The digital world can be a thorny place to navigate. We explore some of the ethical challenges posed by the digital age, and why it’s down to charities to show the way forward as much as they do in the analogue world.
Digital technology is transforming civil society for the better in so many ways, opening up whole new audiences for charities to spread their message and campaign for their cause, driving efficiency and cost savings for small organisations operating on a shoestring, and helping gain new understanding of and solve some of the biggest problems of society.
But the digital world is far from an ideal utopia. As technology continues to grow in complexity and becomes deeper enmashed in the fabric of politics and our everyday lives, we must keep in mind that these advances are, in the end, only tools - they’re only as good or as bad as the people programming, designing and using them.
Without proper consideration for the consequences of their use, we risk something closer to a dystopia. Regulatory bodies are racing to keep up with this new reality by providing standardised frameworks such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which became law in the EU in May 2018 and represents the toughest, most comprehensive piece of legislation ever devised on the rights of individuals in regards to their data.
Meanwhile, every single one of us is feeling our way in uncharted waters as we seek to understand this new relationship between human beings and the increasingly intelligent tools we create. Good and bad are very rarely black and white, but we need to at least be aware of the possible pitfalls and go forward with some understanding of the issues.
What’s this got to do with your average charity? Without the trust of the general public, there can be no charity sector. For that reason, every single charity has a direct responsibility to ensure it is upholding its own principles in the online world, from keeping the sensitive information it holds safe from harm, to ensuring its digital services are accessible to everyone, practising the same level of transparency it should in all aspects of its operations and ensuring the tech partners it works with are aligned with its own values.
As explained in the Charity Digital Code of Practice, these are basic things that every charity that operates in any kind of digital capacity needs to be thinking about. An ignorance of the technical wizardry behind digital platforms is no excuse as this is not necessary to be an ethically principled organisation. If your charity uses digital tools of any kind, even minimally, the choices you make are shaping the digital world.
So where to begin? We recommend the following further reading: Our recent article by Charity Digital Code Chair Zoe Amar gives an overview of the key issues charities should be aware of, with a call to action for charities to be pushing tech companies in the right direction. The latest Charity Digital Skills Report was the first to broach the question of digital ethics for charities and makes for some interesting benchmarking. What is Digital Ethics? 10 issues that will shape our future offers a more in-depth read on some of the hottest topics in digital ethics, including some of the challenges discussed at the World Ethical Data Forum.
This excellent article from The Charities Aid Foundation’s Giving Thought blog looks at the topic of ’algorithmic bias’ and how machine-led decision making can impact the lives of real people in unintended ways. Back over on Charity Digital News, Giving Thought writer and CAF Head of Policy Rhodri Davies spoke to us about many of the ethcial implications already coming to the fore around Artifical Intelligence (AI), warning charities to be aware of how people’s own biases can be untintentionally transferred to computers. We recommend Giving Thought for its exploration of many digital issues facing the charity sector, such as the potential impact of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology on civil society, the environment and people’s privacy.
Although still cutting edge, this Giving Thought piece looks at the potential ways that quantum computing could soon affect civil society. And as explained by Davies, The World Economic Forum’s new report "Civil Society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution" sets out how non-profit organisations have a vital role to play in ensuring that digital technology is carried forward in service of humanity.
We recently heard from developer and ’Champion of Change’ Carlos Eriksson, who explained the importance of digital accessibility. This report from educational charity IBT explores the rise of ’fake news’ and its implications for the charity sector, with recommendations for non-profit organisation’s communication strategies. And we recently covered how charity thinktank NPC wants charities to be at the heart of efforts to keep people safe online, alongside a major government consultation.