What Is Digital Ethics?

blog.What Is Digital Ethics

Digital ethics is more than a singular, defined approach—rather, it’s the sum total philosophy about what it means to be ethical in ever-evolving digital landscapes. In other words, it’s a way of looking at conflicts of interest unique to digital platforms and coming to reasonable resolutions for them. And, as artificial intelligence (AI) continues to evolve and capture market share across various industry niches, digital ethics issues are increasingly becoming AI-related ethical issues.

Below, we’ll explain what digital ethics is by way of example. We’ll also pinpoint why it’s critical in today’s business landscape and walk through some of the most pressing digital ethical dilemmas organizations are faced with—and how to deal with them.

What are examples of digital ethics?

At the most fundamental level, digital ethics is the practice of applying ethics to digital technologies and environments. That means approaching decisions about how things work or what is fair, through specific ethical principles, which function as lenses for analysis.

For example, consider two widely accepted principles of digital ethics:

  • Transparency, or openness about what is going on on digital platforms
  • Accountability, or ownership of things that happen on digital platforms

These principles are foundational to most understandings of digital ethics. But there are times when principles like these come into conflict with one another, and hard decisions need to be made. The relative weight each principle is given, or the priority it takes in the decision-making process, define an entity’s digital ethics.

On a more practical level, organizations often employ codes of digital ethics, or policies that govern specific digital environments, when dealing with digital innovation. For example, a company might establish an AI ethics policy that governs what data machine learning tools have access to, the kinds of outputs they can generate, and how they’re disseminated.

Beyond transparency and accountability, other types of digital ethics examples include (but are not limited to):

Respect for privacy and data protection

Organizations that collect, process, and store data related to personal information are expected to respect those individuals’ privacy. This means being transparent about the ways in which data is used. It also means only collecting or using the data in ways that people are fully aware of and consent to.

As an extension of that respect, businesses need to take proactive measures to ensure that privacy isn’t compromised. Most cybercrime targets personal data, which hackers can use to steal from or extort individuals and organizations alike. To prevent this, and maintain their ethics of privacy, firms install cyberdefense infrastructure.

This is not just an ethical principle or set thereof; it’s the foundation of several data privacy regulations that govern the ways organizations do business globally.

Fairness and non-discrimination

Another fundamental digital ethics principle is fairness or justice. All individuals need to be given equal access and opportunities across digital platforms, irrespective of their race, gender, age, and other markers of identity. One practical and widespread example of this is web compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

ADA website compliance is complex, but it usually includes considerations like:

  • Using contrast but not relying on color alone to convey meaning
  • Adding screen-readable alt text to images and captions to videos
  • Providing alternative methods of navigation (i.e., mouse or keyboard)

These assurances are required of government agencies and of select businesses open to the public. And, at a broader level, they are best practices that any ethically minded organization can (and should) apply across its public-facing web presence.

Social responsibility and sustainability

Other digital ethics concepts have to do with maintaining the overall well-being of individuals within societies they’re beholden to and the world at large. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an approach to business management that values societal goods such as ethical labor relations alongside (or even over) profit.

CSR factors into digital ethics in what some organizations call Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR). This is an umbrella term that signifies a commitment to selecting, using, and supporting technology that minimizes social injustice.

One area CSR and CDR are mutually concerned with is sustainability, or business practices that focus on longevity and minimize damage to the environment. Digitally, these can be as general as emphasizing recycling of hardware. Or, they can be as granular as monitoring and minimizing power usage through energy-efficient computing.

Why is digital ethics important?

Digital ethics is an important field because of the far-reaching implications of people’s behavior in the digital world. Almost all businesses today operate in part (if not fully) online, on digital platforms where people are navigating unique circumstances that influence their behavior. For instance, anonymity is relatively easy to achieve in digital environments, whereas it’s much harder to achieve offline. As seen on social media, this anonymity can be a lifesaver for some, and an excuse for misbehavior for others.

Organizations are often responsible for interactions that occur on platforms they are connected to. This might come in the form of actual legal liability and culpability, or it might come in softer, more unofficial ways—like the so-called “court of public opinion.”

No matter how disconnected a company thinks it is from the online world, there is always a chance that someone associated with it falls into ethical dilemmas.

When that happens, businesses must be prepared.

What are the most common digital ethics issues?

Just as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to digital ethics, there is not one ethical issue that all organizations face in the same way. Instead, the kinds of digital ethical concerns that organizations are faced with vary widely according to industry, size, maturity, location, personnel and clientele bases, alongside other factors.

A critical ethical dilemma for one firm might be just a conversation piece for another.

