A recent article in the Pacific Standard magazine makes the case that software engineers need a dose of ethics when it comes to designing their applications. Its easy to insist that everyone perform ethically in their endeavors but the reality is that the only practical method of enforcing ethical behavior in capitalist economies is through regulation and even then that doesn’t always work. Its important for everyone to practice ethical behavior, but in a competitive environment the cheaters will always have a comparative advantage. The old adage that nice guys finish last holds true without some outside force that punishes unethical behavior.
I can’t think of a better example than doping/cheating controversies in professional sports. Without the regulatory environment that includes regular drug testing we would still heralding the accomplishments of Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds. Lance’s titles have been stripped and he has returned his medals and while Barry Bonds’ records may never be revoked but there will always be an asterisk next to them. The recent cheating scandal in the last Race for the Chase for NASCAR show that when the rules are ambiguous or absent normally honorable men will try to find an unfair advantage, especially when the stakes are high. NASCAR’s response to the “cheating” scandal was only tangentially about providing justice to the teams involved but mostly about restoring the integrity of the sport.
The only significant piece of ethical regulation for information technology is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Passed with bipartisan support, because what politician wants to be shamed not standing up for children, it is the only significant piece of legislation aimed at protecting the privacy of individuals from the massive data collection capabilities of modern interconnected software systems. And this legislation was passed fifteen years ago, well before the rise of Google and the advent of the sophisticated data tracking and mining systems we have in place today. While it has it’s flaws it provides a basis of assurance that web sites, especially sites aimed at children, are designed with the safety and privacy of children in mind.
This new information age we live in is really just getting started and we are just beginning to lay the foundation of the regulatory environment that will arise from our stumbling along this path. Anti-cyber-bullying legislation has been passed in many states and shows the progress we are making in understanding and addressing these issues since COPPA was passed. We all need protection from trolls, bullies and stalkers online and we need companies to behave ethically with the information that we share with them. Establishing rules and mechanisms for detecting and punishing unethical behavior will not eliminate it entirely but no one can seriously doubt their usefulness. Expecting individual entrepreneurs and their implementers to abide by amorphous social needs in a highly competitive environment is simply not going to work. The rules must be spelled out and everyone must be required to follow them. To do otherwise is unethical towards both the developers and their users. If you don’t like what companies are doing with your information don’t complain to the programmers, complain to your congressperson.