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Trust and Accountability in a Digital Age

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2019


I have a very particular reason to be grateful to Stewart Sutherland, our late President, which is connected to some of the themes of this lecture, so want to begin by recalling a long conversation I had with him on these topics.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2019 

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1 O'Neill, Onora, Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Consumer rankings of products can be useful for placing trust if, and only if, they are based on responses by a representative sample of respondents to standardised products. When these conditions are not met, polls cannot provide evidence for trustworthiness.

3 Plato, Phaedrus 275d-e, tr. W. Hamilton, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973).

4 The literature is recent, large and growing. See Foer, Franklin, World without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017)Google Scholar; Rusbridger, Alan, Breaking News: the Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2018)Google Scholar; Moore, Martin, Democracy Hacked: Political Turmoil and Information Warfare in the Digital Age, (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)Google Scholar; Bartlett, Jamie, The People v Tech: How the Internet is killing democracy (and how we save it) (Penguin Books, 2018)Google Scholar; Williams, James, Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Overview of recent dynamics in the UK press market, (, April 2018)

5 For example, anyone familiar with contemporary trends in school and university education will be aware of controversies about approaches to accountability that measure and rank research and teaching and construct league tables.

6 Taplin, Jonathan, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy (Macmillan, 2018)Google Scholar.

7 See The Cairncross Review: a sustainable future for journalism, February 2019,; see also Taplin op. cit .on the effects of digital technologies on musicians and writers and information compiled by Authors’ Copyright and Licensing Society on the decline in professional writers’ earnings.

8 See works cited in note 4.

9 House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report, 2019

10 See Tim Berners-Lee, Sept 2018. He has since launched The Contract for the Web described as ‘an initiative to bring governments, companies, and civil society and web users together to build a roadmap for how we build a web that serves humanity and is a public good for everyone, everywhere’.

12 Cf. Note 9.

13 Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017) esp. ch 2.

14 And this is not the most troubling case. Since taxi services are licensed by local authorities, there are other routes to their regulation, such as withholding a license to operate in specified areas.

15 I have discussed these themes in ‘Liberal Justice: Kant, Rawls and Human Rights’, Kantian Review (2018), 23, 641-59, and ‘Ethical and Political Justification in the Twentieth century’, the Berggruen Lecture, Proceedings and addresses of the American Philosophical Association (2018) 92, 296-309,. Also ‘Justice Without Ethics’, in John Tasioulas, ed., Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

16 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); European Convention on Human Rights (1950).

17 John Rawls is a notable exception: he saw justice as combining two distinct fundamental principles, the first a principle of equal rights and the second a principle constraining distributions to secure a form of fairness. Hence ‘Justice as Fairness’.

18 Civility may be making a comeback. See recently Bejan, Teresa, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thomas, Keith, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2018)Google Scholar.

19 Consider the traditional injunction ‘Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit’, from the poem by Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty that Mozart incorporated into the Magic Flute. It would hardly do to replace this classical injunction with the injunction ‘Üb manchmal Treu und Redlichkeit’! Truth-telling is seen as a perfect duty, and not as an optional matter for individual choice. It may be qualified only to satisfy a comparably weighty duty

20 See Soshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile Books, 2019).

21 On the latter see Gordon Ramsay and Sam Robertshaw, ‘Weaponising News: RT, Sputnik and Targeted Disinformation’, (, February 2019).

22 See Srnicek, op. cit.

23 See the report of the UK Electoral Commission ( See also DCMS Select Committee Report.

24 See Onora O'Neill, ‘Facebook's trust rankings can't be trusted’ (

25 Cf. McNamee, Roger, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe (Harper Collins, 2019)Google Scholar; ; Pomerantsev, Peter, This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War against Reality (Faber and Faber, 2019)Google Scholar.

27 For the Advertising Standards Authority see

28 For the data protection principles that ICO oversees see For a recent report see Democracy Disrupted: Personal Information and political Influence (ICO, 2018