Tech ethics in practice

Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

Tech ethics is suddenly a topic reaching more folks — there are whole ethics tracks at software conferences, new meetups, and articles. But how do we convert the rhetoric into action?

Would an Hippocratic oath for tech would be an answer? It is certainly being considered in some quarters, although this is often without thinking about what that oath is, or how it’s used in the modern era.

There are more examples of unethical practices, or at least unprofessional behaviour, entering the public sphere from the tech sector than ever before. But it’s much easier to criticise others than to figure out what to do yourself to be better.

What do you do, as a developer, designer, manager, working in tech if you’re concerned about ethics and want to apply all this talk to your work?

You could check out the ethics codes already out there, that we’ve recently reviewed at Doteveryone, like the ACM code, currently being revised, or the Engineering Council’s principles, and put them into practice. Or perhaps you could commit to a personal pledge relevant to your work, either directly about ethics, or simply good practice.

But it’s not always obvious how to do this. Doteveryone is aware of leaders of small businesses trying to do the right thing but are struggling to work out exactly what that means in the context of day to day business. Grappling with questions like what responsible advertising online looks like? Or, if you can’t support all user groups, what aspects of inclusivity do you focus on? What do you do when your key investor tells you ethics is something you could do once you’re successful, just not right now?

We can make it easier to help find ethics resources for specific technologies, such as principles of ethical robot design, guidance for data science, algorithm design ethics tools, and so on. At Doteveryone we’ve also been compiling a list of ethical tech initiatives — a mix of personal pledges, research, and principles, but there is quite clearly a lack of practical support and tools for businesses so please add any others you know about!

Now all this sounds good in theory. When the decisions are tough, you can ask questions, you can try to change the minds of those around you. You can champion ethical practices in your workplace. You can discuss how to architect the product or service to be ethical. But is that how tech development works in reality? When under pressure to make money, or simply keep services running, what happens when you are asked to do something you think might be wrong, and you’re met with the response to “just do it”?

If it’s breaking the law, and you have a strong HR department, you can go to them and get help. You might have a professional registration, and your institution (or perhaps a union) will back you up and offer support — legal or otherwise. But the chances are it won’t be such a straightforward situation of obvious wrongdoing.

It may mean cutting corners now — accruing technical, product and ethical debts for someone to deal with later. That’s to suggest they will deal with it later — many tech teams simply never do. Maybe there’s not enough time to test a system properly before deployment or the ethical feature just never makes it to the top of the long wish list of features and bug fixes. What if what you’d be doing would be so harmful you have to to choose not to ship ?

There may be an ethical code of conduct in your business which is is backed up by strong ethical governance processes (as per Alan Winfield’s post here). Although this doesn’t seem very common. Like Alan, at Doteveryone we’d love to know of any great examples of tech companies with good ethical governance, with AI (machine learning) examples would be especially welcome. (The only two tech businesses we know of with external ethics review/challenge bodies are Yoti’s guardian council, and DeepMind Health’s Independent Review Panel.)

What if your whole business model is a bit exploitative? You might not have much ability to change that. Do you quit? Some people do. But not everyone will be in a position to make this choice. What are your other options? What support is there?

At Doteveryone we’ve been thinking about what might make it easier for workers in the tech sector to ask these ethical questions and support them in making change in response.

We’ve got a Slack community for people trying to build trustworthy tech. This could act as a good forum for providing peer support and helping each other figure out what good looks like, and to find new ways to encourage the adoption of best practices.

What else could help?

We’ve talked about whistleblower support for people who want to expose unethical practices in their businesses, and need guidance on whether and how to do this.

How can we make it possible, or even rewarded, to stick your neck out to fight unethical tech?

How about an independent, confidential helpline, to help people who are struggling to figure out the ethical path? Because not everyone works for a business large, or well governed enough, to have an ethics reporting system.

What if there was a way to reach folks with different ethical expertise who can help? Like the ACM “ask an ethicist” column, only more. Would that be useful?

But it’s not just individuals who need ethics. Businesses as a whole need to think about how they operate ethical governance in practice. And they probably need help too!

Small companies without famous name connections can find it hard to get the expertise that bigger companies can recruit onto ethics boards and review committees. Could we find a way to broker access to experts in an appropriate and accountable way? Or how about “How to guides” that translate theoretical principles into actionable advice for businesses of their type and size? And if examples of good ethical codes and real governance practices, that work for different scales of business, were turned into templates, they could then act as champions for wider uptake via industry networks.

Doteveryone welcomes feedback and ideas in the comments below, as we plan what prototyping we can do in this area. We’re especially keen to hear from businesses to help us in understanding the real challenges around tech ethics and therefore in addressing the right problems.

All of this post assumes that an individual or business building tech wants to be ethical. Of course, that’s not always the case. This means we need external accountability too, whether that’s through regulation (standards, labels, laws), or other means. Making sure the tech industry is responsible and accountable for the good of everyone in society isn’t something that a single action will fix. It needs a systemic change, which is why at Doteveryone we’re bringing the public, civil society organisations, government and policymakers into the conversation, alongside the tech industry, to try to start to build a movement to transform the way technology is shaping our world.


Thanks to Theo Schlossnagle for provoking discussions earlier this year at Monkigras, Sam Smith, Catherine Flick, Alan Winfield, and the tech developers who have helped me by discussing these ideas in recent months!