See below for a compilation of our current research topics.
The Blockchain technology is regularly portrayed as a technology that enables individuals and communities to redesign their interactions in politics, business, and society at large, with an unprecedented process of disintermediation on large scale. Centralized vertical governance mechanisms, as they are firmly rooted in many contexts of today's societies, lose their raison d'être in the utopias of self-organization outlined by Blockchain proponents. However, the modes of organizing a society sketched by those advocates of the technology induce dispute themselves. The claimed disruptive potential is exaggerated in many cases and presupposes socio-technical frameworks which are not necessarily given. Furthermore, the alleged benefits of Blockchain-based self-organization are associated with political and social costs. We therefore investigate the Blockchain technology and its potential to establish new governance mechanisms against the background of computer ethics, political philosophy, and political theory.
Algorithmic Bias, Discrimination & Fairness
Our society and personal lives are increasingly structured by algorithms, from recommendations of music, food, and romantic relationships to decisions on loans, employment, and punishment. Software, however, can be biased because of the flawed input data, inappropriate methods as well as the intentional or unintentional inscription of stereotypes by programmers. Such biases combined with automated decision-making, therefore, could result in discrimination hidden in plain sight. We scrutinize the sources of bias in software and discuss the problems of discrimination in relation to them. We also examine the criteria for making software more accountable, transparent and fair.
Emotions and Technology
The cognitive and ethical significance of emotions has enjoyed a recent revival in Philosophy, Psychology, and other disciplines. Researchers argue that emotions play an important role in cognition and moral behaviors. At the same time, recent development in information technology has demonstrated machines capacity to detect, recognize, or even understand and influence individuals' emotions. If these 'emotional technologies' become more pervasive in our everyday life, there are important epistemological and ethical challenges ahead. Particularly, it is essential to examine the role(s) emotional technologies can play for our cognition and moral behavior, or whether we should develop and create machines that can influence our emotions at all.
Ethics of Robotics and AI
Intelligent machines and software have become more powerful in recent years, and they are increasingly being deployed in various areas of our life. There are, however, lingering ethical questions with regards to the uses of robots and AI in terms of autonomy, moral responsibility, and well-being. For example, how does replacement of human beings by machines and software impact moral responsibility? Do they diminish our autonomy when they decide for us? Most importantly, how can we use robots and AI to promote human well-being? In our analyses we apply ethical reasoning to recent developments in robotics and AI.
Ethics and Epistemologies of Big Data
Description will follow shortly.
Data Governance and Ownership
Data has become a new currency in the online world. In times of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, data got economic value. The European Commission, in the context of the EU’s digital single market strategy, has envisioned a contractual model of services in return for data. Some scholars have proposed a new property right on data. The legal categories and terms, however, are far from clear and uncontentious. Under European law, data as such are an intangible asset and not protected as property but only as intellectual property such as trade secret or copyright. We investigate different conceptions of data ownership and discuss their rationales and implications, especially with respect to power relations between users, providers and intermediaries. Moreover, we discuss whether privacy, data protection, and personality rights are complementary to economic rights over data or colliding with such rights.
Privacy and Surveillance
In the digital society we have become accustomed to leaving behind digital traces whatever activity we engage in, which offers vast opportunities for surveillance - the purposeful collection and analysis of data and information - by both corporations and governments. At the same time, citizens and organizations are increasingly concerned with the importance of protection from surveillance and the preservation of some degree of privacy. From an ethical viewpoint, the kinds of questions we investigate are for instance what privacy is, why it is valuable and how its meaning might change in the context of digital technologies, where it is threatened and perhaps where it ought to be threatened, and if and under what conditions surveillance is permissible and by whom.
Data Protection and EU General Data Protection Regulation
The EU's 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a milestone for privacy protection in Europe and may even serve as a reference model beyond Europe. We investigate the history of the GDPR, such as the intentions, power struggles, and compromises in the policy process. Moreover, we observe the implementation of the GDPR, the different interpretations of its articles, and how its substantive and procedural regulations are applied in practice.
