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Who's responsible for tech industry ethics?

The folks behind Santa Clara University's Internet ethics program aren't waiting around to find out.
Getting programmers thinking about more than just writing code.

Getting programmers thinking about more than just writing code. Credit: slworking2/Flickr

Consider Mike, father of three.

He’s been working two jobs for years so he can afford to send his kids to college. And it’s paying off. Sarah, the first-born, is packing for her freshman year when Mike’s bank informs him that a “software glitch” has effectively disappeared the deposit he sent to the college admissions office to secure Sarah’s place. The bank promises to restore the funds as soon as it completes an investigation into the glitch, but that will take weeks. Without an alternative source of money, Mike doesn’t pay the deposit and Sarah doesn’t start college in the fall.

That’s one of the case studies explored in the software engineering ethics coursework available online through the Internet Ethics program at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The university hopes that the program materials, which are available for free online, will help create a set of ethical standards to guide the tech industry. The case studies, along with classroom exercises, readings and, of course, homework are designed to inform students and get them talking about the ethical issues they’re likely to face if they choose careers in tech.

The Internet Ethics website is a curated clearinghouse for articles, links, databases and commentaries (in text and video) that explore ethical quandaries. The piece on Girls Around Me, the thankfully short-lived scanner app that turns your town into a dating paradise!" is a cautionary tale whose moral is this: Just because programmers can build something doesn’t mean they should.

The need to inject a little ethical perspective into the world of software development has grown more urgent in the post-Snowden era. “There’s been a lot of talk about the buzz phrase ‘privacy by design,’” says Irina Raicu, Director of the Markkula Center’s three-year-old Internet Ethics Program (and author of the Girls Around Me commentary).Rather than put a product out and try to fix [any bugs] later, privacy is supposed to be baked into the product. So who’s doing that baking? It’s the software engineers.”

Alas, when Raicu (below) and company began looking into the ethics training available for aspiring techies they found it “pretty limited,” she says. And almost entirely off topic.

The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) adopted formal ethical standards back in 1946. But those standards, and most engineering ethics curricula focus on fatal hardware fails: the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, the leak at Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, India, those fire-prone Ford Pintos. "Software engineers build lines of code . . .,” not compact cars or chemical plants, notes SCU philosophy professor Shannon Vallor, in the Software Engineering Ethics module she wrote for the program. The goal of SCU’s Internet Ethics venture is to help the relatively young field of software engineering catch up on the ethics front.

The program’s materials target university students. “They use all this [digital media] as if they’re breathing air, but there weren’t resources directed at them,” says Raicu. The teaching modules and other content are being used at 21 colleges and universities, including schools in India and Uganda. They cover topics such as net neutrality, the great access divide (who has high-speed service and who doesn’t) and the gender skew when it comes to who’s designing digital products.

Raicu is also watching the way tech companies treat their employees and engage with their communities. The disparity in how some software firms treat workers raises questions of fairness. Killer perks lavished on programmers don’t always accrue to a company’s janitors, security guards or cafeteria workers — an oversight, says Raicu, that “really creates two different societies” within the same firm.

And let’s face it: Tech professionals don’t always lead with their sensitive sides, which compels many non-tech professionals to dismiss them as a bunch of overpaid, know-it-all jerks in hoodies. Last year’s tone-deaf Facebook rant about homeless people from a Bay Area tech CEO did little to rehabilitate the industry’s image. “Companies need to be a bit more modest and willing to listen,” says Raicu. “They need to recognize that tech isn’t always the answer, but they do have the resources to do so much good.”


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Jun 15, 9:28 a.m. Inappropriate

"Mike" needs a new bank.

Posted Sun, Jun 15, 9:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Tech companies need to branch out and have offices with employees in more rural areas.

The GMA has focused so much growth into King County that it becomes one-dimensional, while the rural counties of Washington State become more and more depressed as jobs that formerly existed no longer exist.

When employers have workers in India, they certainly can handle workers in an outlying County ...

Ethics? Ethics start at home.

Posted Wed, Jun 18, 11:34 a.m. Inappropriate

What? Rural poverty increases have absolutely nothing to do with the GMA. It has to do with the decline of resource extraction industries (timber, coal, minerals) and the flocking of young people to where the jobs are - which is the urban core. This is a nationwide, no, worldwide trend.

So if Forks didn't have an URB it would be the next tech center? Or North Bend, or Snoqualmie? That's just plain silly. Employers set up where there is decent infrastructure and transportation, a pool of educated employees, and places where those employees want to live - which is generally in the Seattle-Bellevue-Redmond area.

Issaquah has a UGA, as does Ellensburg, Yakima, Mt. Vernon, and Olympia. These areas can grow as much as they would like to as long as it stays in the UGA, or they can increase their UGA if the demand is there. So I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about when you say the GMA is the driver of rural demographics and jobs.

Treker

Posted Wed, Jun 18, 11:59 p.m. Inappropriate

UGA's are not for "grow as much as they like", it's not that simple to grow into a UGA.

The Growth Management Act really is a problem, and it is the driver of rural demographics that do not create jobs.

Crack cocaine, meth and heroin are rampant problems in our rural Washington State counties because there really are no jobs.

Increasing an areas UGA does nothing to create jobs.

But hey, it's ok for you to ostrich into the Seattle sand and pretend all is healthy in the hinterlands.

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