🔬 Research summary contributed by Muriam Fancy, our Network Engagement Manager.
[Link to original paper + authors at the bottom]
Overview: The responsibility of ethics owners is to navigate challenging ethical circumstances with technical tools to manage and work within the tech company infrastructure. The report highlights the main findings from an ethnographic study of how professionals navigate ethical dilemmas in tech companies. The report highlights the importance of navigating systems of governance and complex company structure while pushing forward the agenda of justice and anti-oppression to support individuals and communities who need to be seen and heard for a more ethical future.
The questions and concerns that tech companies receive from the public are important and significant. However, tech companies’ ability to effectively receive and hopefully address concerns raised by the public require individuals who bring forward ethical frameworks in cross-divisional teams. Ethics owners span across companies in various roles and hierarchal positions, but they need to have ethics owners is undoubtedly there. The report gathered main findings from completing ethnographic observations and a series of interviews with ethics owners in Silicon Valley to disseminate their role and practices better.
The Challenge of Owning Ethics
With the challenges tech companies face, there is a clear need and gap to implement ethics frameworks into cross-divisional teams within the company. Companies themselves have tried to own their approach to ethics, which has influenced an ethics owner’s role. However, ethics owners can also be found to understand and implement ethics independently of the company.
However, ethics owners’ primary responsibilities are creating processes, tools, and policies to address ethical circumstances within the corporate infrastructure directly. These mechanisms are meant to be important for various teams across the company. Most notably, ethics owners question product designs and development to better understand the product’s impact in civil society, within the company, and greater structural implications in society.
Despite the importance and need for ethic owners, they face unequivocal challenges as part of their role. For instance, the ethics owner’s role description and title in tech companies vary and thus pose a barrier to understanding their role within companies. As role placement within governed structures ultimately dictates status. Another challenge presented is that there is no singular framework of ethics, the meaning of ethics is evolving and is multifaceted.
Ethics in Industry: Existing Frameworks and Methods
As mentioned above, creating principles or tools to implement or guide ethical practices is a living challenge for ethics owners. The frameworks of ethics that ethic owners can draw upon are diverse but can be distilled to be focused on business and professional ethics and research ethics (specifically for human subjects). However, what defines ethics in the technology industry can be rooted in various frameworks depending on the product, service, or company.
The report presents a few ethical frameworks that ethic owners can pull from as part of implementing ethical practices in their company. Ethical frameworks include:
- Medical research ethics can bridge scientific research practices and the role of regulation of these practices for human subjects and, therefore, are forced to face their practices’ moral implications.
- Business ethics can aid in understanding how to manage operating systems and implement values systemically.
- Professional ethics includes practices and frameworks from the engineering and computing industry which can be applied in various tech companies.
When ethics owners review these frameworks and practices, they can create statements of principles and codes of ethics. The two documents are very different, but both serve an important purpose—a statement of principles reviews an organization’s responsibilities and commitments, which can be public-facing. In contrast, a code of ethics is specifically meant to dictate internal conduct and a level of professionalism.
Other tools and methods that support the implementation and ideation of ethical frameworks are ethics review boards, development lifecycle tools, and other forms of corporate organizing such as development methodologies. All while ethics owners are keeping in mind the importance of metrics and other development methodologies to measure risk and harm in technology design and deployment.
Foundational Assumptions in Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley has developed their own working culture, which has cultivated very particular working practices. Distilling these working practices requires working in this environment, which dictates how class, gender, and race exist in this space. The report has effectively distilled three important assumptions for ethics owners to consider, including meritocracy, technological solutionism, and market fundamentalism. Ethics owners have faced various barriers in navigating these three assumptions as part of practices in Silicon Valley.
Meritocracy has allowed individuals to claim power and authority in multiple domains due to being authoritative in one domain. An example of how this would manifest as a barrier to promote equality and commit to some form of foresight of the risks of and harm of the product is realizing that technical teams do not effectively represent the diversity of individuals that can be impacted by the development of the technology. There is a lack of racial, geographic, class, and gender diversity in technical teams.
Technological solutionism demonstrates how many view technology and building “better” technology as a primary solution to many problems. Ethnics owners are forced to help explain to their company that a technological solution cannot address an issue’s multifaceted implications.
Finally, market fundamentalism assumes that the market determines which ethical frameworks can be implements and which cannot be. The idea that the market can dictate ethics forces ethics owners to advocate for ethical practices in organizational interventions that may slow or bar the process from bringing a product to market.
The report presents six tensions that ethics owners highlighted where ethics must be implements and how the solution to address these six tensions might counter the generalized solutions applied to these tensions. The tensions that are presented are:
- Personal ethics and corporate duties: ethics owners have to balance their personal and business ethics when navigating Silicon Valley spaces.
- Upside Benefits, Downside Risks: ethics owners are positioned well to advocate for a solution that mitigates harms from a product vs. advocating for changes in product design that can benefit users.
- Direct to Consumer, Business to Business: ethics owners work molded by their company business model, so developing standard practices may not be relevant for differing business models.
- Measurable and Nonmeasurable Impacts: measuring the impact of tech’s ethical practices and tracking successful interventions is a challenge for ethics owners.
- Users, Nonusers: ethics owners must know the widespread implications of the social impact of the products their company is deploying and the impact of users and non-users.
- Specificity, generalizability: ethics owners are challenges in scaling their methodologies beyond their given context.
The report finalizes by presenting the last section on opportunities for ethics owners to address some of the tensions mentioned above and other gaps in the space and field that they have recognized and wish to address. Such opportunities include case studies, informal meetings, partnerships, and outreach, and accountability and engagement.
In conclusion, the report finds ethics owners face unparallel barriers and challenges in the space. Although these challenges may continue to persist, the way ethics owners can navigate the space and the challenges that accompany it can continue to change and ease their work. Implementing diverse methodologies and communicating beyond their company are just ways to challenge the normative frameworks and assumptions in Silicon Valley.
Original paper by Emanuel Moss, Jacob Metcalf: https://datasociety.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Ethics-Owners_20200923-DataSociety.pdf