On 2 September, a big initiative with even bigger ambitions was launched in Geneva: At the first Swiss Global Digital Summit top representatives from globally active companies, from science and renowned international organisations kicked off the Swiss Digital Initiative (SDI). The initiative is aimed at a long-term and sustainable process with the objective of ensuring ethical standards in the digital world.

With the debate around “Cambridge Analytica”, the 2016 US elections and the fake news controversies, governments, societies and the business community urgently need to reflect on how to ensure trustworthy technologies and set ethical boundaries. Despite the best intentions, data-driven applications and algorithmic processes have the capacity to cause unintentional harm and may affect human rights, individual autonomy, competitive market order, financial stability, democratic processes, and national sovereignty. In addition, they can increase inequality and shift control away from humans to algorithms.

The deep transformation of our society triggered by these applications has the potential to undermine trust between citizens, companies, and governments. That is why digitalswitzerland initiated the Swiss Digital Initiative (SDI) under the patronage of Federal President Ueli Maurer and with Doris Leuthard, former Swiss federal councillor, as chairwoman of the SDI Foundation.

Objectives of the Swiss Digital Initiative

Prior to the Swiss Global Digital Summit, a policy paper was drafted upon advice from an autonomous and high-ranking group of experts from Swiss universities. General tenor: Digitization must always serve people and place their needs at the centre. The joint statement sets the basis for a common understanding. Based on this statement, the objectives of the initiative can be summarized as follows:

  • Ensuring ethical standards in the digital world
  • Fostering technology’s potential to advance flourishing human societies
  • Focusing on ethical values and principles in action
  • Developing specific and action-oriented projects that will contribute to a global dialogue on the ethics of digitalisation, and aim to foster trust in digital technologies, as well as in the actors involved in the ongoing process of digital transformation
  • The SDI is primarily, but not exclusively, aimed at companies with a global presence

The first Swiss Global Digital Summit in Geneva

The starting point of the Swiss Digital Initiative consisted of the Swiss Global Digital Summit on 2 September 2019. The aim was to gather national and international decision-makers to address and discuss ethical implications of new technologies.

The Swiss Global Digital Summit was opened by digitalswitzerland founder Marc Walder. He highlighted the growing international consensus on five leading ethical principles for today’s digital world: transparency, justice, fairness, responsibility and privacy. The SDI builds upon this international consensus. Walder’s introduction was followed by a welcome speech from Federal President Ueli Maurer and three short keynotes. The main part of the summit consisted of an interactive discussion between participants.

It’s all about trust

All disruptive technologies and legislation fall short if trust is not guaranteed. People choose services and providers because they trust them. If businesses want to be successful in the long run, they must live up to their societal responsibility. Politics need to set framework conditions to make sure that trust can grow.

It’s all about data

Every minute, huge amounts of data are collected and processed. This raises questions about the right and legitimate way to use this data, ownership and access to data, and the relationship between business, government and citizens.  The potential of big data is huge, for example in the research or health care sectors. Therefore, transparency is needed on how data is collected and processed. Data privacy and ownership are key.

International governance needed

Discussions revolved around questions such as how to ensure inclusive artificial intelligence, how to augment, not replace, human intelligence or how to fight hate speech. Common international guidelines and governance do not exist yet, but are urgently needed.

Geneva – home to the future SDI Foundation

Selecting Geneva as a headquarter for the SDI is not a coincidence. The city is home to more than 37 international organizations, 1’400 members of international bodies, 2’700 members of non-governmental organizations, 4’000 members of permanent missions. It is at the heart of multilateral diplomacy and international cooperation.  Geneva is poised to become the center of digital ethics and Switzerland, a role model on how to tackle challenges and questions around digitalisation. The ambition of the Swiss Digital Initiative should be nothing less than becoming the international reference initiative for ethics and digitalisation.

Just another initiative?

In the fields of ethics and digitalisation, many words have already been said and written. Policy-papers and recommendations, declarations, guidelines, studies etc. exist. Existing initiatives such as the Paris Call, the Tech Accord or the WEF Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution tackle similar issues. So why another initiative?

We are convinced – and the feedback and reactions at the launch of the initiative have only strengthened this conviction – that the SDI comes at exactly the right time and place. We do not want to launch just another initiative or reinvent the wheel. Rather, the SDI builds on the numerous initiatives and statements released by states, international organisations, as well as the private sector. The SDI seeks to amplify their impact by contributing  to the operationalization of the principles put forth in these documents (e.g. the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel report on digital cooperation entitled “The Age of Global Interdependence”, the EU Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, the recent OECD Recommendation on Artificial Intelligence), but also the many recent Swiss documents commissioned by the Federal Government and non-state actors.

The SDI intends to work together with existing initiatives and institutions, to make use of synergies by closing gaps and adding missing dots.

Ensuring ethical guidelines in the digital age is a joint-effort

In the next phase, concrete projects will be created in a collaborative process. These could include projects like the development of a transparency label. Further, the foundation as the sponsor of the Swiss Digital Initiative, will officially be established. The next milestone will be at the 2020 WEF Annual Meeting. The aim is that  key actors officially commit to the implementation of concrete projects, which tangibly operationalize ethical standards. The approach is based on the conviction that the ethical challenges of digitalisation must be met by joining forces with diverse stakeholders and initiatives from private, public-private or fully public sectors.

As Federal President Ueli Maurer stated at the beginning of the Swiss Global Digital Summit: «We are coming together to think about ethics and fairness – big words that we want to fill with action.» Going from theory to practice, from words to concrete action will be a challenge. Yet, we are convinced this is the right direction to take and we look forward to present the first fruits in Davos at WEF 2020.

For more information, you can find the official press release here.

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Author Niniane Paeffgen, digitalswitzerland

Senior Project Manager Politico-Economic Environment

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