Why ethics must be built into tech development

Facebook’s one-time internal motto, “Move fast and break things”, has for years been a subject of parody. The social media company — now in one of the most difficult periods in its history, beset by criticism and whistleblower leaks — is painted by some as an example of prioritising growth over what is good for its customers and wider society.

But while the company — rebranded last month as Meta — may be censured, its story speaks to a wider problem that has long pervaded the world of tech: a belief that regulation, whether in the form of legislation by policymakers or internal ethical practices, is a threat to innovation.

This is a belief that many think business schools should challenge, by teaching that innovation is not the opposite of regulation, but inextricably linked to it. Some argue for a holistic approach to bring companies into line with the public good and also to create a better path for the future of the digital economy.

“There are different ways of understanding innovation,” says Alice Thwaite, a technology ethicist and founder of tech ethics consultancy Hattusia. “Ethics should definitely be in that innovation and transformation space.”

Thwaite argues that innovation, as imagined in buzzwords such as the “metaverse”, is not considered “scary” in the way it should be. “It has got a bit too comfortable recently. When companies are hiding behind innovation, they are often protecting the status quo.”

Many big technology companies arguably fall into that bracket. At their heart is an idea of innovation as a way to increase user engagement, crowd out competition and keep shareholders happy.

By contrast, regulation and ethics have often been viewed as impediments. When companies have been more proactive — such as when Facebook called for more regulation from governments — it has almost always been during a scandal and appeared self-serving.

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The formation and treatment of ethics teams also has a chequered history. Google’s artificial intelligence ethics group became a source of growing embarrassment to the company after the departure of its co-heads under controversial circumstances.

“There is a general trend of talking about ethics but not doing anything about it,” says Thwaite. While ethics consultancies such as Hattusia are proliferating, there remains a concern in the tech industry about turning to a relatively new sector. “Very few are willing to take a punt,” says Thwaite.

Business school students need to understand historical failings, with an emphasis on applying this knowledge to shape ideas of innovation. That means viewing ethics as an integral part of business development, which would encourage the business leaders of the future to engage with technology ethicists, even if the space remains experimental.

Training students to engage with regulations as part and parcel of business, rather than as an impediment to be dealt with when they arise, is not only good for end users. In the long term, it can limit the risk of a problems like that Facebook is facing, and the painful consequences of being hauled before courts or lawmakers.

It can also encourage the sort of adaptable approach needed for an age of changing regulation, as politicians show a greater willingness to take on Big (and smaller) Tech. By baking regulation into discussions around innovation, there is a chance to move beyond the existing paradigms and imagine better systems.

“Europe must not be hoodwinked into simply mitigating the damage created by broken business models,” wrote Jan Penfrat, senior policy advisor at non-profit European Digital Rights (EDRi). “Rather, Europe needs laws that effectively limit the power that Big Tech wields over our lives.”

Openness to innovation and willingness to adapt are vital to the development of new technologies. In the UK, the government has sought to ensure the country remains “the start-up nation of Europe”. The Kalifa review of fintech in February and Lord Hill’s review of listings in April reflect a desire to maintain UK technology’s sheen.

Poorly implemented or overreaching regulation can be a problem, but this can be defused, at least in part, by encouraging the business leaders of the future to move beyond the mistakes and the limitations of the past. Embedding concepts such as harm reduction and the common good can help limit those excesses.

The Silicon Valley mindset may treat regulation as anathema, a roadblock to genius, creativity and the auteur-founder. However, the debacle facing Big Tech companies, most pointedly Facebook, is a reminder that a monomaniacal focus on growth and market dominance risks harm for all of us. Treating ethics and regulation as part of innovation offers an opportunity to go beyond deciding how to use existing technologies and can direct us in which technologies should be created.

“Innovation is about creating new processes and products that make the world a better place,” says Thwaite. “If that’s not the aim of business in general and not the aim of what we’re here on this planet to do, I don’t see what is.”