Ethics is foundational to any true profession, and today technologists find themselves in a forest of ethical dilemmas. The first challenge is for ethics to be part of our thinking and our decision-making process. This is where we can use standards and frameworks, and approach our designs and implementation with full understanding of the ethical consequences.
The second challenge is where we cannot predict the consequences of our actions, but have to respond to the results. The first challenge is not complicated; ethics and the impact on people need to be part of our decision-making process and our professional dialogues. This is not always easy to do, but it is a simple objective that will help us avoid obvious harm, and as we learn, apply those learnings to our practice.
On the second challenge, it is how we respond when we see the impact of our work that is of most consequence.
If the social media and technology platforms were not both valuable and powerful, there would not be an issue to address. There is social good and commercial value that we should recognise and celebrate. Connecting people, providing an open exchange of information, these are worthy goals, and our world would be diminished without people working to meet them. These are people and organisations who have set out to make money, of course, but ardently believe in leaving the world better than they found it.
Today, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) has published a report that outlines an unintended consequence of that mission. This is one of those times when our commitment to our values and our ethics is tested on all fronts. The summation is that we ALL must work differently to ensure the continued function of our society, and in particular our parliamentary democracy.
It does not get much more serious than that. It demands a response.
This is clearly a challenge of outcomes rather than intent. There simply is no ethics manual that can tell a developer how to build a social media platform that does not have these consequences. We therefore need to be very careful to avoid the temptation to apply hindsight to people’s choices. Instead we must realise that the ethical response is about what they do next. The CSPL report is amongst the first serious apolitical - but politically astute - treatments of this issue in any depth, and it needs to be understood as the start of a journey that has to take us somewhere we want to go.
It is in our view clear that the evidence in the report outlines some serious issues, and that there is a collective responsibility to deal with those issues. Clarity is required about the roles of all those involved, and perhaps the most important recommendation is that there needs to be dialogue and working together amongst all those involved - with a shared sense of the common good that we are trying to achieve. That goal is not to eliminate harm or to bankrupt any organisation, but to make the functioning of our democracy possible - and to work together to reduce harm where it is reasonable to do so. That’s not the stuff of slogans, but, like so much of this report it is a calibrated view of the public good, and in all our interests.
From the report and discussion sessions with the committee, the thing that appeared to agitate them most was the difficulty in getting the attention of some of the platform companies, and the lack of effort by data-driven organisations to even monitor some of the issues. That is a fair point, and with hindsight it is easy to criticise these choices, but there is a lot to absorb and process as these organisations come to terms with their emerging responsibilities.
It is clear that in those organisations smart people who mean the world no harm are just as concerned to get this right as the rest of us. This is the time to get that concern into the open and make use of the opportunities and momentum towards constructive discussion. There is so much opportunity to attack each other, but for the common good we must avoid the temptation to scapegoat for short term interests. Perhaps that may be seen as naïve, but if standing up for people making the right choices is naïve, then so be it.
So, our conclusion is that the CSPL report is significant, and constitutes an opportunity. The technology companies may add more from their particular standpoints - and they would be wise to take the opportunity that is presented. We should not seek to blame them for how we got here, but we certainly can and should hold them to account for any continuing lack of engagement with civil society. All of those involved - political parties, the government, third sector organisations, professional institutions and the technology platforms - need to commit fully to joint working that will serve the public. This is a moment in history where to do otherwise will be a colossal act of self-harm.
For our small part in getting here, we stand ready to help as we can with what comes next.
Chris Rees, BCS President Elect