Digital Ethics: Moving from conversation to action

  • Posted on May 9, 2018
  • Estimated reading time 4 minutes

In today’s world, data is everything, but who can access that data and what you do with it is the most important part of it all. Digital ethics is something many of us are forced to think about but putting it into action is a challenge.

Northeastern’s Digital Ethics Summit, sponsored by Avanade
Last week in Seattle, a group of us from both tech and non-tech companies, government / educational institutions came together to discuss just that; how do we move from talking about digital ethics to doing something about it? Can a small group begin to establish an ethical declaration, constitution and manifesto of guidelines that organizations could adopt and follow? Participants in this “Digital Ethics Summit” - sponsored by Northeastern University and hosted by Avanade - were up for the challenge.

Our goal was to kick-start an industry-wide movement; to create and own a Digital Ethics Manifesto that encompasses fundamental principles, duties and responsibilities, as well as the tangible actionable guidance that can be directly usable on a project.

The summit was broken into multiple working sessions where attendees, based on their expertise and interest helped provide an initial draft of a digital ethics declaration (the highest-level principles), constitution (an ethical framework) and a manifesto (the guidelines). Avanade’s global digital executive, Florin Rotar, led the manifesto group and that’s the one I participated in. At the end of the two days, we got to a list of nine shared norms, that read similarly to the agile manifesto. To share one example, we propose organizations minimize harm over maximizing value—so an organization or a developer must make specific tradeoffs that forces a discussion at the earliest design stages.

It’s not going to be good enough to just have an ethical framework. Organizations will need to ensure that their business models evolve as they apply the framework to how they operate. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said, "Business models should be constructed so that they reinforce your core identity. Somebody once said that you can only trust people who think, say, and do the same thing. By the same token, I think you can only trust companies that are thinking, saying, and doing the same thing. That’s the consistency that you need.”

Businesses that do nothing to rewire their approach to ethics in the digital context risk losing customer faith and trust. We've seen this in the past two years with Uber and more recently with Facebook, although it's too still early to understand the effects to their business. Of the summit attendees, 100% agree that in 5 years, ethics will be fundamental to how they operate their business.

What is Avanade doing to put Digital Ethics into action?
At Avanade, we define digital ethics as artificial intelligence, data ethics, and digital trust. Digital ethics is not so much about focusing on what is good or bad, per se, but is more about how we do take responsibility for our actions, even if they are unintended. Avanade has established a digital ethics task force that has representatives from across our business with the goal of ensuring that we:

  • Define a governance model to operationalize digital ethics internally and for our clients
  • Drive Ethics by Design for Avanade’s offerings
  • Explore and assess the adoption of community standards
  • Participate in digital ethics forums and groups to move the thinking to action
  • Provide our expertise and thinking to public thought leadership

The task force has initially created a framework to ensure we embed it in the work we do.

Avanade digital ethics framework

Fair and Inclusive:
  • Preserves the dignity of humans
  • Designs a better information society
  • No unlawful or unethical discrimination
  • No stigmatization, stereotypes, segregation or exclusion
  • Complies with privacy and security laws

Human Accountability:
  • Humans ultimately accountable>
  • Humans applied compassion, empathy and sheer common sense

  • Transparent
  • Enhances digital trust
  • Safe
  • Digital ethics by design

  • Robust and dynamic
  • Feedback loop
  • Learns from mistakes
  • Auditable

Where do we go next?
The results of the Digital Ethics Summit are still being collated and we’ll share more once it is pulled together and ready for public consumption. I am encouraged by the action-oriented nature of the group and the parameters we’re building to guide others. We’re done admiring the problem; it’s time to start moving beyond talking about digital ethics and act. With the increased use of smart technologies in business, we can only expect the ethical dilemmas to grow. Humans, not machines, will need to apply compassion, empathy, and common sense as they work to resolve ethical dilemmas and I believe we all have a role to play.


I am on the Board of the Institute of Advertising Ethics.  Your deployment of principles, and comprehensive approach is impressive - moving from conduct to embedding in workflow indeed!  We are undertaking an initiative for our industry.  I would like to be in touch with leadership to exchange notes, and determine if we might collaborate. 

October 5, 2019

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