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The Current State Of Ethics In Tech

Over the course of the last couple of years, more and more press has surfaced about companies and their unethical practices and processes —how they have manipulated or exposed users’ privacy or data for their own gain. This is not new, with many of the reported incidents having happened in 2012-2013 and before.

In 2018 alone, Facebook’s privacy incidents stacked up to 21 and counting. But it would be wrong to target Facebook alone; it is not about a single company but the industry as a whole. Major companies like Uber, Grindr, and Volkswagen were exposed by reporters for their own unethical practices. Though we see article after article published about the act, what I can not find are articles explaining why companies behave that way.

In many of the cases after a company is exposed the founder apologizes (sometimes) and moves on. That way stakeholders, employees, and the public are appeased but actual change is not in the plan of the company. Why? Because then it happens again. It is a never-ending cycle.

As programmers when we deal with a problem, we break it into smaller pieces so we can understand what is happening and make the situation more easily digestible and find a solution. And that is what I would like to do here as well. Here are the main reasons I assume (based on enough news and press releases to count) companies continue to behave that way and do not respect users and their data.

A False Obsession To Change The World

If you ask a founder what the drive behind their company and the product is, 95% of time they will say they want to change the world. By having this very abstract and broad goal as their north star, they fall into multiple traps without realizing it at the start. By doing so, it removes the ability to think deeply about what it truly takes to achieve that goal. However, the north star is so grand and powerful, it becomes an “at all costs” behavior to reach it.

Leadership: A Focus On Positives And No Plan For The Negatives

One of the most important parts of a company DNA is the ability to adjust the sails after veering off course. It sends a message to the team that we have learned the lesson, we know what caused us to veer off, and we can prevent it from happening again.

In a recent interview, Mark Zuckerberg said:

Facebook was “probably,” he admitted, “too focused on just the positives and not focused enough on some of the negatives.

From Fake-news to Russia’s interference to US elections, these are now big problems that Facebook did not notice in time and now they are paying the price.

By doing so, they enabled all the negatives to pile up without a plan of action. And even if leadership had it, they did not share. But when patchwork on the ship begins because holes are appearing, there will come a point where the ship begins to sink.

Rule of thumb: It is much more efficient and beneficial to assemble a crew to fix the problem rather than patch it up only for another hole to appear. But that is not possible if the crew is not aware of what they are fixing.

Silicon Valley Culture: Profit Over Everything

Silicon Valley is both a magical and mythical place where many of the biggest companies are born and continue to do so. There is no arguing that the drive and spark you get when visiting is like no other. Not to mention the huge valuations, big and unrealistic funding rounds, and culture. But at what cost?

Throwing off the economy? Sexism? Depression? Companies growing at a fast pace (regardless of whether or not they profit) need to continue trucking and investors want (and need) a return on their money. So we turn a blind eye. Theranos, anyone? As long as the wheels keep turning, the press keeps coming, and the users are engaged, the funding continues.

We have founders who focus only on the positives and a culture that promotes profit over anything no matter what. That is a deadly combination and we can understand that through what happened to many companies.

So far we focused on analyzing the problem and the source(s) of it. But what can we do to tackle the actual problem?

1. Legislation Of Tech Companies

There is a huge discussion about legislating tech companies. In many countries, especially in the EU, legislation plays a heavy role in what companies are permitted to do or not. There is less ability to take advantage of users, data exposure (without the proper precautions in place) is not just immoral but illegal, etc. Generally, it is a great idea but in countries like the United States, there is an even more grand problems. The people set to legislate have not the slightest clue how the internet works.

Congressional hearings of Facebook or Google’s CEOs are clear examples of this. By simply listening to the questions and responses folks from the committee it is not just clear that they do not understand the basics of the Internet’s workings, but lack the desire to learn. Young, educated representatives in office are necessary for a new generation of not only people, but technology, and progress. There is nothing that stunts growth more than mindset.

2. Leadership

With or without legislation, tech organizations and their leaders have a choice and responsibility as to whether they behave ethically or not. So what can leaders do to make a company more ethical?

To kick things off they need to promote good conduct. Lead by example. If the boss never takes a vacation and stays in the office from 8 am to 10 pm, the team will feel inclined to do so. Use their own behavior to create an environment that promotes more ethical processes within the company. By doing that will inspire their own employees to do the same.

In addition to that, leaders need to put unbiased team members with a specific focus on ethics in executive positions; doing so ensures they can intervene when they feel something is unethical or wrong in order to set things straight – creating checks and balances within the company even when leadership is in the wrong.

3. Kick Off Conversations

As an industry, we need to have more conversations about ethics and how to bring change in our workplaces. This cannot be done by a single person but more likely a group of people. Enough employees that have the ability and privilege to take a stand and make their voices heard to company leadership must do so. So the next time you are in a meet-up/conference or hanging out with co-workers, start a conversation. Social media has proven that enough back and forth dialogue can lead to change. That starts with small conversations.

4. Educate The Public

When an article about an incident around privacy comes out, it will most likely be shared around social media (especially within the tech community) and less likely to be shared at a grand scale by folks outside of this bubble. Why? Many people who do not work in tech most likely do not care about such articles. They do not care because they do not know about how important and valuable their data is to companies, and what the repercussions are of said data being exposed.

So we need to educate folks on how to protect themselves and their data on the internet. They need to learn that in many cases they are the product of a company. By educating them the next time a new incident breaks out they are going to be more mindful, understand better what is happening, take action and speak up against the company.

We have a long way to go until we fix this problem but if we do not start doing something, this situation will become worse. As Tim Cook said before, “Privacy is a fundamental human right.” Companies have a duty toward humans on the other side of the screen, to build a product that they can love and trust.

Cover photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash.

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