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Decent Digitisation

20 July 2018
Seventeen experts on an ethical digital society
Ethics IT Human rights
There are four virtues that can help society deal decently with digital technology, this report shows. These virtues are: 1) be personal, 2) modest, 3) transparent and 4) responsible.




Over the past months, we called in experts from a wide variety of disciplines to reflect on how we can bring decency to our digital society. We threw down the gauntlet and saw that government institutions, civil society organisations and researchers rose to the challenge. They shared their solutions in seventeen separate blogs, brought together in this publication.

The blog series focused on four questions:

  1. ‘How can we create an inclusive digital society?’
  2. 'How can we stay in charge of algorithms?’
  3. ‘How can we help IT professionals to work ethically?’
  4. ‘How can we protect children?’

The authors reveal how they uphold public values, such as justice and autonomy, in an increasingly digital world and they encourage politicians, policymakers and IT professionals to do the same.

The insights generated by the series transcend their specific context, however. Those insights can be described in terms of four virtues that can help us deal decently with digital technology:   

  • personalisation: not everyone wants the same thing;
  • modesty: know the limits of digital technology;
  • transparency: watch out for an algorithmic ‘black box’; and
  • responsibility: dare to take the plunge.

Please cite as:
Hamer, J. and L. Kool (red.) (2018). Decent digitisation - Seventeen experts on an ethical digital society. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut.


There are four virtues that can help us deal decently with digital technology, this report shows. These virtues are: 1) be personal, 2) modest, 3) transparent and 4) responsible.

These virtues are a good place to start, but they need to be incorporated into real solutions, such as technical applications, codes of conduct or statutory frameworks.

Read the final blog with an extensive conclusion

All blogs

It’s high time for us to think about how to use digitisation to improve society, director Melanie Peters writes in the first blog in this series about Decent Digitisation. Read more. In the other blogs, experts will write about four issues.

1: How can we create an inclusive digital society?

  • National Ombudsman of the Netherlands: Digitisation should not mean exclusion 
    Digitisation could very well exclude a segment of the Dutch population. We must prevent that at all costs. Government must ensure that everyone can participate, and it should make a special effort to include those who are unable to keep up.By Reinier van Zutphen, National Ombudsman of the Netherlands, and Jeanine Verhoef (project coordinator). Read more
  • ICTU: People with digital skills or services with people skills?
    The extent to which people are digitally competent depends largely on how services are provided. Let’s improve the design and put user needs first. By André Regtop, Director of the ICTU and ambassador for the ‘User Needs First  community, and Victor Zuydweg, ICTU consultant and co-initiator of the ‘User Needs First’ community. Read more
  • UWV: Make online services appealing, not compulsory
    The UWV Employee Insurance Agency administers employee insurance schemes and assists people in their search for employment. The UWV believes that online services are the future but does not want them to be compulsory. After all, not everyone can transact their business online. Read more
  • E-health experts: Don’t take digital independence too lightly
    There's a lot riding on e-health, but let’s not imagine that everyone gets the hang of it automatically, or that it suddenly makes patients more independent. Unless we provide personalised support, the health disparities between different groups will grow even wider. Read more

2: How can we stay in charge of algorithms?

  • Amnesty International: Algorithms must respect human rights
    Algorithms have infiltrated deep into our society without our always being aware of the associated risks. The Amsterdam police force, for example, uses software that predicts break-ins and muggings. That’s why Amnesty International believes that now is the time to start talking about how to deal with artificial intelligence. Read more
  • Dutch Police: Technology necessary to adapt to a rapidly changing society
    Experimenting with new technologies is important, especially in the complex domain of security, public safety and justice. It is critical to our ability to detect risks and understand outcomes. Such experiments make demands on the learning capacity and transparency of the Dutch Police. Commissioner Erik Akerboom on the quest to strike the right balance between control and trust. Read more
  • Medialab SETUP: We need civil weapons to protect ourselves against uncivil algorithms
    What decisions do we want to let algorithms take for us? To launch a public debate of this question, says media lab SETUP, we need tools that will make decision-making by algorithms transparent and comprehensible. Read more
  • Marlies van Eck: Algorithms are a magic show: super cool, but we just don’t get it
    Many people believe passionately in algorithms. It would be better for them to admit that they don’t understand them at all and take a closer, more critical look at how they operate. Read more

3: How can we help IT professionals to work ethically?

  • Ethicist Frans Stafleu: Programmers, embrace the responsibility befitting to your position
    We must be able to trust programmers to work ethically. They are, after all, the first to perceive the impact of technology. Philosopher Frans Stafleu and Linda Kool, senior researcher at the Rathenau Instituut, hope that programmers will do their profession proud. Read more
  • Privacy expert Jaap-Henk Hoepman: Use open standards to break up monopolies
    It’s not something we think about much nowadays, but e-mail is one of the Wonders of the Modern World. It sets an example for how the rest of the internet ought to be. Read more
  • Sheila Jasanoff: We need technologies of humility
    For every new technology, we must leave ourselves time to ask how it can best serve humankind. We will find the answers only by remaining critical and by supplementing the forces of government, the market, and ethics with a more humble approach to innovation. By Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard Kennedy School. Read more
  • Privacy company: EU advances data dialogue
    The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation will become effective on 25 May 2018. It offers companies a significant opportunity to make privacy central to their organisation. Read more
  • Computer scientist TU Delft: Engineers, see that we can share the right data
    Technology should reflect the norms and values of its users. Today’s technology isn’t flexible enough, however. We must learn to develop tailor-made, context-sensitive technology. Read more
  • KNVI: Let IT professionals identify violations of fundamental rights
    IT professionals need to think consciously about digitisation and fundamental rights. That’s easier than it seems. They need to ask themselves the right questions, over and over. Read more

4: How can we protect children?

  • eLaw professor: Protect kids online, but don’t deprive them of their rights and freedoms
    The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) decrees that parents must consent to their children’s data being collected, but we should be careful about putting children under constant observation. Let’s make sure that their rights and freedoms remain intact. By Simone van der Hof, Professor of Law and Information Society at eLaw, Centre for Law and Digital Technologies, Leiden University. Read more
  • Kennisnet: Schools need help in the battle against digital illiteracy
    How do you make cyberspace a child-friendly environment? By helping schools focus more attention on digital literacy, write strategic consultant Remco Pijpers and Kennisnet Director Toine Maes. Read more
  • Youth & Media Bureau: We need leadership to battle cyberbullying
    Strong leaders in the classroom can help children in the battle against cyberbullying, writes Justine Pardoen of the Dutch Youth & Media Bureau. Read more


  • Jurriën Hamer and Linda Kool: Here’s how to bring decency to digitisation
    In the final blog in our series, we identify four virtues that can help our society deal decently with digital technology: personalisation, modesty, transparency, and responsibility. Read more