App Store Ethics

Carissa Lintao
Aug 17, 2019 · 7 min read
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Illustrations: katemangostar

64% of people involved in the process of building tech believe ethics training should be mandatory, according to a survey conducted by Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked,” and myself. Creators want to make the right decisions, but are at a loss when it comes to finding guidance. The tech industry is left to it’s own devices and ethics-related decisions are based on gut feelings.

Ethics is now a hot and somewhat controversial topic, mostly because we can’t define the term. To bring it back to it’s actual meaning, Ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, which translates to “character.” And character means the qualities that makes a person. When we talk about ethics, we aren’t just referring to rules & regulation, we’re talking about the makeup of actual people. In the context of this article, ethics is referring to the character of the people in charge of building apps.

App Idea Guidelines

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Obviously, we can’t control how someone thinks or acts, but we can steer them in the right direction. I truly believe Apple needs to teach it’s developers how to think not what to think.

The company can do this by defining Ethics Guidelines, required ethics training every developer is required to go through during idea phase.

It’s easier to mold a business idea than it is to fix an established company. The purpose of these guidelines is to make creators think about the five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why. Ethics revolves around the way we think and act on those ideas, so implementing this type of training is imperative to cultivating a people-first mindset from the start.

Apple can refer to it’s values to begin defining these guidelines:

  • Make great products. Keep them simple, not complex.
  • Own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make.
  • Participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.
  • Say no to thousands of projects so we can focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us.
  • Believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of groups, which allows us to innovate in a way that others cannot.
  • Don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change.

For the sake of practicality, I want to focus on the bolded points: passion, accountability, and contribution.

Passion is that burning feeling of desire for something meaningful. And being passionate is Apple’s core belief. According to Steve Jobs himself:

“Apple is not about making boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that well. Apple is about something more. Its core value is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better.”

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The App Store is packed with passionate founders. I work with them every day, and the ones who love what they do are the ones head over heels in love with their game-changing ideas.

Changing the world for the better means other people than the developer benefits. Chasing money isn’t a sustainable mindset. When profits are the only goal — pride, anger, and discontent wait at the finish line.

If the thought of creating this app keeps you up at night, it’s a good sign you’re passionate about it. Once you’re set on the idea, answer these next steps questions:

  • Do you have subject matter expertise in what you’re building?
  • Why should you build this app?
  • Do you understand the needs of the people you’re building this solution for?

It’s just as important to actually know why you’re creating the app, how you plan to take action, and take the steps necessary to be everything a founder needs to be. Take a look at the following founders and spot threads of commonality:

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In the same survey, 35% said they were asked “to build, design, or work on a technology they felt was unethical to build or would harm the user in some way.”

Owning & controlling the tech behind what you create is the first half of accountability. The second half is having enough humility to confess to mistakes and actually change things moving forward. Currently, humility is close to non-existent in tech, but Apple can easily start fixing this problem.

So how can Apple keep developers accountable? Require verified full names and headshots on App Store listings, instead of letting people hide behind aliases and company names.

Having the ability to potentially create a million dollar product for millions of people in the comfort of your bedroom would be unheard of 30 years ago. It’s a privilege, not a right. So with great power comes greater responsibility.

How can developers hold themselves accountable? Ultimately, it’s on them to cultivate an “I’m responsible” mentality. However, Apple and everyone else involved in the process can remind them that they’re the ones that need to walk the walk.

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What is the app contributing to society? Whatever you build will have an impact — whether it’s one person or 9 billion. Developers need to build apps with the mentality that everyone in the world will use them. Why? Because it’s a real possibility, and it will force them to think about all of the potential social ramifications.

Obviously, not every app has to be developed by an altruistic person or dramatically change thousands of lives for the better. The point of thinking about what the app contributes to the world — good or bad — is a precautionary measure.

Apps can have a serious affect on people. I wanted to use the word empathy here, but having the ability to understand and actually share the feelings of another person, is not a skill one can just pick up overnight. A better starting point would be sympathy.

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Genuine sympathy (and empathy)is something that goes hand in hand with contributing something of value to society. Developers need to understand who they’re building for in order to give them an actual solution.

If you’re the type of person that needs instructions laid out concretely, here’s a list of things that don’t contribute to society:

  • Exploitation
  • Taking advantage of adults, teens, & children
  • Entertainment purposefully designed to be mindless
  • Dark patterns
  • Empty promises & scams
  • Ignorance & hate speech
  • Anything that’s illegal “in real life”

This may seem like common-sense to the average person, but there are a handful of developers that have completely pole vaulted over holding themselves accountable.

Why Do We Need Guidelines?

Another interesting finding we took away from the survey, was that everyone had very strong beliefs about what ethics meant to them and its importance. Only a handful said ethics didn’t matter to them, but the vast majority were seemingly passionate about building technology ethically. Here are a few responses:

Building technology ethically doesn’t matter to me:

  • “making ‘ethical tech’ is just placing more obstacles in the way of innovation”
  • “Depends on the rate. My ethics erode above $150/hr and seem to disappear completely above $225.”
  • “the technology itself is not a problem. How it’s used may be.”
  • “Yes and no. Everyone defines ethics differently. Would I design an app that steals users’ info and sells it? No. Would I design an app that uses adds and microtransactions to ‘ease pain’ in a game? Yes.”

Building technology ethically matters to me:

  • “Engineers have an outsized impact on society. The responsibility of shaping society should not be taken lightly.”
  • “It all comes down to the age old concept of treating others how you want to be treated. If you don’t want your data used in a certain way, why would you knowingly build something that violates that for other people?”
  • “All tech comes with consequences (good, bad, neutral; predictable, unpredictable), and part of building tech ethically is evaluating the potential impact.”
  • “Developers are entrusted with power that users may not even entirely understand. It is our duty to act ethically on behalf of users.”
  • “Unethical technology can never grow into a sustainable business long term. Eventually, it will be scrutinized by somebody and shut down by bad publicity.”

Should I Build This?

We need to first ask ourselves “should I build this?” not “how can I build this?” Ethics is a mindset, not a set of rules & regulations. Starting with App Idea Guidelines, aka asking questions, is the best way to kick off any side project or startup. It’s free, forces one to think about their “why,” and is more productive than just developing the idea you had when you were putting on your pants two days ago.

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