July 10, 2020
The Web is Being Polluted by Capital
I believe that the internet should be a freely available utility for all people. In its purest form, the internet is the technology that enables the web - a portal through which every global citizen can access the totality of human knowledge for free. Insantaneous free access to knowledge is the clearest facilitator of education we have witnessed since the invention of the printing press, and should be embraced as a tool for course-correcting centuries of global inequality deliberately inflicted by the restriction of knowledge to elite groups. When corrupted by the financial allure of centralization, the internet becomes a platform for exploitation and manipulation of the least privileged members of society. My personal aspiration is to act in some way to reverse the trend toward this reality.
Stop Helping Them
I am greatly concerned about the consolidation of corporate control over the underlying physical infrastructure and technical implementation that powers the web. As a software developer, I am deeply troubled that many of my peers are forced by financial necessity to work for organizations which are actively destroying the vision of the open web so many of us share. For this reason, I have taken an ethical stance to remove myself from the process of building a user-hostile web - I refuse to work for typical Silicon Valley companies who place shareholder value over social responsibility; I will no longer build infrastructure for any arm of the military industrial complex, nor will I assist in the colonization of the web for the wealthy. I urge my peers who are in similar positions of privilege to join me in this pledge.
We deserve to spend our engineering talent working for organizations that create meaningful, accessible products & services without cannibalizing the society which enabled them to grow in the first place. The world will be a better place when engineers are poised to solve the immediate crises of our time - climate instability, discriminatory allocation of housing & food, and the hijacking of computer networks to enable state-sponsored surveillance and propaganda. You are not responsible for the circumstance you are born into, but you are the only one with the power to get out.
IEEE Computer Society Code of Ethics
For starters, let’s take a look at the Code of Ethics from a prominent professional society within one of the largest (and oldest) computing organizations in the world - The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Computer Society! The preamble begins below:
Computers have a central and growing role in commerce, industry, government, medicine, education, entertainment and society at large. Software engineers are those who contribute by direct participation or by teaching, to the analysis, specification, design, development, certification, maintenance and testing of software systems. Because of their roles in developing software systems, software engineers have significant opportunities to do good or cause harm, to enable others to do good or cause harm, or to influence others to do good or cause harm. To ensure, as much as possible, that their efforts will be used for good, software engineers must commit themselves to making software engineering a beneficial and respected profession. In accordance with that commitment, software engineers shall adhere to the following Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. IEEE CS
I’d like to highlight the inclusion of the line “To ensure…that their efforts will be used for good, software engineers must commit themselves to making software engineering a beneficial and respected profession” as by now it has become clear to the average citizen that we as an industry are quite far from this goal. Facebook harvests your data to sell hypertargeted ads - discrimination laws be damned, Google is courting China with political censorship, Amazon ignores the health and safety of its warehouse workers during a global pandemic, and virtually every major social network is laden with state-sponsored propaganda.
Is this because software engineers lean libertarian or simply have a laissez-faire attitude toward technology’s impact on society? No. While I believe the responsibility lies with us engineers, the Big Tech oligarchs (and their profit-driven boards) are at ultimately at fault. The leader of an organization sets the tone for every member below them, and for the entirety of my life, massive corporate giants have pushed knowledge workers to the precipice of treason in the name of infinite growth, feeding their egos with mission statements to “change the world”, disguising the chance to architect platforms of oppression as those of expression, and numerous other forms of tactful misdirection.
What follows this paragraph is a list of 8 principles that IEEE CS suggests embody the spirit of ethical software development. Critically, the first responsbility we have is to the public interest!
PUBLIC – Software engineers shall act consistently with the public interest.
CLIENT AND EMPLOYER – Software engineers shall act in a manner that is in the best interests of their client and employer consistent with the public interest.
PRODUCT – Software engineers shall ensure that their products and related modifications meet the highest professional standards possible.
JUDGMENT – Software engineers shall maintain integrity and independence in their professional judgment.
MANAGEMENT – Software engineering managers and leaders shall subscribe to and promote an ethical approach to the management of software development and maintenance.
PROFESSION – Software engineers shall advance the integrity and reputation of the profession consistent with the public interest.
COLLEAGUES – Software engineers shall be fair to and supportive of their colleagues.
SELF – Software engineers shall participate in lifelong learning regarding the practice of their profession and shall promote an ethical approach to the practice of the profession.
Public interest is priority number one, above employers and product and even self. If you are a user of the proprietary platforms mentioned above, ask yourself whether their leadership (Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, etc) has ever acted in the public interest. If you can find an example, consider that good deed against the backdrop of violations - in some cases the total subversion of democracy - and drop me a line at email@example.com.
Code of Ethics: IEEE Computer Society. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.computer.org/education/code-of-ethics Copyright © 1999 by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. and the Association for Computing Machinery, Inc.
Day, M. (2020, June 5). Amazon’s heavily automated HR leaves workers in sick-leave limbo amid coronavirus crisis. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/business/amazons-heavily-automated-hr-leaves-workers-in-sick-leave-limbo-amid-coronavirus-crisis/
Hern, A. (2017, June 19). Facebook and Twitter are being used to manipulate public opinion – report. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/19/social-media-proganda-manipulating-public-opinion-bots-accounts-facebook-twitter
Kao, J., & Li, M. S. (n.d.). How China Built a Twitter Propaganda Machine Then Let It Loose on Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.propublica.org/article/how-china-built-a-twitter-propaganda-machine-then-let-it-loose-on-coronavirus
Vincent, J. (2020, May 26). YouTube is deleting comments with two phrases that insult China’s Communist Party. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2020/5/26/21270290/youtube-deleting-comments-censorship-chinese-communist-party-ccp