20 Years of ETHICOMP: A Celebration


The whole CaSMa team joined ETHICOMP2015 at De Montfort University (Leicester) early last week. EHICOMP2015 was a fantastic ‘old school reunion’ that gathered well established researchers in the field  – to discuss the role of computing in our societies and the question of the ethical values and consequences linked to the ever-growing importance of technology in our lives. The ETHICOMP community claims to be more than a highly multidisciplinary group of academics and industry related partners, and definitely more than a conference. ETHICOMP aims to be a ‘community mentor’ that would go beyond the usual conference academic output, and I could not disagree with this statement. A notorious aspect of this conference was the non-hierarchical, approachable and friendly attitude of delegates, presenters and keynote speakers and an obvious willingness to be as inclusive as possible.

Relevant for CaSMa was the presentation of Helena Webb et al. titled ‘Digital wildfires: hyperconnectivity, havoc and a global ethos to govern social media’. Helena, from the Dept. of Computer Science at Oxford University, did a great job at presenting the regulatory challenges that emerge from social media. Rumours, hate speech and misleading information can rapidly spread through social media causing great harm and psychological distress in others including a waste of resources if, for example, emergency services are mobilised because of false information. Her talk highlighted an interesting philosophical question regarding the limit of freedom of speech within social media, subject which still plagues my mind with no easy solution in sight.

One of the aspects that I like the most about social media is that -in principle- everybody with the required technology and knowledge has the potential to participate on the www, upload/download content and express opinions freely. However, this content can be perceived as evil and inappropriate by other people and communities and therefore, regulatory force seems mandatory to control and censor such harmful content. In an ideal world, users’ own moral responsibility and self-governance should suffice to ensure social media is a safe and positive medium for human communication and interaction, but the reality is far distant from this utopia and it seems that someone should be regulating and limiting the freedom of speech among social media users which inevitably would jeopardise such freedom…. But if protection is actually needed, ‘who should bell the cat?*’ Or in other words, who should be responsible for the governance of social media? Who should police the thread? The users, the government or/and the platforms? The right answer is usually a combination of all alternative responses and in this case I am inclined to believe this may be the most appropriate answer.

Schools are placing emphasis on educating our future digital citizens into responsible and respectful social media users, trolls are being sentenced to years in prison, and social media platforms can control and block offensive and undesirable content. Definitely, more empirical grounded research is needed to find solutions to the issue of how to regulate and prevent digital wildfires. Until then,

*This expression is used to teach the wisdom of evaluating a plan not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed. It provides a moral lesson about the fundamental difference between ideas and their feasibility, and how this affects the value of a given plan (for more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belling_the_cat).


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