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Ethics and tech – a double-edged sword

Just because a business activity is legal doesn’t mean it will be acceptable to customers, as the ethical debates in tech are proving

In light of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal and the ongoing questions raised over Facebook’s use of customer data, never before has the ethics of technology and business been such a fierce topic of debate. But why is it dominating so much of the discussion about the operation of tech companies and what is the other side of the story?

“Never before in history have such a small number of designers – a handful of young, mostly male engineers, living in the Bay of California, working at a handful of tech companies – had such a large influence on two billion people’s thoughts and choices,” said Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist.

Consider this: 400 hours of video content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. How would we feel if we were suddenly told that what we upload would no longer be instantly available to our friends and followers but instead would have to go through an extensive scrutiny process before being accepted or rejected in two weeks’ time?

It is no coincidence that public awareness and concern around the ethical actions of tech companies is becoming so pronounced at a time when we are seeing heightened demands and expectations in relation to freedom of speech.

A major reason for the popularity of websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter is the freedom they give us to express our individuality to the world at large. They allow us to connect with others like us, to create groups and events specific to our interests and hobbies, and they facilitate this by asking us to provide ever-more specific data. No one is forcing us to give up this data – we choose to do so because we want a more personalised experience from the companies we engage with.

The problem is that in the quest to provide a more personalised service, tech companies have to achieve a balance between giving us what we actually want and giving us what they think we want.

This is not necessarily about large tech companies harvesting our data to make money through advertising – although that is part of it. It is often an attempt to pre-empt our desires and keep us engaged. The problem is that we, as consumers, aren’t always ready to receive the latest service they want to offer.

Well-meaning or over-reaching?

What we end up with is a battle between a desire for freedom in our online interactions, and and better ways to do it, countered by concern when the data we provide isn’t used in exactly the way we expected.

That is not to say that there aren’t companies using our data for malicious purposes, but it is about recognising that sometimes what a company thinks is well-meaning is actually over-reaching.

What complicates all of this further, for today’s multibillion-pound tech companies, is that the expectations of individual users vary from country to country. In the same way that different generations in the UK find different things acceptable, we see differences across borders.

The ethical line has to be reassessed for each and every country, and expectations are in a constant state of flux. Tech companies must constantly monitor the atmosphere in each nation and adapt accordingly. What may be tolerated as free speech or seen as an acceptable way of collecting and using data in the UK is not necessarily the same as it is in India, and vice-versa.

And with the nature of the internet, it is not as simple as not importing a certain product to a certain place. The lines are blurred.

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Big corporations can no longer afford to ignore ethics in their decision-making. Customers expect a higher level of social capital from the companies they deal with and this can have a big effect on whether those companies succeed or fail.

This is not a new conundrum specific to tech – remember the UK hearings relating to tax avoidance, which included the likes of Starbucks as well as Google. What accountants were advising their clients wasn’t illegal. The creative schemes they came up with were allowed under UK law – but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the way they were dealing with tax was seen by the public and the media as immoral and unethical.

Organisations must think beyond the black-and-white letter of the law. In the current climate, this means saying: “Yes, this is legal, but I don’t necessarily think it is going to be viewed as socially acceptable.”

Gone are the days when the excuse “but it is legal” will wash with the media, the government and the public at large.

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