towards a default expectation that civil society adopt and adapt existing data guidelines. Furthermore, the essay has provided reasons to doubt that civil society is even the right unit of analysis for data use ethics. Most of us care much more how our data is used and in what context than whether the organization using it is a member of the independent, private, or government sectors.


REFERENCES

[1] Data collection has become such an area of concern in the U.S., in 2014 the White House commissioned a 90-day review of so-called “big data” collection and analysis and the attendant privacy concerns. See http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/technology/big-data-review.

Digital Civil Society

The Digital Civil Society Lab investigates opportunities and challenges for civil society to thrive in the digital age, across four domains: technology, organizations, policy, and social norms. This publication highlights some of the driving questions our research team is asking.

DigitalCivilSociety

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Helping nonprofits, foundations, and civil society use digital resources ethically, safely, and effectively. Digital Civil Society Lab is part of @StanfordPACS.

Digital Civil Society

The Digital Civil Society Lab investigates opportunities and challenges for civil society to thrive in the digital age, across four domains: technology, organizations, policy, and social norms. This publication highlights some of the driving questions our research team is asking.