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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Google, Facebook and Other Big Tech companies Need to Play Their Position

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Ann Skeet

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This article was originally published in MarketWatch on April 12, 2019.

Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center of Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

A recent example of Big Tech mistakes is the decision by Alphabet’s Google to disband an external artificial intelligence (AI) ethics council just 10 days after its formation. Prompted by employee outcry about the inclusion of people with conservative views, Google decided to pull the plug before the controversy picked up even more steam.

Many see this as a victory and a good move by Google, particularly when compared to choices other tech companies are making while under great scrutiny from customers, employees, shareholders, and regulators. For example, VentureBeat compared the Google decision against Amazon's decision to keep selling its Rekognition facial software, even with its identified biases against women and people of color.  “Disbanding an external advisory council after 10 days is a bad look. Fighting with shareholders, researchers, and the SEC is worse,” the VentureBeat article said, supporting Google’s decision over Amazon’s.

I disagree.  Neither decision is stellar, but deciding the merits of those decisions based on how bad it looks is not a high enough bar. Google should continue to search for ways to gather people with diverse perspectives to inform its thinking, in spite of the outcry from its employees — something I have advocated before.

How did Google, a company founded on the principle of “Do No Evil” two decades ago, end up here? Because they got out of position. Playing one’s position is a sports analogy about using the rules of the game and its strategies to guide your actions. When you play your position, you are doing the best you can for your team. It’s an apt analogy for questions around ethical leadership.

The error Google made here happened long ago. Reportedly, employees have opined on political matters using Google’s internal messaging tools, converting the corporate cafeteria into the public square. In doing so, Google, as a company, got out of position. This is not a municipality; it’s a corporation with restraints imposed by law and societal norms – otherwise known as ethics. 

Discussing religion and politics in the office has long been taboo — for good reason. These are topics for private life.  People of all persuasions, not just political conservatives, suffer if they feel their private choices are shut down in the workplace, be it their decision to transition genders, vote for certain candidates, or attend certain places of worship.

Being an employee should not require you to give up the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution and at the ballot box, including the right to disagree politically with co-workers.

Google’s effort at internal regulation contrasts sharply with Facebook’s call for increased government regulation of the internet and internet companies. At least Facebook is acknowledging its fundamental conflict in regulating itself. We have seen tragic outcomes from self-regulation, notably Boeing’s attempt to evaluate its manufacturing of the Max 737 aircraft rather than be measured by outside entities. Checks and balances, which work so well in government, are equally important in the corporate world.

It may be hard for companies to give the power to choose their product development to third parties, but letting regulators provide checks on corporate decision-making makes sense if those regulators reflect the diversity of the constituents they represent. Increasingly, we see growing diversity in elected and appointed officials, a positive trend and one that should strengthen future ethical decision-making.

Companies that are worming their way into all facets of our lives should remember this, whether they are deciding which products to produce or how best to support their employees.  Facebook is considering building housing for its employees. Walmart is selecting which doctors its employees can see. Several companies have announced initiatives to build affordable housing for teachers.

There might be some merit found in all of these considerations, but they are ill-advised. Each of these examples move companies further out of position and into the domain that elected legislators should fulfill.

If you are fired from Facebook, will you want to live around other Facebook employees? If the doctor Walmart chooses makes a mistake that kills your loved one, what will returning to work feel like?  If your company builds housing for teachers but you are married to an underpaid firefighter, sanitation work, or county employee, how will you feel about the companies’ choice to support teachers?

Companies provide a means for people to earn enough money to sustain themselves. Companies also can make products that meet genuine customer needs, and do so in a way that benefits the planet. These aspects can be intrinsic elements of the almighty shareholder value companies are asked to pursue according to today’s outdated corporate law. These laws should be updated to acknowledge the myriad ways shareholder value is influenced, and to reflect this tenet of ethical leadership: Society works best when we all play our position.

Apr 15, 2019

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