Labels and Certifications for the Digital World

Image: Mark Boss via Unsplash

by Zora Muriel Schmid

Ethical considerations and responsible innovation have become an integral part of the discourse on technology. So what is the role of a digital trust label and what does the international landscape of initiatives look like?

We are excited to share a newly published report on ethical labels and certifications for the digital realm, which we co-authored with the Swiss Digital Initiative.
We were able to contribute our expertise in creating mappings in the highly dynamic international landscape of frameworks, guidelines, labels and certifications in the digital — a domain that seems to be growing by the day. From over 50 initiatives included in the mapping, 12 were examined in detail. The focus of the report lies on initiatives that signal ethical standards for digital tools, applications and services and enable consumers to put their trust into the technologies they use. The list of initiatives is a living document and publicly accessible here. Comments and suggestions for additions and changes are more than welcome.

Ethical considerations and responsible innovation have become an integral part of the discourse on technology. This bears upon companies, public institutions, law makers and civil society at both national and international levels — who all face expectations to avoid mere ‘ethics washing’.
The report dives into the questions on the role of a label for the digital realm, offers an analysis of what makes such an endeavor likely to be successful and what the pitfalls and major challenges to overcome are. The vast diversity of initiatives existing world-wide shows that there is indeed growing demand to put theoretical principles of digital ethics into practice. A label operationalizes these principles, makes them measurable and accessible to end users: at times readable at a glance. The core purpose of a label is to empower users to make informed choices, to set industry wide standards and to create incentives for companies to implement state of the art practices that go beyond the legal minimum of slowly emerging policy frameworks.

These initiatives are advanced by a diverse range of actors: from academia, government and the private sector (or more often than not in collaboration between these). A few have been launched successfully, many are in the conception and testing phase and some projects have even been abandoned. Overall, the main challenge for a label to be successful lies in the very nature of digital services. Digital services are complex and fast changing, as are societal attitudes towards them. Digital tools and services touch every aspect of human lives, so creating norms that fit seemingly unlimited contexts and applications is a testing task indeed. The report looks at the different approaches taken up to solve this conundrum: Is it possible to create a labelling framework that encompasses social media apps, baby phones, the Internet of Things and a talking car, or can it only ever apply to one specific type of tool or service? Initiatives such as the Trustmark for the Internet under the wing of the EU Commission, aims at just that: a series of labels for different applications covering the entirety of internet related products and services, under one single umbrella label.

Among the other challenges faced by label initiatives are fundraising, knowhow and resources to keep the label going beyond its development stage, and the need to continuously adapt to the dynamic object of focus and shifting ethical norms. It appeared from our research that in order for a label for the digital to be successful and unfold its purpose, it has to fulfil the following criteria:

  • The label has to be known by its target users.
  • It should be supported by a strong and well-known organization.
  • It has to convey a general message, in user friendly language, with details and complexity being handled in the background.
  • The governance of the labeling body has to be legitimate.
  • The way the label organization is funded needs to be transparent and understandable for outsiders.

While the vast majority of initiatives are situated in Europe and North America, we believe that inclusivity and diversity of emerging label projects must be improved — not only in the perspective of which communities and social groups define ethical digital standards but also regarding geographical representation. Many initiatives claim a global scope on paper, yet are clearly tied to Western concepts and tested on a Western public. Low- and middle-income countries are yet to be included in the debate on what is needed to make new technologies trustworthy.

The Digital Trust Label — flagship project of the Swiss Digital Initiative launched in 2019 that we’ve been able to support since the beginning — aims to denote trustworthiness in digital services in plain non-technical language and in a visually easily understandable fashion. The SDI calls for cooperation across the board to ensure that initiatives can firmly establish themselves and that through these initiatives, high ethical standards in the digital realm become the norm. With its seat in Geneva, a hub for the international governance of technologies with organizations such as the International Standardization Body, the SDI is well situated to fulfil this mission of coordination, advocacy and inclusion.

Interdisciplinary, interactive, open to the public. Empowering new inspiration. @EthixInnovation