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The Ethics of Digitalisation – from Principles to Practices

The Ethics of Digitalisation – from Principles to Practices

How should we programme chat bots to make sure they don’t discriminate when they’re communicating? What rules do we need if we want to develop AI that serves the public good? How can we design algorithms that shape our society, for example by deciding which content is visible on social media channels? International experts from science, politics, civil society, and business discussed ethical questions of digitalisation, including those related to the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms.

The project focused on the social impact of digitization and aimed to achieve application-driven and practice-oriented results with social relevance. The core of the project consisted of four "research sprints", three "clinics" as well as interim evaluations and multi-stakeholder dialogues.

Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was patron of the project and launched it with a kick-off event on 17 August 2020.

The final report, published in autumn 2022, provides an overview of the activities in the individual sub-projects, "research sprints" and "clinics" on topics such as artificial intelligence in content moderation, access to educational spaces in times of pandemics or gender stereotypes in online advertising.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash
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Project Description

Special Characteristics of the Project
  • The answers were developed from a predominantly scientific and social perspective. To ensure that digitization continues to serve people rather than people serving digitization, the project focused on a socio-political dialogue in an international context.
  • Exchange with politics and practice: Aside from research theses, we developed specific solutions to problems as well as political and technical recommendations and criteria that can be used in practice. For example, clear requirements for the automated deletion of content in social media can be formulated to ensure that freedom of expression is not restricted but that hate speech is effectively targeted.
  • Interdisciplinary cooperation: the project brought together researchers from different disciplines - from computer science and law to the humanities and social sciences - and thus opened up a great opportunity for new insights and ideas across disciplinary boundaries. In addition, relevant stakeholders from civil society, politics, and business were involved in the project through appropriate participation formats in order to establish a social dialogue on the ethical challenges of digitization.
  • New formats of research cooperation: We tried out new forms of cooperation with " research sprints" (time-limited, intensive work on a concrete question with close supervision and a strong exchange of ideas) and three "clinics" in which directly applicable transfer knowledge for politics and society was generated and concrete questions were worked on.
  • Global exchange: Digitization crosses national borders, so a broad international social debate is needed on the ethical foundations of digitization and the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence. For this reason, thirteen international scientists from ten countries and four continents were already coming together digitally for the first "research sprint" at the beginning of the project
Concept and Modules
The core of the project consisted of four "research sprints", three "clinics", interim evaluations and multi-stakeholder dialogues with international experts from science, civil society, politics and business. These innovative, interdisciplinary and international formats aim at a direct transfer of their findings into digital policy.
The first research sprint on the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms for moderating content in social networks and on platforms - such as commentaries - was led by Christian Katzenbach and Alexander Pirang (HIIG) and Matthias C. Kettemann (HBI). It took place in a digital format from August to the end of October 2020 and was coordinated and carried out by the HIIG. Prof. Wolfgang Schulz, Director of the HIIG, Director of the HBI and spokesman of the European section of the NoC, was in charge of the project.
Each of the further research sprints was coordinated by one of the project partners listed below.
Research Sprints: In 10 to 12-week sprints, researchers work together intensively in interdisciplinary groups on a particular issue to formulate scientifically sound inputs on specific topics for social and political debates. Their aim is to inform digital policy-makers about key interdisciplinary issues and to provide a research basis for decision-making.
Research Clinics are innovative, case- and problem-solving oriented formats in which concrete practical cases are investigated and validated. Interdisciplinary teams advise practitioners who are confronted with unsolved ethical problems in their daily work as programmers, data analysts, decision-makers in human resources departments, in the financial sector or in the health care system. The consultancy is based on current research findings and supports their implementation. In this respect, they enable close cooperation between research and practice.
Parties Involved
The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) coordinated the project under the umbrella of the Global Network of Internet and Society Research Centers (NoC). Other project partners were the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University (BKC) and the Digital Asia Hub, which are also members of the NoC.
The NoC is a worldwide initiative of academic institutions focusing on interdisciplinary research on the Internet and society. The aim of the initiative is to strengthen cooperation between the participating centres in order to promote transnational and interdisciplinary exchange on the most pressing issues related to the new technologies.
The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) researches the development of the Internet from a social perspective in order to better understand the digitalisation of all areas of life that goes along with it. As the first research institute in Germany with a focus on the Internet and society, the HIIG has developed an understanding that emphasizes the embedding of digital innovations in social processes. Based on this transdisciplinary expertise and as part of the NoC, the HIIG aims to develop a European response to digital structural change.
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was patron of the project.
07/2020 – 06/2022

Project Information


Duration: 2020-2022

Research programme:
RP2 - Regulatory Structures and the Emergence of Rules in Digital Communication

Third party

Cooperation Partner

Alexander von Humboldt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG)
NoC (Global Network of Internet and Society Research Centers)
Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University
Digital Asia Hub

Contact person

Prof. Dr. Matthias C. Kettemann, LL.M. (Harvard)
Senior Researcher "Regulatory Structures and the Emergence of Rules in Online Spaces"

Prof. Dr. Matthias C. Kettemann, LL.M. (Harvard)

Leibniz-Institut für Medienforschung | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI)
Rothenbaumchaussee 36
20148 Hamburg

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