Digital Ethics: What
Sean McGauley

By: Sean McGauley on August 12th, 2021

Print/Save as PDF

Digital Ethics: What's Your Plan?


We've all been there, adding in our personal information online to complete a form, make a purchase, or sign up for an offer, and before we click the submission button, we think, "Is this information safe? How might it be used?" We ask ourselves these questions more and more as we continue to grow and expand our online experiences using our personal information.

But, whether we realize it or not, it's more than just a matter of safety. As you'll discover in this post, this exchange of information can also be a matter of ethics.

Get Your Free Tip Sheet: Developing a Data Privacy Program That Works

What is Digital Ethics?

Before going further, let's define Digital Ethics. I really like this definition from Wikipedia:

"the branch of ethics that focuses on the relationship between the creation, organization, dissemination, and use of information, and the ethical standards and moral codes governing human conduct in society."

I like this definition because it talks about how Digital Ethics is a branch of overall Business Ethics and that its focus is on the ethical use of information throughout its entire lifecycle. To me, this addresses an ethical layer applied throughout the practice of Intelligent Information Management (IIM).

Digital Ethics and IIM

Let's revisit our definition of Digital Ethics to learn how this applies back to IIM. The "creation, organization, dissemination, and use of information" aligns perfectly with the pillars of IIM, which include:

  • Creating, Capturing, and Sharing Information
  • Digitalizing Information-Intensive Processes
  • Automating Governance and Compliance
  • Extracting Intelligence from Information

Digital Ethics can and should be considered throughout each of these steps.

What is Digital Ethics - Core Values

Why is Digital Ethics Important?

If we were going to boil down why Digital Ethics is important into one word, it would be trust. Think back to that example we covered at the start of this post, where we're about to click the submit button to give someone else access to our information. During that action, we ask ourselves just that, "Do I trust this?"

Whenever the answer is no, or if something doesn't pass our trust "sniff test," we're not going to submit the form, make the purchase, or sign up for the offer.

But with trust, that information can be used in a way to help us and provide a better experience.

Digital Ethics vs. Privacy

Although related, Digital Ethics and Privacy are two separate things. Concerns about Privacy have resulted in many new and upcoming regulations, like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and statewide regulations in the United States like the California Privacy Protection Act. These regulations were designed to address privacy concerns by providing rules and regulations for privacy – governing what organizations can do and cannot do with personal data.

Digital Ethics takes into account what should be done and should not be done with personal information based on ethical practices and organizational values.

Let's take a look at an example to help make the distinction clearer.

GDPR provides the rules and regulations for privacy covering all of the members of the European Union. This regulation also includes companies that operate outside of the EU but collect, store, and process the personal data of individuals living in the EU.

Under GDPR, organizations are required to:

  • Ask for permission to collect and store data about users
  • Ask for permission to sell any personal data that has been stored
  • Give users the right to request that data about them is deleted
  • Give users access to personal data that has been collected and stored

Under this list, it becomes pretty clear what organizations can and cannot do based on the regulation. But, with almost every rule, there is often room for some interpretation, and this is often where the question of ethics comes in and what should be done and what should not be done.

For example, if you're a global organization operating in the United States but collecting information from customers in the EU, you'll be adhering to GDPR for those specific customers based on the rules and regulations. In this example, Digital Ethics can come into play for your customers outside of EU countries. Should your organization provide that same level of trust for your non-EU customers? The distinction here is that for your non-GDPR users you don't have to adhere to the same privacy regulation, but the question of "Should we?" falls under Digital Ethics.

What is Digital Ethics

Information Professionals Weigh-In on Digital Ethics

Now that we understand more about what Digital Ethics is, its importance, how it relates to IIM, and more; let's take a look at how real Information Professionals view Digital Ethics.

To find out, we polled the AIIM Community on social media. We asked, "How would you describe your organization's Digital Ethics efforts?"

Here are the results:

How would you describe your organization’s Digital Ethics efforts

These mixed results show that Digital Ethics is a rather new, but growing concern around the AIIM Community.

Four Tips for Digital Ethics

Trust will always be important. As organizations working with information, we can foster trust by making ethical decisions throughout the information lifecycle. Digital Ethics should be a key factor in your Intelligent Information Management strategy. Consider these four ethical tips:

  1. Design for Privacy, Security, and Integrity: Organisations must use data in responsible and ethical ways, and that means not using it in ways that are considered intrusive, manipulative, or disrespectful to others. Benefits should be mutual to both parties and not exploited for monetary gain.
  2. Promote Trust: Trust is everything. Find ways to build and maintain trust throughout the entire information lifecycle.
  3. Avoid Bias: Intentional or not, biases are something to avoid. Things like confirmation biases for interpreting data in unethical ways to support a case, to unintentional biases that may come from AI or Machine Learning algorithms. Make sure to incorporate transparency when appropriate.
  4. Promote Ethical Culture: Clear organizational values should be shared within the organization. Become a value-driven organization by actively demonstrating core values and using them to guide behavior and decision-making.

Free Tip Sheet: Developing a Data Privacy Program That Works