Digital Responsibility

We define digital responsibility as ‘something more’ than the current attempts at protecting personal data. In 2018, alongside the implementation of the EU General Data Protection Regulating (GDPR) the liberal-right wing government of Denmark convened a national “Data Ethics Council”, seeing the culmination of years of work of advocates for the term “Data Ethics” (Hasselbach & Tranberg, 2016). This concept suggests that companies and organisations approach matters of data from a privacy-oriented perspective, one that focuses on the collection and retention of as little data as possible. The council approached Data Ethics from this privacy-oriented perspective which marries well with the needs of industry. The outcome of the council’s consultations was a charter on data ethics and a corporate ethics oath for data, similar to the already existing Corporate Social Responsibility oath. Multiple articles, debates and events were spawned around this initiative, some supportive and others voicing critique and concern. We use this concern as a gateway for suggesting an alternative concept: Digital Responsibility.

Digital responsibility is a way of paying attention not just to the soundness of the collection, use and ownership of data, but to the broader dynamic digital ecosystem within which one operates. We draw here on Donna Haraway’s notion of “response-ability” (Haraway, 2008) , to suggest an ethics which is able to respond with care and relate to a variety of different issues collectively. To this we add the importance of a long term perspective on data collection and use. Data is but one aspect of an extremely complex system of interlocking infrastructures, technologies, practices and laws. The extent to which digital technologies infiltrate our lives and societies requires a more system-wide approach to ethics and responsible action. Scandals such as Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data, the Danish state’s assistance in selling surveillance software to autocratic regimes or the controversy surrounding Google’s development of Artificial Intelligence for the US military point to this systems-wide sense, where digital technologies and matters of ethics and responsibility intersect. In some sense this is no different than previous societal situations in that technologies have always engendered a host of ethical issues. Digital responsibility directs our focus to these broad social and political issues and avoids a narrow focus on individual privacy rights to data and corporate competitive advantage. As a society we must work towards not just having better data ethics, we must set our aims higher, on digital responsibility. As researchers we have an obligation to diversify public discourse and draw attention to these issues. Currently, this means discussing what it would mean to have a truly digitally responsible society.

Author(s): Michael Hockenhull and Brit Ross Winthereik


Haraway, D. J. (2008). When Species Meet. U of Minnesota Press.
Hasselbach, G., & Tranberg, P. (2016). Data Ethics. PubliShare.

Posted in TiP Lexicon.