Petra Grimm

Petra Grimm: Specialist in ethics

14 February 2019

The Internet and digital technologies have opened up previously unimagined possibilities. And yet, as has been revealed by data scandals and phenomena such as hate speech and cyber­bullying, these are not automatically good news for everyone. What new moral questions are being thrown up by the networked age, and how can we answer them so that we may happily coexist in our digital present and future? Such are the questions which occupy Petra Grimm, Director of the Institute for Digital Ethics in Stuttgart.

Petra Grimm


Professor of media research and communication science


Why do we need digital ethics? Are our moral guide­lines for the analogue age no longer up to the task?
The days of separation between our online and offline lives are long gone. And this has given rise to some very specific conditions. In the analogue world, for instance, it was broadly possible to keep tabs on what we were telling whom and who knew what about us. This is no longer the case. In other words, we’re revealing details about our private lives like we’ve never done before. As a consequence, ethical questions are arising which didn’t exist in the analogue world. We also need to look afresh at the issue of responsibility: Who’s going to be responsible now that machines are increasingly making decisions for them­selves? The challenge confronting digital ethics lies in the development of a new concept of responsibility.

To what extent are Big Data, algorithms and AI posing new ethical challenges?
The changes being wrought by Big Data and artificial intelligence - and the phrase being bandied about here is the “algorithmic turn” - have implications for individuals and society alike in respect of the way people view them­selves - their supremacy over machines - and our social structures, the value and nature of the work we do, public policy formation and the issues that shape public opinion. If intelligent systems are to be designed in a way that makes them truly compatible with human values, we need to under­stand which principles should be applied, how they might be developed and how it will be possible to keep such systems in check.

"Dealing with someone face-to-face is very different from communicating indirectly and at a distance via a machine. What is needed here is ethical digital expertise and an appropriate attitude."

Petra Grimm, Professor of media research and communication science

When you consider cyberbullying and hate speech, it’s easy to get the impression that that, in some cases, the rules of conduct of the analogue world no longer apply on the Internet. Do you share this view? And if so, how can we deal with this problem?
There is a readily discernible trend toward empathic myopia. By this I mean that some people have lost their capacity for compassion in their online communication. Dealing with someone face-to-face is very different from communicating indirectly and at a distance via a machine. What is needed here is ethical digital expertise and an appropriate attitude. But cyber­bullying and hate speech aren’t the same thing. In the latter case, there are also organised groups with very specific political objectives: to destabilise democracy and intimidate people. In these cases, we need the right sort of legal sanctions.

You have worked with your students to articulate ten commandments for users and companies. What are the most important imperatives for users?
The “10 commandments of digital ethics” are now available in seven languages and are constantly being reprinted. They’re available on a postcard and as a booklet with a story from every­day life to illustrate each one. A music video has also been produced by the media scouts on this topic. In my view, the first five commandments are absolutely key:

  1. Tell people and reveal as little about yourself as possible.
  2. Don’t accept being watched and having your data harvested.
  3. Don’t believe everything you see online and get information from different sources.
  4. Don’t stand by and let people get hurt or bullied.
  5. Respect the dignity of others and remember that rules apply even on the Web.

These constitute a very good prompt to start thinking about your own conduct online and to develop the right kind of attitude.

And for companies?
My MA students have created guidelines rather than commandments for companies. The ten guidelines are intended to be a guide which can be integrated into a company’s sustainable development strategy. They include the aspects of data-ecological responsibility, fair and equitable work 4.0, equal opportunities and care as well as impact assessments and sustainability.

The principle behind “Security by Design” is that cyber-security needs to be taken into account in the early stages of development of digital products and services. Do we need an “Ethics by Design”, and what might it look like?
I think that “Ethics by Design” is the best way to tackle the problem at its roots. This would require a collaboration between technology and ethics for the entire duration of the concept brainstorming and development process. Several steps would be needed to do this: an ethical and legal screening process that would also include empirical studies and help clarify which values were relevant for the project. This would be the spring­board for the generation of awareness of the relevance of ethics and the cultivation of an attitude, for instance, to the value of privacy. The findings would then be incorporated into the development, which would need to be evaluated and, if required, adjusted accordingly. There’s no other way of ensuring responsible innovation in digital technologies.

Which digital product has yet to be invented?
A real-time translation tool that would help us communicate with one or more people in various languages - in a way that would take into account even non-translatable idioms or differences in cultural under­standing. This would help overcome not only linguistic but also cultural barriers. It would be a cultural leap into a new era and would finally bring the tower of Babel crashing down.

And which products can you do without?
“Social” media like Instagram and Facebook etc.

Would you like to take a self-driving car to work or on holiday in the future?
For sure! As long as I wasn’t the only one ... the more autonomous vehicles there are, the more likely the system is to be changed. But high safety standards would also need to be respected.

Which technical application will always remain something of a conundrum for you?
With the exception of IT professionals, who on earth knows what things look like under the surface of technical applications? Not to mention Deep Learning or other self-learning systems...

When were you last offline for 24 hours?
On my journey to holiday and back.

A holiday without Wi-Fi: Is that a dream or a nightmare?
Neither. I can manage perfectly well with just a homeopathic dose.

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