The Murky Ethics of Emoji: How Shall We Regulate a Web for Good?

46 Pages Posted: 6 Jun 2019 Last revised: 19 Sep 2019

See all articles by Elizabeth A Kirley

Elizabeth A Kirley

Osgoode Hall Law School York University; Deakin School of Business and Law

Marilyn McMahon

Deakin University, Geelong, Australia - Deakin Law School

Date Written: May 16, 2019


This paper builds on our earlier investigation in The Emoji Factor: Humanizing the Emerging Law of Digital Speech by exploring how the social media industry is responding to public demand to expand the emoji collection to reflect our individual differences. We consider the ethical fallout of those decisions by asking two research questions: 1) how are emoji changing to reflect human diversity; and 2) do the resulting designs breach laws or ethical norms with respect to privacy, human rights, or data security. Our methodology includes a comparative examination of research and new ‘personalized’ offerings by internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as the standards board of the Unicode Consortium, to more accurately reflect emoji users’ physical, racial, age-related, and gender-based uniqueness. Our thesis is that through their graphic simplicity and broad accessibility, emoji are well placed as ambassadors of inclusion but we are challenged by the privacy invasions created by their data use by third parties and by a lack of algorithmic fairness in design choices imposed by artificial intelligence. We focus on examples involving the acceptance by the Unicode Consortium of certain emoji that raise ethical questions about their political messaging and machine biases that could discriminate on the basis of personal beliefs, convictions, race, age, or gender. We conclude that internet technology is a political and moral force and, as beneficiaries of its convenience, we have a responsibility to use ethical regulation to “rethink a Web that is truly inclusive and open, a Web for good.” Where better to begin than with that comedic, widely accessible, masterpiece of non-verbal speech: the emoji.

Keywords: emoji, legal ethics, diversity, equality, General Data Protection Regulation, privacy, human rights, data security, artificial intelligence (AI)

Suggested Citation

Kirley, Elizabeth A and McMahon, Marilyn, The Murky Ethics of Emoji: How Shall We Regulate a Web for Good? (May 16, 2019). Richmond Journal of Law and Technology, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Elizabeth A Kirley (Contact Author)

Osgoode Hall Law School York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
North York
Toronto, ON M3J 1P3


Deakin School of Business and Law ( email )

Waterfront Campus
Victoria, 3125

Marilyn McMahon

Deakin University, Geelong, Australia - Deakin Law School ( email )

221 Burwood Highway
Burwood, Victoria 3125
61392446184 (Phone)

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