A Radical Proposal For Ethics in Tech

Since the 2016 election, I’ve thought a lot about the role of ethics in my industry. Specifically, I’ve thought about Twitter and Facebook, and how “well-meaning” nerds could build platforms where ethical considerations seem to consistently take a backseat.

One of the things that’s so frustrating about ethical violations of corporations is that it seems like there’s so little that the public can do. These platforms and corporations–Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, etc.– wield enormous power and influence. But how can that be that they hold all of that power over the public, where we hate how often Facebook violates our trust but is allowed to dominate and maintain massive influence anyway? It’s the age of the Internet, where ideas can flourish in an instant, and people can mobilize in minutes.

For a while, I thought maybe some kind of push for unionization was key. But corporations are global now, and unions are often limited to the rights granted by law to employees in the first place. Meaning: the power of a union often only extends within a country’s jurisdiction, whereas a corporation often has rights everywhere. Even without unions being so stripped of power in the past 50 years, they’d still have limited effectiveness today.

Then I started to think about what a lot of these big companies are built on, and what their services are built on.

Every day, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and more leverage hundreds and thousands of open source projects, which are licensed as free for use for anyone. That includes packages in Java, PHP, JavaScript, tools for development, software, and free services.

If Facebook has taught us anything, it’s the law of unintended consequences. Just because something is free doesn’t make it good, and by ignoring ethics in our industry, engineers have allowed free labour to be capitalized for malicious (or simply un-empathetic) ends. The reasoning is similar to the overly-optimistic ideas that built the architecture of the Internet in the first place: if I give away everything for free, everyone else will also, and everyone wins.

Spoiler: everyone doesn’t win.

Should we stop open source? Of course not. But why not build in ethical usage into our licensing?

For example:

  1. If you or the company you’re working on behalf of discriminate against LGBTQ people, or build software that facilitates or encourages discrimination against people on the basis of sex, gender, sexuality, choice of employment, or race, you are granted no license to use this product.
  2. If your CEO compensation to median employee compensation is greater than a ratio of 20-to-1, and therefore participate in egregious income inequality, you may not use this online service.
  3. If you violate the privacy of individuals, sell personal information without full knowledge and consent of users, or through ineptitude, allow personal data to be stolen or easily used outside your terms of service or outside the expectation, knowledge, and consent of users, then you are granted no permission to use this software library.
  4. If you provide material or financial assistance to companies that violate the above user rights and universal human dignity, you are likewise not permitted to use this tool/language.

Yes, practically, you might think this is hardly enforceable. But look at it this way: if Microsoft would be in violation of the ethical software license on your NPM library, do you think their legal team would say, “Nah, go ahead and use it”? If software isn’t licensed to you, then its use in an end product is a violation of copyright. Would that not mean that you have a legal claim against that software and whatever profits were derived from it, even tangentially? (I mean, I’m really sort of asking, as I’m not a lawyer.)

I think if our industry were to establish a standard of Ethical Compliance, what we really want to see from the companies that are supposedly serving us, and built that into every tool, every line of code, every published package on NPM, we’d theoretically have an incredible amount of leverage, if not practically, then maybe politically, if ethical violaters were named and shamed.

I would imagine some website where membership could vote on which companies are in what stage of non-compliance, and what that would mean for licensing guidelines. Maybe a company would only be blacklisted if their CEO-to-employee pay ratio was over 370-to-1 or something like that, and only then would they be cut off entirely from licensing. Maybe companies with one violation would still have licensing, but for a fee.

I don’t know what all those details should be. What I do know is that we, as an industry, need to think more seriously about ethics, and how what we built gets used. We need to infuse it into our DNA, so that it’s built into our products, so the next Mark Zuckerberg is thinking more about ethics of the software he’s building that the most humane way to kill goats with lasers.

I'm a product designer, author, humorist, and web developer. You can find me on Twitter.