Technology offers organisations obvious opportunities. But as we embrace innovation, are the urgent ethical considerations being lost in translation?

More data than ever is created every day – and, with this, huge opportunity. Technology accelerates these opportunities. Opportunities to monetise, analyse and improve data. And to plan for and shape new products to give competitive edge. The downside can be equally significant. Trust and shareholder value can disappear overnight through lack of data control and transparency. This merits a re-evaluation of our shared understanding of what it really means to be ethical in the digital age.

The starting point
Businesses increasingly realise that ethics and social impact should be considered from Day 1 when providing a service, or creating a tech or data product. Many are unclear about how practically to address this challenge.

Why ethics? Isn’t the law enough? Why focus on data and technology?

In collaboration with Forbes Insights, Clifford Chance surveyed 300 senior c-suite executives from $1 billion+ companies on their hopes and fears for tech-driven growth. We produced a report on our findings. The report analyses the law, but also the broader, ethical impact of technology and the role we all have to play in this critical discussion.
39% say that the greatest opportunity of tech is a ‘better quality of life’, but 30% of respondents are concerned it will displace humans from job markets. 24% are concerned about human rights and privacy. This means application of existing laws need re-evaluation. Without drawing bright lines on how, why, where and how technology and information is used, we will walk blindly into business decisions that we cannot explain. No human oversight means no accountability. No accountability means low – or, perhaps, no – compliance with law.

The right questions
What are boards, governments, regulators and legal teams actually doing? The focus, we see, shifts to three core focus areas: scoping, governance, and operationalisation.
First, scope. What is the “right” thing to do? Answering this requires knowing your market, customer, and the laws impacting data and technology use. What data and technology use is lawful but potentially unethical? Does the use case reflect the diversity and experiences of those we work with and serve? What are the non-reputational implications of a decision – e.g. financial regulatory, competition or litigation risk? No sensible decision is made in an echo chamber. Involve a diverse group reflecting the breadth of the organisation and those you serve.

Second, governance. The use of data and high-risk technology is not always covered by existing governance frameworks and environment, social and governance (ESG) reviews. Industry leaders are re-thinking, re-articulating and re-purposing existing risk and governance frameworks to specifically address data and technology risk. Stakeholders should be inspired to identify ethical issues at the development stage and to integrate in their designs and business planning. Demonstrate appropriate systems and controls by making sure the updated risk frameworks involve senior management for the right decisions, at the right time.

Third, operationalisation. Effective governance and oversight relies on an agile, operationalised framework that allows teams to innovate, but catches items that need escalation at the right time. Part of involves creating or adapting existing risk governance frameworks, creating tech ethics principles, or creating specific technology review committees. Oversight is key.

Towards a sustainable tech strategy
We see the benefits of advanced technology, but also the potential damage if it is mismanaged. Particularly if large numbers of people were to be displaced from job markets by automation with no viable alternative. With technology so enmeshed in work and society, a new ‘tech ethics’ is paramount. The stakes could not be higher.

Legal advisers are at the centre of driving this shift in corporate responsibility and regulatory compliance. Ethics forms part of this. And it is our shared responsibility to involve our colleagues in this shift, and drive these regulatory changes into practice.

About the author
Herbert Swaniker of Clifford Chance advises on a wide range of advisory and transactional matters in the TMT sector, particularly on issues concerning emerging technologies, data protection and privacy, cyber security, fintech, AI policy, investigations, joint ventures/M&A, and commercial law. Herbert has a focus on AI and data ethics, with current research interests in online harms, algorithmic bias, and age appropriate design. Herbert advises on the creation of AI/data governance and ethics frameworks for global organisations.

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