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Building an ethical framework for decentralized social technologies

March 28, 2023 | By Rande Price, Research VP – DCN

To date, only a few publications have offered an ethical framework for decentralized social technologies (DSTs) ‒ blockchain, Web3, and Fediverse. The collapse of FTX, a cryptocurrency futures exchange using blockchain methodology, alarmed many. Its absence of records, accounting controls, and transparent decision-making processes highlights the need for new governance guidelines across new technologies.

As a result, the Justice, Health, and Democracy Impact Initiative, a collaboration between Brown University School of Public Health and the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, has offered up a foundation for ethical and social experimentation with DSTs. Their new report, Ethics Of Decentralized Social Technologies, unpacks the transformation of DSTs, their impact, built-in mechanics, and downstream consequences. Importantly, it offers lessons learned and insights into how decentralized social technologies can be developed and implemented ethically and responsibly.

Ethical framework

The Justice, Health, and Democracy Impact Initiative examines AI ethics and bioethics frameworks to identify DTS best practices. Employing AI ethics includes asking fundamental questions like how to use the data to generate predictions and how institutions will use the predictions. AI ethics also includes basic questions about who makes these decisions, sets the timeline, and establishes the criteria.

In addition, bioethics looks to find the middle ground between identifying risks and modifying them while continuing the work unless deemed unsafe. Importantly, bioethics technologists structure their practice in four stages. A safety net is also essential to the process, with each layer providing safety guarantees to support safe experimentation.

  • Be precise about goals and offering validations;
  • Have governance structures to oversee the design and evaluation of experiments;
  • Publicly report what happens, what works, what doesn’t, and any unintended results; and  
  • Have precise mechanisms for democratic oversight developed in collaboration with public democratic organizations.

Constitutional moments

The report also examines whether the DST ecosystem exemplifies a constitutional moment ‒ a pivotal point of transformation. The U.S. Constitution, written in the late eighteen century, reflects the U.S. economic, demographic, technological, and social structure of its time. However, new technologies (i.e., Industrial Revolution, air travel, and the biomedical revolution) emerge and cause transformation in the structure of society.

Constitutional moments do not mean we need to write a new Constitution but a framework to navigate and experiment with new technologies and social platforms. While blockchain technology is often celebrated for decentralized networks (because they are less likely to marginalize one community over another), they can also create divisions. These divisions can include social bias in their datasets. And training on them will replicate and intensify these patterns. Therefore, we must carefully examine the ethical practice of new technology to ensure that decentralized technologies also bridge communities and build a connected society.

The Justice, Health, and Democracy Impact Initiative acknowledges that this is just the start of the ethical DTS landscape. The report highlights the importance of ensuring user privacy and data protection and the need for transparency and accountability in developing decentralized social technologies. It also emphasizes the importance of fostering a diverse and inclusive community and ensuring that decentralized systems are accessible to all and beneficial to society.

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