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The ethical use of technology. A provocation by Christine Jakobson

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

Christine Jakobson joined us for Hattusia’s November Meet Up to discuss the challenges of creating policies for ethical use. This write-up has been done by the Hattusia team on the basis of Christine’s talk.

Ethical use of technology

We invite our speakers to give a short provocation on any topic relating to tech ethics. These provocations are not intended to be polished ideas, but instead should be viewed as an insight into the speaker’s mind. They should offer you inspiration and avenues for exploration, not a strategic plan and direction for your team and company.

Ethics for technology: different applications and methodologies depending on the organisation ‘level’

Ethics in tech is in an embryonic state. Although the discipline and methodology of philosophy and ethics is thousands of years old, it is relatively new to translate these practices of working into a modern commercial firm. One of the innovations that ethics practitioners and professionals are working towards is a good way to embed ethics into the organisation's structure.

Which brings us into Christine’s provocation. She began by making a distinction between the work that should be done at the organisation level, the development level and the deployment level.

The organisational level sets the normative purpose of the company and develops strong values for the company to abide by. This is a top-down method of organising company culture and works to ensure that a great precedent is set by all management level staff. This level focuses on the culture of the organisation, helping people throughout the company to make decisions driven by ethics and understanding how to navigate ethical grey areas.

The development level is more granular. The ‘responsible business team’ is tasked with helping each department interpret these values to make coherent decisions about their products, operations, and strategic direction. This includes a curriculum programme for training people in ethical frameworks and consequence scanning.

The deployment level concerns the ethical use of a product. How will your products be used by your clients? Who will you work with? What will your ‘acceptable use policy’ (AUP) look like and how do you ensure that it is principle-based?

The AUP stipulates by who and how a product can be used. They should be robust, comprehensive and principle-based. It is wise to include answers to pressing ethical questions of the day. The fundamental purpose of AUPs is to prohibit unacceptable uses of the product and include actions you can take when another company is using your product in a way that contravenes the AUP.

Ethical principles to build your acceptable use policy

When choosing your ethical framework for building an effective AUP, you can either use pre-existing frameworks, build your own or hire someone to help you tailor the right framework to your company.

No matter which framework you will use or build, human rights should always be a red line. If a company has violated, or can be reasonably believed to violate human rights in the future, then you should not work with them.

Other areas for consideration:

Safety – will your client guarantee the safe use of their product and protect the safety of its users?

Privacy – does the client ensure their customers’ privacy is maintained and have strong guardrails in place to protect against privacy violations?

Transparency - does the client have a history of being secretive? Have they got a culture of being open and transparent with all their stakeholders?

Accountability - does the client have a robust system of accountability? Or do they have a history of flouting national or international norms?

Who and what should one consider in acceptable use policies?

Christine suggested five buckets for considering a wide range of potential clients…

  • Government departments

  • Potentially problematic companies in your own jurisdiction

  • Foreign actors

  • Groups and communities

  • Use cases

What action should be taken?

The likelihood of egregious harm, serious ethical misconduct, and other risks require different ethical guardrails and different actions.

Some harms are so severe that the risks posed by them should be enough to prohibit them in an AUP. For example, contracting with the Department of Defense may be prohibited because of the likelihood that they will use the technology for military purposes, which can lead to direct harm. However, other actors may be involved in activities that are objectionable, even if their use of your technology isn’t. So you should outline an appropriate response to this situation too.

Depending on the client and any potential violations of an AUP, you will deploy a different action. Some considerations for determining the right course of action may include: ‘causal proximity’ (how close or distant a violation is to your product), scale and/or severity.

Depending on the outcome of this analysis, one can choose, from among other options, to maintain a contract, compensate through donations, communicate one’s position on a certain issue, or to terminate the contract.

What are some solutions to getting it right?

Christine offered the following steps to get ethical use policies right in your organisation. These are all relevant steps, so although she suggests starting with a ‘purpose beyond profit’, any of them would be a good place to start. We know that achieving ‘purpose beyond profit’ is very difficult in larger organisations.

Christine stressed the importance to continuously evaluate and monitor the ethical use of products, as this is not a single event but an ongoing process. In addition, a collective speak-up culture to voice ethical concerns and put pressure on senior leaders to enforce ethical frameworks even if it means to sacrifice the profit of some contracts and the building of coalitions amongst tech companies

Further discussion points

Perhaps you’d like to use this provocation to have a group discussion. Here are some starter points…

  1. Would you add any other ‘buckets’ to the slide on ‘who and what should one consider in AUPs’? Why?

  2. How might you expand the scale for direct action?

  3. What might prevent you setting up an AUP?

  4. Can you see circumstances in which the ruling of the AUP is overruled? How would you combat this?

Hattusia Community Meet Ups

To attend another meet up please visit our community page. On the 14th January we will host Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Full Slides

Bio: Christine is an ethics researcher and consultant. Christine is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge where her research is at the intersection of aesthetics, moral and political philosophy. She is also a senior ethics consultant at Principia Advisory where she advises clients across Silicon Valley, international banking and top-tier global professional services on culture, responsible innovation and ethical use. Most recently, Christine has teamed up with Mozilla Foundation to publish the US Elections 2020: Platform Policy Tracker, analysing six major tech companies' approach to misinformation in the lead up to the US election.

Twitter: @c_jakobson


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