5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership (Part 3)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Part 1 in this Series introduced 5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership and the importance of Ethical Foresight. Part 2 explored the 1st dimension – Ethical Design. Part 3 discusses Legal Compliance, the 2nd dimension.


The IoT is taking us into new legal and ethical territory, and it is critical that we understand the potential consequences of our choices. Laws will change as we learn more about the potential of the IoT to cause harm. Along the way, there may be perfectly legal options that can cause dire consequences. For example, many devices, including appliances, that were not originally designed to be connected to the internet or to each other are now being connected. This raises many legal and ethical issues including privacy, security and safety, which are not yet resolved, and the choices we make will have a direct impact on people and society.

Imaginers, creators and implementers of new technologies and products will need to think about the legal and ethical issues that might arise from the use of devices they design during the R&D phase, not just during deployment, when it is too late to build in robust protections for users. Since laws and regulations cannot keep up with the pace of technological innovation and change and rapid increases in device connectivity, self-regulation will be required to fill the gap.

The IoT is Taking Us Into New Legal and Ethical Territory

“Governance theorists are beginning to recognize that ‘objects of governance are only known through attempts to govern them’ 55 and that ‘governance is not a choice between centralization and decentralization. It is about regulating relationships in complex systems.’ 56” OSCE (Organization For Security and Co-Operation in Europe),  Self-regulation, Co-regulation, State Regulation

“IoT devices can quickly generate legal and ethical conundrums that no one currently has any idea how to resolve. Just one example: Should a driverless automobile take every action it can to protect its occupants from harm, even if that means “deliberately” harming other motorists or pedestrians?” AIG, The Internet of Things: Benefits and Risks

“Determining who controls all that data and what is done with it will lead us down some interesting paths.”  Jim Hunter, What Will the Internet Be When it Grows Up?, Techcrunch

The ethical thinking that guides self-regulation must be high level and holistic to address new domains of connectedness between human, animal, planet and machine. “Recent advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning suggest the longstanding dream of being able to converse with animals — in a limited fashion — could become a reality” (Bahar Gholipour, Dogs Can’t Speak Human. Here’s The Tech That Could Change That, NBC News). Microsoft’s “Joppa envisions an ‘AI digital dashboard where we’re really able to put our finger on the pulse of Earth’s natural systems’” (Stephen Schmidt, Artificial intelligence could play a pivotal role in managing and protecting planet’s natural resources, Public Radio International). The ethical realm of the IoT includes new stakeholders (animals and the planet) and stakeholders in new combinations (human-animal-machine and machine-planet-community).

To guide self-regulation efforts by individual actors in the IoT space, clear directives are needed that provide ethical boundaries. Since the IoT knows no geographic boundaries, a global perspective and global guidance are required. There are many resources now available to guide successful self-regulation, developed by global groups and organizations who imagine a successful and ethical IoT. Here are some of the resources available that draw ethical IoT boundaries:

Laws will gradually evolve in response to technology entering new domains of our lives, but we cannot wait for that to happen. Responsible businesses in today’s marketplace are benefitting from ethical brand value and tapping into its power to attract and engage constituents including consumers, employees and partners. They are responding to increasing demands for transparency and accountability. Those IoT actors who apply the emerging and increasingly clear global ethical guidelines are likely to benefit from a powerful and growing trend toward supporting ethical business. In The rise of the conscious consumer: why businesses need to open up (The Guardian) Jessi Baker points out that “In an increasingly open, digital world where authenticity is the buzzword of choice, businesses must keep up with growing demands for ethical behaviour and transparency in everything from employee rights and gender discrimination to the supply chain.” Companies can be innovative and at the same time design and deploy devices that meet increasing legal and ethical expectations.

This is Part 3 in a weekly series on 5 Ethical Dimensions of IoT Leadership. Part 4 will explore the 3rd dimension.


Gerald Santucci and Rob van Kranenburg served as reviewers and contributed substantial feedback that helped shape this paper’s coherence and usefulness.

About the Author:

Linda Fisher Thornton is an author and leader in the field of ethical thinking and leadership. She helps executives, leaders and groups learn how to lead using the 7-dimensional model described in her book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership. Linda is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Applied Ethics and Global Leadership for the University of Richmond SPCS. Her website is www.LeadinginContext.com.

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