We Need a Code of Ethics for Data Professionals

This isn’t one:

Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long-term, we will be better served-as shareholders and in all other ways-by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.

 A Code of Ethics isn’t subjective blather.

By the way, Eric Schmidt admitted that Don’t Be Evil is totally subjective, having said this in 2003:

Evil is what Sergey says is evil.

Later Mr. Schmidt became a bit more thoughtful, as evidenced in this from a Reuters article:

In an on-stage interview with writer Ken Auletta of the New Yorker magazine, Schmidt said “Don’t be evil” is meant to provoke internal debate over what constitutes ethical corporate behavior, rather than representing an absolute moral position.

“We don’t have an ‘Evilmeter’ we can sort of apply — you know — what is good and what is evil,” Schmidt said before an audience of media industry professionals at an event sponsored by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School in San Francisco.

“It is like a bomb goes off in the room. Everything stopped. Everyone had a moral and ethical conversation, which by the way, stopped the product,” Schmidt said.

“So it is a cultural rule, a way of forcing a conversation, especially in areas which are ambiguous,” he said of how the mission statement works in practice at Google.

Debate is good, but the debate should be one in which a code of objective standards is developed, not a case-by-case reaction. 

Google has gotten better, having enacted a detailed Code of Conduct with some objective criteria.

But what about everyone else?   We need a Code of Ethics for the profession and not just for employees – a Code of Ethics with objective provisions.   Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about:

“Harm” means injury or negative consequences, such as undesirable loss of information, loss of property, property damage, or unwanted environmental impacts. This principle prohibits use of computing technology in ways that result in harm to any of the following: users, the general public, employees, employers. Harmful actions include intentional destruction or modification of files and programs leading to serious loss of resources or unnecessary expenditure of human resources such as the time and effort required to purge systems of “computer viruses.”

This is from the Association for Computing Machinery Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which can be found here.

But why is this necessary?  The increasing power that data professionals have in their hands makes it crucial that some standards be established.  Those of us who aren’t data professionals have legitimate concerns about this.

We can’t rely on individual, personal and subjective standards.  One reason why is the false consensus effect. 

No doubt you’ve had the experience in which someone talks to you about an issue with the apparent assumption that you agree with them – and you don’t.  That’s the false consensus effect.  People have a tendency to overestimate how many people agree with them.

You and I might have different opinions about what is appropriate and what is not.  For example, look at the comments to this article on The Huffington Post, which we discussed here.  Some people think using other people’s computers to make an interesting graphic is perfectly acceptable, even without permission from the owners of the computers.  Others disagree.

Some people who think this is acceptable don’t just think it is acceptable.  The fact that they are not shy about publicly stating they’ve done it suggests they assume other agree it’s OK.

And there’s your problem.  Some people think they have permission to do stuff like this.  (I also suspect the false consensus effect is one reason behind many of the problems in the tech industry – like the well documented sexism.)

Challenging people’s assumptions is a necessary step in addressing this.  Establishing a Code of Ethics is one way to do that.  A Code of Ethics drafted and debated in public view with broad participation can have the effect of challenging assumptions about what is appropriate. 

Far from perfect, but it’s a start.

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