Legal and ethical questions in the global digital space

05 Jul 2016

According to the news, hackers were able to steal digital currency Ether (on the Ethereum platform) tokens equivalent of more than $50 million in June. The Ethereum community has solutions to freeze and return stolen tokens. The hacker group Anonymous has conducted cyber attacks against terrorist organizations. Technology companies like Facebook and Apple want to protect their users also against governments.

All these examples raise new complex legal and ethical questions regarding who has authority, legal and ethical rights to rule in global digital communities. And now AI is emerging, we have even more complex questions.

Traditionally it is authorities and the courts of a country that have the highest power to decide between right and wrong and then also trigger actions based on that. But when we have, for example, a global digital currency that is not really authorized or regulated by any government, the situation can be very different. The service and currency tokens are distributed to a network of thousands of computers around the world and it is managed by its own community. Can the community have the right to decide about right and wrong and then execute actions based on it, e.g. return tokens to someone that were allegedly stolen.

Some hacker groups have taken actions that many people can feel are ethically right, for example, to make cyber attacks on terrorist organizations. The complexity is that those actions are not based on any local or international legitimate decisions. In that way one can see they are a threat to the traditional international laws and institutions, even they could be ethically right. At the same time, one can argue, no traditional legal system or institution works effectively in this global cyber space.

Apple refused to open iPhone encryption in the San Bernardino terrorist investigation. US authorities were finally able to use a third party to open messages in the phone. Facebook and Microsoft have announced that they inform users if a governmental organization tries to compromise their privacy. These things are also seen as a positive policy from the companies to protect their customers and users. At the same time one can argue they help protect criminals. Then we have a question as to whether these companies have more power and capability to control justice than governments and courts.

Artificial Intelligence raises its own ethical questions. Already ‘an old discussion’ is how a self-driving car should behave, if it must e.g. chose to smash into a bus, or drive over a person who is walking on a pavement. The military is already now active to use semi-automatic and automatic systems to make decisions, when things can happen so rapidly that a human being cannot handle decisions. We remember the War Games movie already from 1980’s. These are real ethical and hard decisions about life and death. And we can also ask if a machine or a tired human being makes better decisions.

The examples above are quite different, but all of them are about new legal and ethical issues in the digital space. They are typically global, not in a territory of a country as traditional justice systems. And they are managed by international companies, loose Internet communities or even by machines. These issues are reality already now, but will be much bigger issues in 5 to 10 years. If governments really try to limit activities in the cyber space, they can damage innovation and development, or just tilting at windmills, like British government that planned to forbid encryption on the Internet to fight against terrorist. It is not an option to stop the development. But it is like the Wild West, governments and legal systems haven’t yet a proper control, and sometimes it is fighting between good and bad boys, and then local communities try to establish common rules and hire a sheriff.

Digitization and global networks can have much bigger impact on life and business than globalization in international trade and international trade treaties that people are now worried in many countries. Often this discussion has been left only to cyber security experts and some governmental agencies. These are significant legal and ethical questions that have impact on every human being and his and her rights, privacy and liabilities. These questions need open and public discussion and democratic decisions. The complexity is that these often require global rules and understanding of technology.

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