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Ethics in IT

François Lambert-Limbosch, alderman of New Technologies, municipality of Uccle
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François Lambert-Limbosch

Georges Orwell was sorely mistaken. We all read 1984 trembling at the thought of this totalitarian society he predicted. However, Big Brother didn’t get to power through a dictatorship. Instead, we chose to be watched and welcomed it with open arms.

I belong to the famous baby boomer generation and have been able to witness first-hand how intensely all kinds of technologies have changed our daily lives. At the start of my career, at the end of the eighties, I used a typewriter. Today, I do my bank transactions with a gadget that fits in the palm of my hand. This difference may seem shocking, but it is nothing compared to the wave of big data and artificial intelligence which will soon wash over us.

The paradigm of digital transformation consists in making our daily lives easier, and so we are all too ready to accept it. We give a ton of data to companies without as much as batting an eyelid. The economic power of these data is far greater than the GDP of many nations, including Belgium. We are fully aware of what we are doing, but humans are quick to forget!

Let’s consider the role that our government should take on in this regard. Technology has provoked the commercialisation of public service. We should definitely ask ourselves what has caused this change in approach, which is purely ideologic. Five-year plans containing completely outdated soviet influences has made way for a business plan based on an liberal - even ultraliberal – ideology. Our authorities have put on a suit, but does it really suit them?

I do not wish to write a plea against digitisation and good governance nor do I want to undo administrative simplification, which we have digital progress to thank for. No one would complain about not wasting time travelling to the city hall thanks to online services such as IRISbox. However, that doesn’t mean that I – we – shouldn’t take a step back and think about the destinations of digitalisation in the context of public good. Should we allow private IT companies to infiltrate without as much as batting an eyelid? If we support the implementation of autonomous vehicles, aren’t we condemning operators such as the MIVB and the SNCB?  Shouldn’t we consider these developments as is being done now for the simple free floating electric scooters that are taking over our walkways?

Putting the common good above all is and should stay the be all and end all of the authorities, whoever they are. That is the point of view which certain collectivises have chosen to adopt with regard to new technologies.  In France, Issy les Moulineaux has just started a partnership with the French-made search engine Quant in order to prioritise personal data protection and privacy. The city of Quebec, through to its commission for ethics in science and technology, has a policy which ensures ethics in the digital sector of its municipalities. The policy, which is titled “Smart City at the service of common good”, contains about 100 pages describing the following essentials: 1) Maximise benefits for the common good; 2) Avoid or reduce a possible negative impact on dignity, privacy and democracy; 3) Ensure equal distribution of possible advantages and disadvantages across all stakeholder; 4) Ensure that the expected benefits are greater than the disadvantages, including the costs.

Last but not least, Barcelona, the absolute star amongst Smart City, has chosen to build its digitisation using an innovatory approach unifying the industry, municipality and population. The city has, amongst other initiatives, chosen to use open source as a base for the development of a local, innovatory technological ecosystem. In the context of its participative processes, the Catalan city combines, for instance, technological resources with the collective intelligence of citizens’ assemblies. The digital aspect of the process has taken the form of an online web platform called Decidim, of which the code is distributed freely across the world, Belgium included. My municipality, Uccle, got the opportunity to test this tool in the spring of 2018 in the context of an initiative of the federal government. The test, which was carried out on a small scale, didn’t succeed in exploiting the essence of the co-decision and cocreation mechanisms which are used in Barcelona. However, let’s see this experience as a first step, an object which gives citizens’ exasperation a voice instead of letting it die silently in ballot boxes or provoke chaos as witnessed in the yellow vest movement.  

In conclusion, isn’t it time for us, public authorities responsible for new technologies, to make ethics in IT a priority?

PS. I want to thank the Brussels Informatics Centre for allowing me to speak up. Until recently, the BRIC was my employer, before destiny and a tad of fearlessness put me in the alderman’s chair in Uccle, where I am in charge of new technologies, amongst other responsibilities.