Regulation of Online Speech
Facebook, Twitter and other social media have long engaged in the development of standards which regulate what can and what cannot be said and posted on their platforms. More recently, discussion on filter bubbles, fake news and the manipulation of elections have increased the public’s attention to the question of how we should regulate the creation and sharing of information and opinions online. As the internet has set free and helps to widely spread hate and hate speech, it appears imperative to protect its victims and make the net a safe discursive space for all. At the same time censorship might impeach on free speech and weaken democratic mechanisms. In our research group, we investigate the ethical issues related to the regulation of online content and speech via an empirical analysis of the German „Facebook law" (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz), which has provided a highly contested political attempt to regulate speech online and enforce respective legislation.
Digitalization and Democracy
Not long ago, the internet was hailed as the new cradle of participatory democracy, providing access to knowledge, and supporting open government. Nowadays, more sober inspections reveal problematic transformations of governance and the public sphere through the Internet and social media. Does digitalization strengthen participation of civil society and transparency of politics? Or do fake news and filter bubbles facilitate populism? Does e-government facilitate access to administrations? We investigate various aspects of e-government, democratic participation, discuss the trade-off between freedom and security, and examine the protection of fundamental rights and democratic principles.
Transformation of Media and the Public Sphere through Digitalization
The internet, digital media and social networks continue to shape the public sphere. They have major impacts on the way the (news) media operate and the way people consume information and learn about facts and current events. Phenomena such as filter bubbles, echo chambers and “fake news” are heavily discussed within and beyond academia. Such phenomena can have far-reaching impacts on the media sphere and public discourse, and thus require careful ethical reflection.
In our research group, we study related phenomena from various perspectives. One of our research perspectives focuses on mechanisms of legitimization and de-legitimization of what counts as a reliable source of news and information, coupled with studying shifts in where and how public spheres – spaces of public and political discourse – happen (Ingrid Schneider). Another research perspective studies how trust in science and in what counts as facts is established or undermined, and how scientific insights are either contested or become part of a broader public knowledge (Judith Simon). Thirdly, another research project studies the discourse surrounding an attempt to regulate phenomena such as fake news and hate speech via legal instruments (the German NetzDG) with a particular focus on the normative dimensions which come to bear here (Laura Fichtner).
Big Data and Health
Big Data finds its way into healthcare in various ways and domains: Individuals track and share their vital parameters for medical reasons as well as for fun. Health insurances increasingly perform a paradigm shift from only operating reactively to operating proactively by giving their customers health tips based on personal health data. Data-driven medical applications are gaining importance in medical diagnostics as well as in medical treatments. The epistemological and ethical issues of Big Data familiar from various other contexts thus enter this particularly sensitive sphere. We investigate the challenges this development poses for concepts such as responsibility and solidarity as well as for the relationships of different actors in this context such as doctors and patients.
Platforms are digital infrastructures that enable two or more sides to interact, such as customers, advertisers, and service providers. Internet platforms produce network effects, the more users, the more valuable that platform becomes; they can also create locked-in effects and high switching costs and may lead to oligopolistic structures. The rules of service and product development are set by the platform owner, platforms imply governance mechanisms, not only by gaining access to data but also power over the rules of the game. We enquire into these governance mechanisms and analyze regulatory proposals for platform intermediaries.
Competition Law and Data Protection
Competition Law and Data Protection are both regulatory mechanisms to (re)gain democratic oversight and control over market processes. While traditionally, both fields are strictly separated, some regulatory efforts try to harness them together to address the power asymmetries between citizens, internet platform corporations and the state. We explore these efforts, discuss their pros and cons and evaluate the interfaces between competition law and data protection as new regulatory path.
Information Governance Technologies
In the digital society, personal data is collected in more and more areas of life. Because this data increasingly affects economic and political processes, an appropriate handling of the data is paramount. In the research project “Information Governance Technologies” we enquire new research topics concerning technical, legal, and social aspects of the development and usage of ICTs in an interdisciplinary research group. The research questions are not limited to technical concepts, but also include a general regulatory framework for handling personal data. Here, we consider social, ethical, and legal question on a par with technical ones.