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[liberationtech] A Hippocratic Oath for Techies & Policymakers

Rebecca MacKinnon rebecca.mackinnon at
Fri Jul 6 10:19:35 PDT 2012

By Max Senges who works for Google in Berlin, with a background in academia
and civil society.
A hippocratic Oath for Techies & Policymakers
Posted on 2012/07/03 <> by
 *Acknowledegements & Context*

When Rick Whitt and I were working on a paper on a framework for internet
policy that brings together complexity theory, endogenous economics and
common pool resource governance, I pondered once again about a proposal to
write and promote a hippocratic oath for internet techies and policy makers
in order to have them (including me) pledge to “do no harm” to the potent
but also fragile internet ecosystem.

Below you find a code of conduct to which I feel I can subscribe. However
it is not and will never be final. Rather I plan to develop, add and
sharpen the code further. Please send comments and suggestions as to what
should be included and/or where it should be more precise.

I recognize technology as a product of human effort, a product serving no
other purpose than to benefit man in general, not merely some men; man in
the totality of his humanity, encompassing all his manifold interests and
needs, not merely some one particular concem of his. Humanistically viewed,
technology is not an end in itself but a means to an end, the end being
determined by man. I hence promote a humanistic conception of technology in
which the desire to obtain maximum benefits is subordinated to the
obligation not to injure human beings or society at large.

Therefore the following principles shall marshal my mindset, decision
making and practices:
Code of Conduct

*1) Do no harm:*

   - I hold a humanistic conception of the internet and therefore will not
   simply compare costs and benefits of any particular code or practice, but
   follow a rights based approach as formulated in the 10 Internet Rights &
   Principles <>.
   - When assessing code, practices and policy proposals I will seek to
   understand the technological, economic, socio-cultural and ethical
   dimensions and interdependencies of the online ecosystem, always aiming not
   to hamper user-centered development and innovation but to further creative
   destruction and open competition.

*2) Participate in deliberation: *

   - Acknowledging that internet governance must be an open
   multi-stakeholder process, I will participate in both internal
   organisational discourse as well as in public deliberation with the aim to
   collaboratively generate knowledge and to contribute to sound decision
   - I will take critics seriously. Governance is about constructive
   dialogue rather than representation.

*3) Act responsibly  *

   - I will contribute to the internet governance discourse to the best of
   my knowledge. Should an obligation to an institution contradict my
   perspective I shall refrain from disagreeing publicly but will take the
   responsibility to argue my case internally.
   - Should I witness any error or misdeed (i.e. human rights violation) I
   shall first address and remedy it with the responsible individual or within
   the responsible organisation. However should it prove impossible to resolve
   a serious matter directly, I shall bring the case to prosecution.

*4) Promote openness & contribute to the commons*

   - Whenever possible I will contribute to the commons and the public
   domain. Subsequently I will always practice a strong bias towards open
   innovation and open standards.
   - I will always acknowledge from whom or from what text I have learned
   about a certain idea or concept and if appropriate include direct links (or
   other relevant bibliographic references)
   - I will be transparent about my social networks and motivation to
   choose collaboration partners.

*5) Respect privacy and confidentiality*

   - I will honor the contextual agreement regarding the use and sharing of
   information and data that I have access to. This means that I will use and
   discuss information only within a given institution (confidential) or
   between certain individuals (private). In order to do so I shall always
   strive to understand the contextual agreement and make it explicit when in
   - Given the strong socio-political and economic benefits of information
   and data that is in the commons (or public domain), I will strive to make
   transparent and public as many of the endeavors and practices I am involved
   in as possible.

I had been inspired to work on such a code of conduct some years back when
I read the excellent article “A Humanistic Technology” (1965) Hyman
(The Preamble is a mashup from his text.) In the article he proposes that
given the power technocrats and engineers have over mankind they should
swear an hippocratic oath which binds them to an ethical code which is
placed above the interests of their employer or their self-interest.

Back then I chaired the Internet Rights and Principles (IRP) coalition and
the discussions about how to transpose human rights to the net and what
technical principles should be upheld was also aimed at the goal to find an
agreement on which to root internet governance (policies) and hence
practices. The group has since produced an excellent document “10 Internet
Rights and Principles <>” which I naturally
use as fundament of this code of conduct.

During the development of these guiding principles I also consulted several
related texts such as ACM Code of Ethics and Professional
Conduct<>andThe Ten
Commandments of Computer
Ethics<>from the Computer
Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) website.

And of course I also happily followed Jeff Jarvis’ proposal to President
Sarkozy (and all policy makers) to swear an hippocratic oath for the
internet back at the eG8 Summit in 2011. In fact it was when I listened to
his pretty good audio book “Public Parts<>”
that I decided to take a shot at a prototype for such an oath as feels
right to me as professional policy entrepreneur.

Rebecca MacKinnon
Author, Consent of the Networked <>
Schwartz Senior Fellow, New America Foundation<>
Co-founder, Global Voices <>
Twitter: @rmack <>
Office: +1-202-596-3343
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