A hippocratic Oath for Techies & Policymakers

Acknowledegements & Context

When Rick Whitt and I were working on a paper on a framework for internet policy that brings together complexity theory, endogenous economics and common pool resource governance, I pondered once again about a proposal to write and promote a hippocratic oath for internet techies and policy makers in order to have them (including me) pledge to “do no harm” to the potent but also fragile internet ecosystem.

Below you find a code of conduct to which I feel I can subscribe. However it is not and will never be final. Rather I plan to develop, add and sharpen the code further. Please send comments and suggestions as to what should be included and/or where it should be more precise.

UPDATE: I have moved the text to a google-doc and updated it based on the comments received so far. The gDoc can be commented publicly, which should allow for more detailed refinement. The IRP coalition has offered to publish it on their website after collaborative editing, so people can actually take the oath.

—————– Old Version ———————

Preamble

I recognize technology as a product of human effort, a product serving no other purpose than to benefit man in general, not merely some men; man in the totality of his humanity, encompassing all his manifold interests and needs, not merely some one particular concem of his. Humanistically viewed, technology is not an end in itself but a means to an end, the end being determined by man. I hence promote a humanistic conception of technology in which the desire to obtain maximum benefits is subordinated to the obligation not to injure human beings or society at large.

Therefore the following principles shall marshal my mindset, decision making and practices:

Code of Conduct


1) Do no harm:

  • I hold a humanistic conception of the internet and therefore will not simply compare costs and benefits of any particular code or practice, but follow a rights based approach as formulated in the 10 Internet Rights & Principles.
  • When assessing code, practices and policy proposals I will seek to understand the technological, economic, socio-cultural and ethical dimensions and interdependencies of the online ecosystem, always aiming not to hamper user-centered development and innovation but to further creative destruction and open competition.

2) Participate in deliberation:

  • Acknowledging that internet governance must be an open multi-stakeholder process, I will participate in both internal organisational discourse as well as in public deliberation with the aim to collaboratively generate knowledge and to contribute to sound decision making.
  • I will take critics seriously. Governance is about constructive dialogue rather than representation.

3) Act responsibly  

  • I will contribute to the internet governance discourse to the best of my knowledge. Should an obligation to an institution contradict my perspective I shall refrain from disagreeing publicly but will take the responsibility to argue my case internally.
  • Should I witness any error or misdeed (i.e. human rights violation) I shall first address and remedy it with the responsible individual or within the responsible organisation. However should it prove impossible to resolve a serious matter directly, I shall bring the case to prosecution.

4) Promote openness & contribute to the commons

  • Whenever possible I will contribute to the commons and the public domain. Subsequently I will always practice a strong bias towards open innovation and open standards.
  • I will always acknowledge from whom or from what text I have learned about a certain idea or concept and if appropriate include direct links (or other relevant bibliographic references)
  • I will be transparent about my social networks and motivation to choose collaboration partners.

5) Respect privacy and confidentiality

  • I will honor the contextual agreement regarding the use and sharing of information and data that I have access to. This means that I will use and discuss information only within a given institution (confidential) or between certain individuals (private). In order to do so I shall always strive to understand the contextual agreement and make it explicit when in doubt.
  • Given the strong socio-political and economic benefits of information and data that is in the commons (or public domain), I will strive to make transparent and public as many of the endeavors and practices I am involved in as possible.


Acknowledegements
I had been inspired to work on such a code of conduct some years back when I read the excellent article “A Humanistic Technology” (1965) Hyman Rickover. (The Preamble is a mashup from his text.) In the article he proposes that given the power technocrats and engineers have over mankind they should swear an hippocratic oath which binds them to an ethical code which is placed above the interests of their employer or their self-interest.

Back then I chaired the Internet Rights and Principles (IRP) coalition and the discussions about how to transpose human rights to the net and what technical principles should be upheld was also aimed at the goal to find an agreement on which to root internet governance (policies) and hence practices. The group has since produced an excellent document “10 Internet Rights and Principles” which I naturally use as fundament of this code of conduct.

During the development of these guiding principles I also consulted several related texts such as ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics from the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) website.

And of course I also happily followed Jeff Jarvis’ proposal to President Sarkozy (and all policy makers) to swear an hippocratic oath for the internet back at the eG8 Summit in 2011. In fact it was when I listened to his pretty good audio book “Public Parts” that I decided to take a shot at a prototype for such an oath as feels right to me as professional policy entrepreneur.

5 thoughts on “A hippocratic Oath for Techies & Policymakers

  1. One of the challenges in producing such credos is to find a balance between the need to assure that infrastructure costs are, in fact, covered somehow, while protecting the freedoms of users and also protecting these same users from harms that may result from their use of the Internet. Because the Internet is made up of myriad subnetworks, we can find many different business models at work in the Internet system including for-profit, non-profit, coop, and others. We need to tolerate a variety of business models as well as a variety of enforcement mechanisms that preserve user choice while maximizing benefit and assuring sustainable access to the system.

  2. Hi Max,
    thanks for sharing this draft code of conduct – what I could sign as a non-techy or policymaker ;-) . In the past I signed other comparable codes like on duties and rights of journalists etc. Here is another Declaration I signed recently on behalf of EURALO — see
    http://www.internetdeclaration.org/freedom

    Hope to meet you soon again, kind regards,
    Wolf

  3. This is an intriguing approach! I need to think about it as it raises lots of interesting questions about the individual-community-soceity dynamic in Internet-related rights and responsibilities. However, before I think further I do need to make one recommendation. It’s about the wording; ‘man’ may well be the traditional generic term but these days, this gender-specific term has been largely substituted for gender-inclusive terminology. When talking of rights inclusivity is the key. Could I suggest a rewording as follows;

    “I recognize technology as a product of human effort, a product serving no other purpose than to benefit humankind in general, not merely some people; humankind as a whole, encompassing all of humanity’s interests and needs, not merely some one particular concem of any particular person”.

    The ‘loss’ here is not in translation but in expression by continuing to use ‘man’ as the signifier for humanity. Words are important as we know so I hope you don’t mind this suggestion.

    Back to the broader issue of an individualised oath. Symbolically there is something to this for societies where individualism dominates, in law but also in terms of how aspirations and identity, belonging, and rights are framed in western discourses. I am not sure though for those societies where community, extended family, and other sorts of kinship structures are covered by this oath. To do so would actually be too difficult in terms of wording either. These issues (as do my points about collective nouns – see above) relate to the tensions within the UDHR and how the Declaration for Indigenous Rights addresses these lacunae; highlighting again several contradictions and tensions between the universal and the particular.

    best
    MF

  4. PS: Apologies, should have edited the text above before posting; please note I meant that in terms of wording, ” To do so would actually *not* be too difficult in terms of wording …”.

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