New Ethics Code Urges Tech Firms and Coders To Avoid Harming Society
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calls on computer professionals to be honest and trustworthy. In addition to avoiding false claims about their products, they should avoid “fabricating or falsifying data,” and other dishonest conduct.
Also, Gotterbarn says, company leaders and programmers should ask themselves, “Should I facilitate things that are bad for society?”
“The code answers that question a thousand times,” Gotterbarn says. “No, I should not.”
The new ethics code urges companies and individual staffers to reduce the ill effects of technologies they send into the world—and, when that can’t be done, to refrain from marketing some products.
Underlying all the provisions of the ACM code is a first principle that remains the same as in 1992—that the primary obligation of all computer professionals is to “to use their skills for the benefit of society, its members, and the environment surrounding them.”
In that call for dedication to the common good, ACM aims to put computer workers on par with other professionals who are subject to the particular ethical codes of their fields—including doctors, lawyers, educators, the clergy, and journalists. IEEE’s code of ethics also calls on its members to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”
The ACM code is not meant to be a comprehensive list of choices to make, obligations to fulfill, and behaviors to avoid, Gotterbarn says. New circumstances will create unprecedented challenges.
To help companies and tech workers apply the ethical code’s principles, ACM is launching its “Integrity Project,” which will include case studies about particular ethical dilemmas, and an “Ask an Ethicist” advice column where technology workers and leaders can pose specific questions.
If its members violate the code, what will the association do?
Under the 1992 code, Gotterbarn says, some members were disciplined or expelled for ethical violations. “It didn’t happen a lot,” he says. But the ACM’s aim now is to enter into a dialogue with companies and individuals, to help them think through their decisions and remediate any harm they might have caused.
“We’ll talk to you about it,” Gotterbarn says. However, a recalcitrant organization that lets a staffer continue to bully people at a conference might not be invited back, for example. Mainly, the association wants its code to become an influential part of the “ethical ambience” of the tech industry.
Gotterbarn sees positive signs that tech professionals are thinking about the societal impact of their work, even to the extent of advocating for the rejection of lucrative contracts. He points to an April walkout of thousands of Google employees who urged the giant tech company to withdraw from a Pentagon program, Project Maven, that might have used Google’s expertise in artificial intelligence to better steer military drone strikes, as The New York Times reported.
“If you think you can separate ethics from technology, you’re mistaken,” Gotterbarn says. “Every line of code we write is an ethical decision.”