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Communications of the ACM

ACM Opinion

Computing Ethics Are a Board Concern

When company directors play a constructive role in fostering the ethical development and use of technology, they establish that the company's commitment begins with the board and extends throughout the company.

Credit: Directors and Boards

In businesses large and small, the interplay of technology and ethics brings together a modern phenomenon with an ancient obligation. "Every company is now a technology company" is an oft-repeated catchphrase of our digital age. At the same time, the maxim to "be ethical" in business is as old as the bartering that took place in ancient societies.

When company directors play a constructive role in fostering the ethical development and use of technology, they establish that the company's commitment begins with the board and extends throughout the company.

Responsibility for a company's use of technology no longer begins and ends with the chief information officer. It now extends up through the C-suite and to the corporate board. It is incumbent that directors understand the technologies being developed and used by their employees. Identifying the potential consequences, both intended and unintended, of new technology and understanding the ethical responsibility that comes with those consequences is a company-wide endeavor. There are resources to help those at the upper levels who don't deal with technology on a day-to-day basis.

Stories of ethical lapses, or perceived ethical lapses, in how companies develop and use technology have dominated media headlines in recent years.

Could any of these problems have been avoided? How can corporate boards effectively foster a culture of computing and technology ethics and provide better oversight to their management teams and employees?

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), a worldwide professional association for the computing industry, offers five important recommendations that serve as a starting point for directors concerned with keeping people at their companies on the path to practicing good computing ethics.   

  1. Ensure there is a specific "computing/technology code of ethics," in addition to the overall "code of conduct," at your organization. The power of computing and technology is so great that it requires its own set of guardrails to ensure that impacts of both its proper use and its improper use are well understood.  Many codes of conduct focus on specific actions that directors or employees engage in. They often do not account for advances in computing technology, nor the significance of computing ethics. In 2018, as ACM updated its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, members of the worldwide computing profession were its focus. However, the ACM Code of Ethics applies to every employee who has responsibility for developing or leading the development of computing technology. This universal code of ethics, understood broadly, is considered the gold standard for the computing profession. It is used as a reference in computing ethics-focused university courses, and has played a role in legal proceedings. The ACM Code of Ethics starts with the understanding that the public good is the primary consideration in ethical decision making. It has 25 principles, each with guidance for people in all levels of an organization as they consider the ethical impacts of their work.
  2. Communication is key. Ethics only works when everyone is on board. In the course of their work, computing professionals can be pulled in many different directions, and often are responding to requests from their superiors and possibly clients. They may be asked to create technology systems that increase a company's profits, help gain intelligence on competing firms, or leverage personal information of customers in order to influence their buying decisions. By engaging with their employees in the dialog that is essential to good ethical practice, the C-suite can leverage their employees' knowledge and understanding of the technology, as well as their ethical prowess, and create products and processes that are consistent with company values.  Directors and boards that clearly and consistently practice and communicate those values and the primacy of computing ethics with the C-suite, ensure that this message becomes part of the daily operations at every level of the organization.  
    In this vein, employees must also feel there are avenues within the company where they can go to raise a concern or file a complaint about potential ethical violations. Boards must help create an ethos wherein employees raise ethical concerns as a matter of course and without fear of retribution.
  3. Understand that navigating computing ethics isn't easy and is an ongoing process. The constant emergence of new technologies can make rapid ethical decision making difficult. Any computing/technology code of ethics that is principle-based has the flexibility to be applied to different scenarios. Some view a code of ethics the same way one views an employee handbook or policy manual, with a black-and-white set of "do's and don'ts."  The ACM Code of Ethics identifies maintaining proficiency in the practice of ethical reflection and analysis as part of a computing professional's responsibility. When the Code is adopted by an organization, it then applied from the boardroom to the breakroom. Computing innovation has been so rapid that corporate directors may not be able to predict the kinds of technologies that will be introduced in as little as five or ten years from now. Few were predicting in 1992--the last time ACM's Code of Ethics was updated--the sorts of impacts that social media would have in the world. Many were just coming to understand the World Wide Web and few were contemplating just how smartphones would change their business models.   
  4. Respecting privacy is a bedrock principle of computing ethics. While the C-suite may have a data-driven mindset, boards needs to be cognizant that privacy is paramount and missteps here can have serious repercussions. The ubiquitous nature of computing technology has created numerous ethical gray areas over the last several years, but one thing is indisputable: Respecting the privacy of customers, employees, and all organizational stakeholders is essential. The ACM Code of Ethics includes a principle that gives serious consideration to privacy; adhering means that organizations "should establish transparent policies and procedures that allow individuals to understand what data is being collected and how it is being used, to give informed consent for automatic data collection and to review, obtain and correct inaccuracies in, and delete their personal data."
  5. In the practice of computing ethics, corporate boards must account for the pervasive nature of computing, as well as the ways in which the technologies within their organizations could conceivably be used in the future. According to the ACM Code of Ethics, "When organizations and groups develop systems that become an important part of the infrastructure of society, their leaders have an added responsibility to be good stewards of these systems." The Code also urges that we imagine not just how a technology being developed may be used now, but the ways in which it could be adapted for other, and potentially unethical, uses in the future. Likewise, boards, as part of their risk management responsibility, and as stewards of the companies they serve, need to be thinking along the same lines and inviting input from those within their organizations who have made these sorts of considerations.

At its heart, the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is designed to guide people as they think through ethical concerns and foster discussion around those concerns. Any code of ethics, including ACM's, is not an algorithm for solving ethical problems, but rather a framework for ethical decision making. When ACM released this Code of Ethics, we encouraged our members to imagine how they might apply the core principles to the specific challenges they face.

Many think of computing as a solitary profession. They might imagine a programmer working alone late at night in a lab. Computing professionals know that the practice of computing, as well as being part of a company of any size, is a collaborative experience. Continuous dialogue about ethics among directors, those in the C-suite, and employees should be both natural and desirable. 

Marty J. Wolf is a professor of computer science at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, MN. Wolf serves as the co-chair of the Association for Computing Machinery's Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE), the group that updated its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. He recently was awarded a Responsible Computer Science grant from the Mozilla Foundation.


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