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    Digital Ethics in Focus: Brussels Hosting 40th Int'l Data Protection Conference

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    BRUSSELS (Sputnik) - Brussels is hosting this week the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners (ICDPPC), bringing together scores of prominent business leaders and experts to discuss data protection and role of ethics in the digital world.

    The topics have gained special prominence in the wake of the recent high-profile data breach scandals.

    This year’s theme "Debating Ethics: Dignity and Respect in Data-Driven Life" indeed couldn't be more relevant after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw personal data of about 50 million Facebook users having been harvested without their consent, and statements by other tech companies admitting the facts of exposing private information of their users.

    All that brought such internet giants as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others into focus.

    Breathtaking List of Speakers

    More than 1,000 experts have already gathered in Brussels to discuss the digital era’s challenges. Among the participants are European commissioners for justice and digital economy, European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli, and the chairman of the Commission for Personal Data Protection, Ventsislav Karadjov.

    The event also features such prominent speakers as Spanish King Felipe VI, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and chief privacy officer Erin Egan, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, as well as hundreds of top experts and national commissioners for the protection of personal data, who either address the conference in person or via media messages.

    Earlier on Wednesday, the opening address was made by Vera Jourova, the European commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, and Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, the chair of ICDPPC Executive Committee and the president of the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty.

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    But the main speaker was the Apple CEO, who raised the issue of tech companies taking advantage of users’ trust.

    "New technologies can harm. It is unsettling but companies and governments have taken advantage of users’ trust, to collect their data, use and manipulate them or exert surveillance. We are in a crisis, without exaggeration," Cook admitted.

    But more importantly, he officially declared that Apple was in favor of a new US law to protect the personal data at a time where their protection is more needed than ever. Cook wants a US version of the European Union’s recently-adopted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

    "[There is a need for a] federal law protecting personal data, and determining what collection is legitimate and which is not. Users must have the right to access their personal data and a right to security… I celebrate the good policy that is the GDPR, imposed by Europe; it should be an example all over the world…At Apple we are ‘absolutists’: we want a robust ethical thinking on our products and their usage. We always try to return to the question: what kind of world do we want to live in… We must organize so that technology serves humankind. The best days are still ahead of us", he concluded.

    Buttarelli, the European data protection supervisor, in turn, made a speech on dignity and respect in our data-driven lives.

    He was followed by the inventor of the World Wide Web himself, Tim Berners-Lee. This very original thinker reminded all that privacy is a core right and it was the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook debacle that brought the discussion of ethics into focus.

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    Berners-Lee mentioned that the large internet platforms, the GAFA, as well as Twitter and Microsoft had agreed very recently to adopt a new common platform that will make it possible to download from one platform to another: your data as a user, are yours to control.

    He stressed that systems are not only technology: it is the interaction of machines and people with their attitudes and motivations. Systems are socio-technological.

    Look at Wikipedia, Berners-Lee suggested, noting that it is governed by protocols but also by policies and ethics. To make itself functional, the openly editable content-based encyclopedia had to organize, itself, change its ways, develop a meritocracy, define how to become a wizard or to block people. It is anthropogenic, composed by people, not by machines.

    "The neutrality of the web must be absolute. It can’t tell me that I have the wrong political ideas, the wrong religion. I must have the right to connect everyone and anyone, in full anonymity," Berners-Lee noted.

    Panel discussions and others speakers dealt with artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, the blockchain, facial recognition. They dealt with plenty of topics, from virtual reality to fake news, and discussed the biggest tech trends over the next 20 years and how will they change our lives.

    Ethics: Data Protection Beyond Law Compliance

    On the legal front, there were also many prominent speakers: the EU commissioners for justice and competition, the presidents of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, as well as data protection commissioners from around the world, including South Africa, the Philippines, Canada and the United Kingdom.

    Compliance with the law is not sufficient, several speakers said.

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    The point that ethics come before legislation has its sense. Slavery, for example, was legal for a long time but was not ethically acceptable. So is child labor today. It is legal in some countries but not unethical. The public understands this, and it knows that ethics can change over time; it is an evolving target.

    Nevertheless, 86 percent of French citizens, for instance, believe that the authorities must still play a role in data protection, as is the case in with France’s National Commission on Informatics and Liberty.

    First Outcomes of the Conference

    The fear this week is that the ICDPPC conference, despite the glittering list of guest speakers and the great exchanges and networking by the delegates, will produce few concrete results.

    The work conducted in working groups, and the resolutions ensuing from their work sound written in a diplomatic language and slightly superficial. "Freedom of expression…, empowerment of every individual…, respecting privacy rights… etc.

    In the wake of the recent scandal around harvesting information of millions of Facebook users by the Cambridge Analytica consulting firm, which made Facebook senior officials testimony before US Congress and the European Parliament, expectations from the conference are very high.

    The conference understands the challenges of course. Documents contain such texts: "beyond data protection, challenges are as diverse as the problems that social media currently create, the current inability of individuals to benefit from their data themselves, biases in algorithms and discrimination, the transparency and reproducibility of Artificial Intelligence, patents and copyright issues, fake news and online fraud, cyberbullying and research ethics and big data."

    Gert Vermeulen, a professor of European and international criminal law at Ghent University and director of the Institute for International Research on Criminal Policy (IRCP), who is taking part in the conference, agrees that the conference’s resolutions could be unreadable for ordinary people.

    "It is true that the language used in the resolutions is a very diplomatic jargon, far from the everyday preoccupations of normal citizens. Several delegates have mentioned this; the Canadian delegate asked for the resolutions to be written in ‘a much simpler language’ because it flies too high, satisfies the lawyers among us, but won’t be readable to [ordinary] citizen," he said.

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    However, The greatest progress that the conference has already achieved is bringing together data protection and consumer protection authorities, according to Vermeulen.

    "To me, the area where progress has been made in this 40th conference on data protection and privacy is the collaboration between the data protection authorities and the consumer protection authorities. There are also new areas of analysis, for example, to identify different information approaches in the press on a given topic; it is not detecting supposed ‘fake news’ but more positively identifying different opinions and perceptions. But I must admit that the conference remains at the higher international level," he pointed out

    'Public Consultation' on Digital Ethics

    The conference also published the results of a public consultation on digital ethics, carried out by the European data protection supervisor (EDPS), who announced it as "an essential part of the ongoing EDPS Ethics initiative, to explore the consequences of new digital technologies on society and their implications for data protection."

    According to the conference, the so-called public consultation engaged "a broad variety of stakeholders, from the private sector, the health sector, research and education, public administration and civil society, but also from individuals, including two artists and a religious body."

    Yet, only 76 contributions were submitted when the consultation closed on July 15, 2018, which does not sound very impressive and indicates that it is only beginning of the public debate, given that millions of users are concerned by the issues.

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    To conclude, the conference is not about technologies themselves, it is about developing new ethics to accompany the evolution of data processing and ensuring enforcement, with the intervention of regulators and relevant legislation.

    The views and opinions expressed by the speakers do not necessarily reflect the official position of Sputnik.

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