ENSR Presentation at Vienna at the Institute for Management Information Systems (WU)

Philosophy meets Internet Engineering: Ethics in Networked Systems Research

Wednesday 15 April, 2pm,
Institute for Management Information Systems
Vienna University of Economics and Business
Welthandelsplatz 1; Buidling D2

Ben will present the current one-year project with the Open Technology Fund, which brings together researchers and practitioners around the ethics of Internet engineering research. The aim is to develop a grounded set of guidelines for ethically sound Internet research that enhances cross-disiplinary conversations by bridging the gap in understanding between computer scientists and network engineers on one side and lawyers, social scientists, and ethicists on the other. The project website can be found at http://ensr.oii.ox.ac.uk/

The Internet is a decentralised network of information networks that uses standardised protocols to transmit an ever-increasing amount of data and information across the globe. Political, technical and business decisions can be made to enable an efficient flow of this data, but can also have malevolent motivations such as censorship, malicious attacks, prioritising content for profit and throttling data flows. Detailed metrics are needed to make sense of the state of the Internet network, at local, national or global levels, in order to ensure just governance of the network and to establish a continued enabling environment for its potential for further innovation. 

Internet engineering and networked systems research improves our understanding of the underlying technical processes of the Internet. Internet engineers therefore analyse data transfers of large groups of individuals, or connected devices are used to conduct measurement tests. This kind of research raises many new ethical dilemmas, or challenge existing ethics methodologies within the new and complex information environment presented by the Internet. It is an open question whether the effect of networked computer systems on society require new branches of ethics. This project explores whether existing ethical guidelines (or research principles) are sufficient to assess the developing field of Internet research.

The design of Internet engineering and research projects reflect human decisions that have the power to  create new moral realms in which individual research subjects interact. This interplay of technology and society creates new practices that can impact the lives of individuals in many ways. It is the task of ethics to analyse the impact of technology and guide decision making processes. A discrepancy exists, however, between human subject research – where there are relatively strict and broadly-understood ethical traditions – and Internet engineering, where the consideration of these issues is relatively new, and where it is not obvious whether existing best practices from other fields can be successfully imported.

Ben Zevenbergen