Who’s responsible for tech industry ethics?

Who’s responsible for tech industry ethics?
Civil disobedient: Edward Snowden's Wired magazine cover on newsstands, August 2014. His actions have prompted calls for a more ethical perspective in the world of software development. Photo by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license
The field of software engineering is woefully lagging on the ethics training front. SCU’s Internet Ethics program is among those working to change that. This article first appeared on Crosscut.com on June 13, 2014.

Consider Mike, father of three.

He’s been working two jobs for years so he can afford to send his kids to college. And it’s paying off. Sarah, the firstborn, is packing for her freshman year when Mike’s bank informs him that a “software glitch” has effectively disappeared the deposit he sent to the college admissions office to secure Sarah’s place. The bank promises to restore the funds as soon as it completes an investigation into the glitch, but that will take weeks. Without an alternative source of money, Mike doesn’t pay the deposit and Sarah doesn’t start college in the fall.

That’s one of the case studies explored in the software engineering ethics course work available online through the Internet Ethics program at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The University hopes that the program materials, which are available for free online, will help create a set of ethical standards to guide the tech industry. The case studies, along with classroom exercises, readings, and, of course, homework, are designed to inform students and get them talking about the ethical issues they’re likely to face if they choose careers in tech.

The Internet Ethics website is a curated clearinghouse for articles, links, databases, and commentaries (in text and video) that explore ethical quandaries. The piece on Girls Around Me, the thankfully short-lived “scanner app that turns your town into a dating paradise!” is a cautionary tale whose moral is this: Just because programmers can build something doesn’t mean they should.

The need to inject a little ethical perspective into the world of software development has grown more urgent in the post-Snowden era. “There’s been a lot of talk about the buzz phrase privacy by design,” says Irina Raicu, director of the Markkula Center’s 3-year-old Internet Ethics program (and author of the Girls Around Me commentary). “Rather than put a product out and try to fix [any bugs] later, privacy is supposed to be baked into the product. So who’s doing that baking? It’s the software engineers.”

Alas, when Raicu and company began looking into the ethics training available for aspiring techies, they found it “pretty limited,” she says. And almost entirely off-topic.

The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) adopted formal ethical standards back in 1946. But those standards, and most engineering ethics curricula, focus on fatal hardware fails: the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, the leak at Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, India, those fire-prone Ford Pintos. “Software engineers build lines of code,” not compact cars or chemical plants, notes SCU philosophy Professor Shannon Vallor in the Software Engineering Ethics module she wrote for the program. The goal of SCU’s Internet Ethics venture is to help the relatively young field of software engineering catch up on the ethics front.

The program’s materials target university students. “They use all this [digital media] as if they’re breathing air, but there weren’t resources directed at them,” says Raicu. The teaching modules and other content are being used at 21 colleges and universities, including schools in India and Uganda. They cover topics such as net neutrality, the great access divide (who has high-speed service and who doesn’t), and the gender skew when it comes to who’s designing digital products.

Raicu is also watching the way tech companies treat their employees and engage with their communities. The disparity in how some software firms treat workers raises questions of fairness. Killer perks lavished on programmers don’t always accrue to a company’s janitors, security guards, or cafeteria workers—an oversight, says Raicu, that “really creates two different societies” within the same firm.

And let’s face it: Tech professionals don’t always lead with their sensitive sides, which compels many non-tech professionals to dismiss them as a bunch of overpaid, know-it-all jerks in hoodies. Last year’s tone-deaf Facebook rant about homeless people from a Bay Area tech CEO did little to rehabilitate the industry’s image. “Companies need to be a bit more modest and willing to listen,” says Raicu. “They need to recognize that tech isn’t always the answer, but they do have the resources to do so much good.”

There are definitely examples of software companies as good corporate citizens. Google’s Bay Area Challenge spread $750,000 among 10 local nonprofits that submitted the best “bright ideas for a better Bay Area,” like providing tech training for low-income kids.

Facebook just funded a community safety police officer position in its hometown of Menlo Park, committing $200,000 a year for three years. The officer will concentrate on truancy and school and business safety. “It’s not a tech solution,” says Raicu. But it’s a good example of a company responding to a community need. According to Menlo Park police, Facebook offered its help after staffers attended a community meeting on the high correlation between student truancy and crime rates.

If Raicu and her Internet Ethics program have their way, we’ll see a lot more examples of software companies and employees stepping out—and stepping up—in their communities. Coders everywhere will grow an ethical conscience and we will welcome a new Age of Internet Enlightenment. Hey, it could happen.

For the last few years, SCU’s Markkula Center has chosen a theme to explore. Last year, it was conscience, which inspired, in the Internet Ethics program, a discussion of Edward Snowden and civil disobedience. Next year’s theme is compassion, as in, “How do we create compassion on the Internet?” says Raicu.

A very good question indeed.

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