Big tech is thinking about digital ethics, and small businesses need to keep up

Microsoft, Apple or Intel have the time and money to draw guidelines and charters about the ethical use of their technology. But for small and medium businesses, digital ethics is still an obscure subject.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

From Google's commitment to responsible technology to Microsoft's guidelines for "ethical and trustworthy AI", it is now the norm to see big tech commit to digital ethics. 

The concepts of "ethical frameworks" or "responsible innovation" may sound nebulous, but it is now also up to small and medium businesses (SMBs) to make sure that the technology they deploy is used ethically.

Speaking at a conference in London, Simon McDougall, executive director at the UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), said: "Digital ethics need to get beyond the organisations that have the resources to think about it, and push into the real world of smaller businesses."

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

A major obstacle is that ethical technology remains an abstract concept debated in conference rooms; a conversation that needs "more operationalizing", according to McDougall.

In the UK, various institutions are trying to provide guidelines and frameworks for the responsible deployment of innovation.

The Office for AI, for example, details the four principles of fairness, accountability, sustainability and transparency; while the centre for data ethics and intelligence regularly reports on topics ranging from online targeting to algorithms in policing

And bigger tech companies with larger resources are increasingly showing off their commitment to complying with digital ethics. Apple, for example, recently revamped its privacy page – a move merely continuing the digital privacy crusade it has been leading over the years

Intel's human rights policy includes a section declaring that the company will refuse to sign deals where it becomes aware "of a concern that Intel products are being used by a business partner in connection with abuses of human rights"

And insurance company Aviva recently published a one-page customer data charter along with an explainer video to detail how it uses personal information, "instead of long privacy policies that no one reads," said the company's chief data scientist, Orlando Machado. 

For McDougall, however, this is just the tip of the iceberg. "We hear from Microsoft and Intel about what they are doing, and how they are implementing ethics," he said, "but there are many smaller organizations out there that are far from thinking about these things."

As an example of a positive development, he points to GDPR regulation introduced last year in the EU, and which provides more practical guidelines to ensure ethical business and protection of privacy. 

SEE: IT pro's guide to GDPR compliance (free PDF)

Even GDPR rules, however, are struggling to find a grip with SMBs. A survey conducted this year among 716 small businesses in Europe showed that there was widespread ignorance about data security tools and loose adherence to the law's key privacy provisions

About half of the respondents believed their organizations were compliant with the new rules – although only 9% were able to identify which end-to-end encrypted email service they used.

A full 44% said they were not confident that they always obtained consent or determined a lawful basis before using personal data.

SEE: Predictions 2020: Privacy and data ethics bring marketing to the boardroom

The issue, however, is not good will: over half of those surveyed reported spending between €1,000 (£845) and €50,000 (£42,252) on GDPR compliance, which included consultants and technology. 

Sue Daley, associate director at TechUK, said: "We have to make SMBs ask themselves: 'How are ethics applicable to me?' It is a question that bigger businesses are looking at, but more should be done to make it real for smaller organizations."

As technology gets more sophisticated and finds new applications, digital ethics will only grow in importance. But it would seem that the process of implementing them will require more regulation, less abstract guidelines, and a dose of realism.

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