The Ethics Project

Ethics Blog Posts

ETHICS AND THE REPUTATION OF THE TECH INDUSTRY

POSTED ON MARCH 3, 2020 BY REBECCA TAYLOR (UT ETHICS PROJECT INDUSTRY FELLOW)

 

What makes a system “good”? This may feel like an odd question for those of us working in the technology industry to ask ourselves. But we must. 

We are seeing the first signs of recruitment risk for technology companies.

As described in a January 12, 2020, New York Times Sunday article, new graduates are having second thoughts about whether to work for technology companies.  The technology industry reputation among our young is shifting, moving closer to Wall Street: amoral.

How can this happen to us in the tech industry?  We used to be good guys and gals, wearing the white hats.

The reasons for this are well known. In order to repair a fraying reputation, our industry must face questions such as these.  I’m sure others will be added, hopefully as a result of dialog stimulated by this blog posting: 

  1. Is a business model based on selling personal data ever OK?  If not, what should replace it?
  2. Online gaming and Virtual Reality's impact on the human mind, especially that of the pre-adolescent.  How much time online, immersed, is too much? What does it do to the human brain on a synapse level?
  3. Personal data control, especially of medical and financial data.  Should you be notified before a company sells your hospital record?
  4. Shorter, more reasonable and understandable click-through agreements.  Should we invalidate any that contain indemnification clauses?  Probably.
  5. Liability for data breaches.  Should there be minimum payments made to every user whose information is lost to a data breach? How much?  Who decides?
  6. Should an AI algorithm make decisions impacting a person’s financial, physical or mental health? How about prison sentences?

The fundamental question being asked of our industry is this: “what does ethical thinking require of the industry?”  And, how do we do that without endangering our global competitiveness? 

Stated in a different way, reputational risk accrues to a company’s brand.  I am interested in quantifying the value to a company’s brand of integrating explicit ethical considerations into product development, corporate governance, product management and other similar processes used by most technology companies.  It will be very interesting to determine the change in brand value related to not doing these things.  The question this will answer, amongst others: “Is ethical thinking good for the bottom line?”  And if so, how best to quantify that?

Answering this question correctly can guide both product development teams and Boards of Directors at small, medium and large technology companies.

The ethical question related to this is whether ethical thinking is compromised by focusing on the bottom line.  

If you want to engage the conversation on addressing ethical issues that matter to you and your company, reach me at 

https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/ethicsproject/people/fellows.php.  

We are identifying industry leaders interested in pragmatic, impactful technology-driven ethical topics as research projects.

The next blog on this topic will describe a potential research project that will quantify the impact on a company’s brand of incorporating ethics into its “thinking and doing.”  This next blog in the series will be on moral injury and responsibility for war crimes.