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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Practical New Resource for Tech Ethics

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Materials for ethics training workshops in tech companies

Shannon Vallor, Irina Raicu, and Brian Green

Shannon Vallor is the Regis and Dianne McKenna Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Santa Clara University. Irina Raicu and Brian Green are the directors of the Internet Ethics program and the Technology Ethics program, respectively, at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are their own.

Technologists and technology companies are under increasing public pressure to demonstrate greater ethical care in their product design, development, deployment, and marketing practices. They are being asked to be more ethically aware of their impact on their users, social institutions, and third parties who have not purchased their products but may be affected by them anyway. And, increasingly, technology companies are recognizing that this requires more than mission statements about “technology for social good” and the sincere good intentions of everyone involved. What’s required is a culture of sustainable ethical practice and iterative ethical skill-building.

Last year, The Atlantic published a piece by one of us, titled Rethinking Ethics Training in Silicon Valley. It was, more than anything else, a call to action. Since then, we’ve decided to play a part in responding to that call ourselves.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics recently issued a compendium of materials on which the three of us collaborated: Ethics in Technology Practice. This new resource provides an overview that clarifies what we mean when we talk about “tech ethics”; relevant frameworks for ethical decision-making; seven concise case studies; an ethical toolkit for integrating consideration of ethics throughout product development; a sample workflow integration of the tools; a list of best practices in technology design and engineering; and more.

The resources compiled in Ethics in Technology Practice are intended for use in (and as follow-ups to) ethics training workshops within tech companies. Such workshops, we hope, will have several key outcomes: the removal of misconceptions about ethics; improved fluency and comfort among participants in the use of ethical concepts and frameworks; exposure to the practice of ethical analysis through focused case studies; and open discussion of challenges and opportunities for ethical practice. The ultimate goal is the integration of ethical practices as an essential component of successful product development.

The materials are free and available under a Creative Commons license. The project was funded with support from the Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab. We are grateful to the Omidyar Network team, as well as to all the people who joined us and provided feedback as some of the content underwent pilot testing in a workshop at X (formerly Google X).

We recognize that people working within companies might customize some of these materials to make them directly applicable to the particular contexts of their organizations’ products and practices—and we look forward to hearing from those who will use them. We would also appreciate feedback from any tech ethicists and practitioners who review the new compendium.

After all, the rethinking of ethics training programs and the development of effective materials to support them are iterative processes, as well.

 Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, used under a Creative Commons license.

Aug 15, 2018

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