The full text contribution by Dr. Gerald Stokes for the Maeil Business Newspaper (매일경제) in English (text below) and Korean (link below) graciously translated by PhD Candidate Saebom Jin. ( (link to the article in Korean)

English Version

By Gerald Stokes, DTS Chair

Gerry Stokes, DTS Chair

The question, “who is responsible?”, is one that we hear very often. Sometimes this question arises when something good happens, but most of the time it is preliminary to finding fault and attributing blame. With fault and blame come consequences. Someone is reprimanded or punished. It is the way of the world and the way that societies set and enforce norms. However, things are not always this simple, and the question of who or what is responsible is increasingly complicated. It is complicated not only because the world is increasingly complex, but also, we have created institutions that shield individuals from personal responsibility.

The question of who is responsible comes because human actions themselves have consequences. If something bad happens, there should be consequences to those that are responsible. In some cases, this is very clear - someone robs a bank or recklessly causes a traffic accident – they are punished. The bank robbery and traffic accident are clearly undesirable outcomes. One is the product of volition; the second is the product of neglect. But there are other examples of undesirable outcomes where the chain of responsibility is somewhat clouded.

In the 1950s, a drug called thalidomide caused congenital disabilities. Similarly, the chemical DDT was used to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes but has a significant impact on other species like birds. The value of the drug and the pesticide was clear, but there were adverse effects that were completely unintended and unacceptable.  These incidents are part of a class of events called “unintended consequences.” As a result, society has been forced to figure out how to react when things that happen not by intent but because of something not anticipated by the designers of a technology.

In the case of drugs and chemicals released into the environment, governments mandate testing to try to determine what the side effects might be before they are introduced. Another case would be the government working with the automobile industry to develop a system in which vehicles are “recalled” in order to fix safety or other vehicle defects. The companies assume responsibility for the repair. If the problem is found to be intentional, like the Volkswagen emissions cheating scheme or death or injury are a result of the defect, most countries provide redress through the courts or some other legal process. In most cases, it is the corporation that takes responsibility and individuals are shielded from the consequences.

None of these mechanisms are perfect. Many chemicals released into the environment are still not tested for adverse effects before being put in practice. However, a spirit of continuous improvement has emerged — companies and governments work together try to minimize the risk to individuals and the environment. The increasing use of terms like corporate social responsibility and the “ethical” corporation are in part indicators of this trend. This movement also has a strong component of the company holding its employees responsible for their actions.

Enter the digital revolution and the question of who is responsible for the impacts of the new technologies that connect us all?

The adverse consequences that have come with the digital age are well known. There are regular breaches to the security of the massive amounts of personal information needed to support e-commerce. Governments are increasingly digital and vulnerable to cyberattacks. Ransomware attacks on cities and businesses threaten the ability of both to conduct their business. Social media allow a multitude of sins. Bullying has spread from the playground to the internet and intensified. Propagation of incorrect information in support of political, social, or economic movements is rampant. And it is increasingly evident that the internet enables a level of propaganda and disinformation that can threaten democracy, spread hate, and sow discord on a scale that is unprecedented.

Where does the responsibility for these consequences fall? Who might be responsible? They include individuals and groups that take explicit malicious actions, corporations and other organizations that hold sensitive data, application developers that create the pathways for disinformation, and the victims themselves. When it comes to holding individuals, organizations or companies responsible, we are at an early stage of developing the rules. Most countries consider the theft of information or extortion through malware a crime. Companies that fail to adequately protect sensitive information are increasingly being held liable. While many are debating how to manage the propagation of false or misleading information, neither the traditional media nor emerging social media demand that they or their content providers always be truthful.

This all leads to the debate about the responsibility of the “carriers” like Twitter or Facebook for the content that is either pushed through their applications or advertisements. Most of the pressure on these firms comes with a veiled threat. Countries would prefer that the carriers adopt a “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) stance and manage the behavior and content of their users. They use the threat of regulation as the incentive. Not much progress has been made, although the discussions are in their early stages.

While it is always dangerous to blame the victim, absent a strong CSR response in the social media domain, there is a growing trend to focus on consumer education. The phrase “let the buyer beware” is becoming “let the reader/viewer beware.” This is certainly true, but the consequences to an individual of being unsophisticated about the consumption of internet material can be deception, financial loss, and disenfranchisement. It can also mean a disintegration of the social bonds that make a free society. Public education is necessary but not sufficient.

How will this great social challenge be addressed? If we cannot determine who is responsible and what the consequences for inappropriate actions should be there will be lasting consequences for us all.