Ethical risks in digital space must be addressed

By WANG LUYAO / 01-13-2022 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Visitors at the Zhengzhou Cybersecurity Science and Technology Museum, the first of its kind in China, on Feb. 6, 2021 Photo: CFP

With the integration and development of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and blockchain, a digital space based on but detached from reality is taking shape. However, the development of digital space has brought challenges to traditional concepts and our inherent values, and revealed new hidden dangers to society. In this regard, it is necessary to analyze technology-related ethical concerns in digital space and put forward a corresponding risk assessment and governance approach.
Ethical risks
The development of digital space blurs the boundary between virtuality and reality, posing a challenge to our original social public rationality. The openness, interoperability, and decentralization of digital space, sparks a debate about what digital space will eventually become. Will such development come at the expense of the values that human society needs to build the future of internet technology? At present, significant ethical dilemmas in digital space have emerged.
Digital space is a decentralized open platform. Virtual reality supported by blockchain technology has multiplicities, as a person may have multiple digital identities in cyberspace. A digital identity is a set of characteristics and attributes that define and describe a subject. In the ecosystem of digital space, each subject’s digital identity varies according to registration purposes and various changing scenarios. Subjects can choose their own identities and purchase avatars that represent them, while all avatars can be exchanged and transferred. In the design of digital space, online behavior is the same as offline behavior, and different subjects share and communicate different content through these avatars. 
This highly immersive virtual space raises a series of digital identity conundrums: What is digital identity? Who authorizes identification? Behind the scene lies the problem of digital identity theft and abuse of identity data tracing, which leads to a question of social trust. Social trust mechanisms face reform, and how and by whom this reform will take place becomes the key variable affecting ethical risk.
The development of digital space pushes data transparency and control into uncharted territory. The protection of private data has become a thorny issue. In digital space, people’s body movements, brain waves, and other personal information can all be detected and recorded, so it is difficult to review and secure such data. On the one hand, it is a necessary challenge to formulate data norms in digital space to minimize data abuse, realize privacy protection through technical means, and let people have true control over their personal data. 
On the other hand, the whole process of data regulatory empowerment remains controversial. Who has the responsibility? Should enterprises, users, technicians, undisclosed third parties, and so on, be added to the conversation? Is the ongoing method of empowerment fair? How should disputes which arise in the empowerment process be resolved? These questions have yet to be answered.
Another inevitable question is where to draw the line between virtuality and reality. Virtual reality is not our de facto reality, but people will behave differently if they see digital space as an adjunct to reality rather than reality itself. 
Some researchers predict that nonhuman subjects may become more realistic and even smarter than humans in digital space. Following this line of reason, behavioral patterns will change as humans continue interacting with nonhuman subjects, which in turn raises several ethical questions. For example, if a human deletes or shuts down a database would it kill an AI simulation? 
In addition, in a highly decentralized virtual reality, users in digital space can buy and sell popularity and fame with ease, and magnify the “value” of anyone on the platform. In this case, ensuring a good “social atmosphere” in digital space has become an important matter. Digital space will change the form of human existence, but if the code of conduct has not been established, it not only has social ethical risks, but also brings severe challenges to the meaning, value, and path of human existence and development.
Digital space relies on virtual reality, augmented reality, and other technologies to create virtual experience for users, but it is difficult to achieve universal fairness and accessibility in the design of related technologies. First, relevant technologies are still under development, lacking clear ethical norms and legal rules. Sometimes technicians overlook the social conditions of productivity, and the status quo of production relations, to blindly carry out research. This may trigger technological consequences ahead of our current ethical order and set off people’s cognitive panic towards social technology. 
Second, when participating in a digital space ecology, people are faced with the dual dilemma of technological equipment and virtual property. Objectively speaking, the first step to entering digital space is accessing hardware, networks, and devices that extend vision, hearing, and touch, but it is difficult to ensure that people actually own the right to use these technological devices. This may exacerbate the priority-monopoly divide caused by technological rationality.
Next steps
The significance of ethical boundaries in digital space lies in highlighting the value of human dignity and autonomy, and realizing the progress of human civilization through the integration of technology, politics, economy, and culture. The vision of ethically reviewing digital space establishes a technology system with security, privacy, and inclusion as the core, which eventually leads to risk assessment and a new governance approach.
Digital space is not only a form of technology, but also carries ethical values. That said, we need to firmly promote justice and development, and realize the unification of technology and humanity. In short, the development of digital space needs to follow the humanistic spirit. First of all, in the development and application of digital space, we should firmly adhere to the bottom line of “people-oriented” values and ensure that technological development conforms to the laws of nature and the requirements of human nature. The formation of a good ethical order is a long-term process. Once digital space is widely used, technological alienation may spiral out of control, resulting in disastrous consequences. 
Second, we should promote a high integration of scientific and technological spirit with humanistic spirit, treat virtual practices rationally, anchor the practical boundary between virtual space and reality, eliminate the blind worship of virtual social forms, and avoid excessive reliance on virtual practices.
In the face of the rapid development of digital space, it is of significance to establish a good social ethical order to eliminate risks, which builds on the whole social ethical framework. Digital space’s high risk environment highlights the important responsibility awareness of the governing body. Security and responsibility should be the core content of the construction of ethical norms in digital space at all times. 
In particular, at an early stage of the development of digital space, it is necessary to strengthen the cultivation of good ethics in the whole of society, firmly prioritize security and responsibility awareness, establish a complete framework, and continuously explore and clarify the identification and sharing mechanism of security responsibility in digital space. 
The whole industry should enhance awareness of technical and ethical security, build a set of vertically and horizontally-connected supervision systems, guarantee the interoperability of laws, regulations, and policies within the same field and across fields, and ensure the safety management of whole process. 
In the process of building the ethical framework, it is necessary to implement a responsibility system, to clarify the responsibility of technicians, the industry, and users through reasonable, effective, and transparent laws, regulations, policies, and measures.
Digital space is likely to transform the whole society’s lifestyle, and technological governance requires extensive participation from multiple subjects. In this light, we should adhere to integrated technological development values and social ethical values, and promote ethical consideration as a necessary factor in the decision-making process. 
Also, researchers and the tech industry should be encouraged to put forward feasible suggestions regarding the governance of ethical order in digital space, and technical personnel and marketing personnel should be encouraged to put forward professional suggestions on the standards of ethical predictions and evaluations. Public opinions and suggestions should also be widely solicited, so that the public can fully participate in dialogues about ethical conflicts caused by digital space, to fully consider their doubts and worries within the scope of institutional rules.
Digital space is associated with global technological and social transformation, which requires the establishment of global information sharing, and forward-looking, effective risk warning mechanisms. First, national authorities should work with the private sector to assess future technological and ethical risks in digital space, and promote the formulation of ethical security guidelines and digital space standards. Second, all countries should work together to solve basic issues concerning the legitimacy of global community governance rule-making in digital space, identify key future risk areas in advance, and achieve timely warning and resolution of risks.
Though digital space is still in its development infancy, based on the current technological maturity, it is crucial to take steps to carry out ethical intervention now. At present, the technological and industrial development of digital space are under way, but the potential ethical risks will seriously impact the existing ethical order and  human society’s value system. Therefore, solving the hidden ethical problems in developing digital space is urgently needed.
Wang Luyao is from the School of Political Science and Public Administration at East China University of Political Science and Law.



Edited by YANG XUE