A Penny for Your Bytes: Programmers Shouldn’t Play Digital God

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  • Train programmers to change their current daily paradigm
  • Start with a comprehensive reform of educational pipeline programming

These are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.

Groucho Marx

A Penny for Your Bytes: Programmers Shouldn't Play Digital GodIn the last article, I introduced the idea that technologists in general and programmers in particular are the next generation of advocates and that we as a society must provide them with all the necessary knowledge and tools to take on this new (and somewhat daunting) role. Above all, they must be inspired so that the transition is both understood and undertaken.

For the purposes of DCDR advocacy by the IO Foundation (TIOF), we will focus here on programmers (DCDR stands for Data Centric-Digital Rights).

Real and meaningful change would involve a complete reform of the programming educational pipeline, starting with a proper upgrade on the understanding of the nature of data, a full life cycle analysis of data structures, their digital harms and therefore their digital rights as well as the application of all this in real architectures.

Admittedly, this is a bit too much for an overnight reform, however necessary and belated. To our great regret, we are going to have to undertake this long process if we are ever to stand a chance against the perils of misunderstanding digital technologies.

In the shorter term, a more reasonable approach would be to guide programmers through changing their current day-to-day paradigm, giving them quick-to-reach tools that could help them steer the wheel towards software that is more protective by design. . Imagine Jiminy Cricket (a Disney character who is a helpful person with a strong moral compass) being a brother by reminding you that protecting citizens is a good thing and it’s not hard to do.

At TIOF, we knew that developing long and complex principles would be inefficient and potentially counterproductive. We set ourselves the task of developing short, easy-to-understand principles that everyone could relate to.

Principle I – I am my data

Jiminy jumping on your shoulder would proclaim: “Treat their data as you would like to be treated.

Indeed, if we are our data, it is not surprising that the way we manipulate it is similar to the way we would treat its source entity. In other words, we want to protect our fellow citizens by handling their digital twins with care and respect. Just as you would like to be treated, dear programmer.

Principle II – Final Remedy

Jiminy pointing your source code would ask you to “Adopt designs that minimize grievances.

Derived from the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the idea is extremely simple: proactively design architectures that avoid resorting to corrective solutions. In other words, wouldn’t you rather have a platform actually delete your data than only have the ability to sue them if (and only if) you ever find out that they haven’t honored your demand ?

Principle III – Rights from conception

Bouncing around your screen, Jiminy would encourage you to “Don’t leave any uncoded politics behind.

Think about it: what is the best way to give citizens peace of mind? Easy: Implement, transparently and by design, all policies that protect them mandated by existing regulations. Isn’t that what we do for just about anything else?

Now, taking the challenge a step further, could we turn the above into a pledge, a kind of digital Hippocratic oath? Something like:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect my fellow citizens, because their problems and their data, which are them in essence, are not disclosed to me to the knowledge of the world. In particular, I must exercise caution in matters of life and death. If it is given to me to save a digital twin, thank you. But it may also be in my power to erase a digital twin; this heavy responsibility must be faced with great humility and awareness of my own technical prowess. Above all, I must not play Digital God.

I will remember that I am not dealing with a data set, a diagram, but a citizen and his authentic digital twins, the abusive manipulation of which can affect the security and economic stability of the citizen’s family. My responsibility includes these related issues, if I am to take proper care of people’s data.

I will strive to design architectures and implement technology that embeds all existing protections whenever I can, because prevention is better than cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations towards all my fellow human beings, those who have access to technology and those who do not.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and fondly remembered afterward. May I always act in ways that uphold the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of building digital spaces that encourage societal growth while ensuring safety by design.

Want this version? How would you improve it?

So what’s the next step?

The next step in ensuring that technology paradigms around the world are aligned is to ensure that they are all pursuing the same goal. Easy to say but hard to do since everyone seems to be obsessed with that almost magical word “ethics” which simply means different things to different people. Let’s see if we can find an alternative to this riddle.


Malaysia-based entrepreneur Jean F. Quéralt founded the IO Foundation in 2018 as an organization dedicated to promoting, protecting and providing solutions for digital rights.

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