Why Big Tech Needs Big Ethics — Right Now!

The Cambridge Analytica user trust debacle currently enveloping Facebook has once again brought into sharp focus a foundational issue that permeates Big Tech — the complex interrelationships between engineering, marketing, and ethics.

I’ve spent many years pounding on this problem, often to be told by my technologist colleagues that “Our job is just to build the stuff — let the politicians figure out the ethics!”

That attitude has always chilled me to the bone — let the *politicians* handle the ethics relating to complicated technologies? (Or anything else for that matter?) Excuse me, are we living on the same planet? On the same timeline? Hello???

So I almost choked on my coffee when I saw articles saying that Facebook was now suggesting the need for government regulation of their operations – aka – “Stop us before we screw our users yet again!”

The last thing we need is the politicians involved. They by and large don’t understand what we’re doing, they generally operate on the basis of image and political expediency. Politicians touching tech is typically poison.

But the status quo of Big Tech is untenable also. Google is a wonderful firm with great ideals, but with continuing user support and accessibility problems. Facebook strikes me, frankly, as having a basically evil business model. Apple is handing user data and crypto keys over to the censoring Chinese dictatorship. Microsoft, and the rest — who the hell knows from day to day?

One aspect that they’ve all shared is the “move fast and break things” mantra of Silicon Valley, and a tendency to operate on the basis that “you never want to ask permission, just apologize later if things go wrong.”

These attitudes just aren’t going to work going forward. These firms (and their users!) are now in the crosshairs of the politicians, who see rigorous regulation of these firms as key to their political futures, and they intend to accomplish this by making Big Tech “the fall guy” for a range of perceived evils — smoothing the ways for various forms of micromanaged, government-imposed information control and censorship.

As we’ve already seen in Russia, China, and even increasingly in Europe, this is indeed the path to tyranny. Assuming that the USA is invulnerable to these forces would be stupidity to the max.

For too long, user support and ethical questions have had second-class status at most tech firms. It’s not that these concerns don’t exist at all, it’s that they’re often very low in the product priority hierarchies.

This must change.

Ethics, user trust, and user support issues must proactively rise to the top of these hierarchies, lest opportunistic politicians leverage the existing situation for the imposition of knee-jerk “solutions” that will not only seriously damage these firms, but will ultimately be devastating to their users and broader communities as well.

There have long existed corporate roles in various “traditional” industries — who long ago learned how to avoid being easily steamrolled by the politicians — to help avoid these dilemmas.

Full-time ethicists and ombudsmen, for example, can play crucial roles in these respects, by helping firms to understand the cross-product, cross-team implications of their projects in relation to internal needs, user requirements, and overall effects on the world at large.

Many Internet-related firms have resisted the idea of accepting these roles within their corporate ranks, believing that their other management and public relations employees can fulfill those functions.

But in reality — and the continuing Facebook privacy disasters are but one set of examples — it takes a specific kind of longitudinal, cross-team approach to seriously, adequately, and successfully address these escalating issues.

Another argument heard against ombudsman and ethicist roles is concerns regarding their supposedly having “veto” power over product decisions. This is a fallacious argument. These roles need not necessarily imply any sort of launch or other veto abilities, and can be purely advisory in terms of internal policy decisions. But having the input of persons with these skill sets in the ongoing decision-making process is still crucial — and lacking at many of these major firms.

The time is short for firms to grasp the nettle in these regards. Politicians around the world — not just in traditional tyrannies — are taking advantage of the publicly perceived ethical and user support problems at these firms.

All through human history, governments have naturally gravitated toward controlling the information available to citizens — sometimes with laudable motives, always with horrific results.

Internet technologies provide governments with a veritable and irresistible “candy store” of possibilities for government-imposed censorship and other information control.

A key step that these firms must take to help stave off such dark outcomes is to move immediately to make Big Ethics a key part of their corporate DNA.

To do otherwise, or even to hesitate toward making such changes, could easily be tantamount to total surrender.