For example, consider ethical problems like online harassment and cyberbullying, which fall outside the purview of many enterprises. Organizations that have large followings online, or prominent public-facing employees that do, need to prepare for hate speech, trolling, or doxxing campaigns being leveraged against them.

This is a unique case, However, there are some areas within digital ethics that transcend organizational contexts and have impacts on most companies, irrespective of industry.

Intellectual Property

Issues involving intellectual property (IP) often involve alleged theft through outright copyright infringement, misattribution, lapses in consent, and more. This issue is especially prevalent in the ongoing meteoric rise of AI, as many of the legal battles associated with AI have come down to questions of IP and ownership.

Consider the following AI-digital ethics examples from just the past two years:

  • Getty Images sued Stability AI Inc, alleging that the platform infringed upon its IP by training image-generation systems on over 12 million Getty photos without proper licensing to do so. The case builds on parallel filings in the UK.

What cases like these illustrate is that the possibilities of AI come with real concerns about intellectual property. This is not to say that organizations should cease research in contested fields; however, they must keep to responsible innovation to prevent litigious or otherwise negative consequences.

Privacy and Cybersecurity

As noted above, data privacy is a foundational digital ethics principle. However, it’s also an area where many organizations struggle to maintain their ethical standards.

One of the most widely applicable data privacy frameworks in the world is the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR applies to all organizations that process the personal information of EU residents, irrespective of where the organization is located. According to one estimate, as much as 95% of American companies were not GDPR compliant as of 2022. Failing to meet GDPR and other standards can result in hefty fines and impede a business’s ability to expand.

Bias and Discrimination

Another common digital ethics dilemma involves fairness and non-discrimination across digital platforms and organizational functions aided by digital technologies.

Consider, for example, the intersection of machine learning and hiring practices.

Scholars have understood for over a decade that seemingly value-neutral programs can produce biased results, and this is especially troubling in terms of hiring. One 2023 study found that contemporary AI-assisted recruiting practices were rife with bias in gender, race, and personality traits. But the study also indicated these results were likely caused by limited data sets and poor algorithmic design, which suggests that the issue is not using AI in the recruitment process but suboptimal execution.

How can organizations respond?

The best time to address digital ethical dilemmas is before they arise. Organizations should plan carefully and have policies and protocols in place to prevent these kinds of issues from happening. And, if they do still occur, proactive measures will help businesses navigate them efficiently and mitigate potential harm they can cause.

Several frameworks are available to help shape organizations’ digital presence in ways deemed ethically sound by governmental and other stakeholders. With respect to the two ethical regulations covered above, the ADA recommends using the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for website compliance. And the official legal text of the GDPR is freely available online in an easily navigable format.

These and other frameworks also generally prescribe incident response protocols.

For example, a key part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is the Breach Notification Rule. Maintaining digital ethics after a breach has occurred means notifying all impacted parties about the exact specifications of the breach and providing them with resources to mitigate personal consequences.

In some cases, working with an advisor may be required. The GDPR in particular requires many organizations to work with a Data Privacy Officer or other vetted professional to ensure that their privacy practices uphold data subjects’ rights.

Even when it’s not required, working with a digital ethics advisor is a best practice.

Operate ethically in the digital realm

Digital ethics is a field concerned with what it means to be ethical across the digital platforms that organizations inhabit. Having sound digital ethics generally means applying lenses and principles, like transparency and accountability, consistently. It’s important because, ultimately, businesses are responsible for the things that happen on digital platforms they own, operate, or are otherwise connected to.

With that said, it’s not always easy to maintain digital ethics at scale. Incidents, including those outside an organization’s control, can compromise elements of their ethical commitments. Resolving these issues often comes down to analyzing the principles they need to uphold—often with the help of a digital ethics advisor.

To learn more about digital ethics, the kinds of dilemmas you need to be prepared for, and how to face them with an unbiased and fair approach, get in touch today.


ADA.gov. Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA. https://www.ada.gov/resources/web-guidance/

Artnet. Artists and Illustrators Are Suing Three A.I. Art Generators for Scraping and ‘Collaging’ Their Work Without Consent. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/class-action-lawsuit-ai-generators-deviantart-midjourney-stable-diffusion-2246770

HBR. Generative AI Has an Intellectual Property Problem. https://hbr.org/2023/04/generative-ai-has-an-intellectual-property-problem

HHS. HIPAA Breach Notification Rule. https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/breach-notification/index.html

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Nature. Ethics and discrimination in artificial intelligence-enabled recruitment practices. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-023-02079-x

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