Ethics In Tech & Lack Thereof

Sleeping Under The Cell Tower

By Vahid Razavi

Final Thoughts

I hope I haven’t spent too much time being a glass-half-empty kind of guy throughout the course of this book. I’m not; in fact, I’d say the glass is more than half full. When people demand change and they demand it persistently, persuasively, and peacefully enough, change happens. We’ve seen this throughout our nation’s history. The movements to abolish slavery, improve labor conditions, grant women the right to vote, end Jim Crow segregation, and achieve equality for LGBTQ people were all people-powered movements. They were bottom-up in structure. In contemporary times, even profit-seeking corporations are getting “woke” as they realize that siding with injustice can threaten their bottom lines. For a stark example of this we need look no further than corporate America’s response to North Carolina’s “bathroom law,” bigoted legislation passed by Republicans which banned transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity. Public and corporate backlash was swift and severe. PayPal scrapped plans to build a facility that would have pumped more than $2.6 billion into the state’s economy. Major companies, including Deutsche Bank, Adidas, and CoStar backed out of plans to expand in North Carolina. The NAACP launched a boycott, and the NCAA announced the state would not be hosting any championship events until it repealed the law. North Carolina did repeal it — months later under intense, constant pressure which included condemnation from the NBA, the city of San Francisco and tech companies including Apple and Google. More than a year later a team of Amazon officials visiting the state while considering sites for its $5 billion, 50,000-job HQ2 project grilled state leaders about the repealed law and whether the state was fit to host the facility. It wasn’t the first or last time tech companies stood up for LGBTQ equality; Apple CEO Tim Cook, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and others have threatened or taken action in response to anti-LGBT legislation in Alabama, Georgia, and elsewhere. Such pressure has successfully scuttled similar legislation in states like Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana— much to the chagrin of then-governor Mike Pence, who once said that gay marriage would lead to “societal collapse.”

Unethical actions can have real and lasting consequences, and they can be the catalyst for real and lasting change. Conversely, ethical behavior is richly rewarded if companies can only find a way to eschew short-term thinking and planning and do what’s right. I also don’t mean to necessarily imply that executives only choose to do the right thing out of profit or public relations motives. Many of them are good people just like you and I who are genuinely seeking to make the world a better place, and who value peace, justice, and equality. Sometimes these people may feel they have no choice but to choose the less ethical path. After all, there is really only one legal imperative for corporations, and that’s to return maximum shareholder value. But when executives decide — whether on their own or due to pressure from employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders — to do the right thing, literally the whole world sits up and takes notice. We saw this when Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon would be paying all of its workers at least $15 an hour (although this raise will reportedly be paid for by unfairly cutting back on the benefits enjoyed by Amazonians higher up the corporate ladder). We saw it when Tim Cook refused to cooperate with the FBI to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Farook, one of the two terrorists who killed 14 people and wounded more than 20 others in a December 2, 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. In that case, EFF, joined by Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, filed an amicus brief in support of Apple’s uncooperative stance.We saw it yet again when Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff surprised San Franciscans by coming out in favor of Proposition C, a city ballot measure meant to tackle the outof-control homelessness crisis by levying a 0.5 percent gross receipts tax on companies with more than $50 million in annual revenue. Benioff also pledged to donate $1 million — half his own money, half through Salesforce — in support of Prop C. “Homelessness is all of our responsibility,” Benioff explained, adding via Twitter that “as SF’s largest employer we realize we are part of the solution.” The Salesforce CEO even went so far as to accuse other tech billionaires of “hoarding” their wealth, and he seemed to target Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey more than anyone else. “He just doesn’t want to give, that’s all, and he hasn’t given anything of consequence in the city,” Benioff tweeted. plaud Benioff for putting his money where his mouth was — if passed, Prop C will end up costing his company many millions of dollars. What’s even more remarkable about Benioff’s stance is that it was at odds with the city’s purportedly progressive mayor, London Breed, who opposed Prop C.

Often it is tech workers themselves who spark positive change. In May 2018 Google was set to renew a Pentagon contract on a project called Maven that utilized the company’s technology to improve the efficacy and lethality of military unmanned aerial drone strikes. But thousands of Google employees, including senior engineers, protested the company’s planned participation. A dozen employees resigned in protest. Others expressed serious concerns about Google’s technology being used to wage war. A letter signed by over 4,000 Google personnel asserted:

We believe that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology… This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust. By entering into this contract, Google will join the ranks of companies like Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google.

Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart… We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties. Google’s stated values make this clear: Every one of our users is trusting us. Never jeopardize that. Ever. This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values. Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance — and potentially lethal outcomes — is not acceptable.

This opposition prompted Google to announce it would not renew the Maven contract when it expires in March 2019. Google CEO Sundar Pichai also unveiled the company’s seven AI principles discussed a few pages earlier in this book, chief among them avoidance of “technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm.” Google had also been among several companies bidding on a Defense Department project called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, the Pentagon’s effort to build its first enterprise-wide cloud. JEDI was partly designed to improve the military’s “lethality and readiness.” However, many Google employees strongly objected to what was clearly a violation of the company’s freshly-minted AI principles. Following widespread employee protests, Google announced it would be withdrawing its bid, explaining that “we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI principles.” At the other end of the ethical spectrum, Amazon is, at time of writing, widely considered the frontrunner to win the JEDI bid. The reason for this, say critics including Google, IBM, and Oracle, is that the Pentagon, while fronting a facade of competition, all along intended to award the lucrative contract to a single predetermined vendor — Amazon Web Services. The government did little to dispel such suspicion; when asked directly if it set such high standards that only AWS could meet, the Defense Department did not reply.

Of course, there are limits to how much change even large numbers of company employees can achieve. Many Google workers were enraged by the company’s decision to secretly build Dragonfly, a search engine that complies with the Chinese government’s authoritarian censorship demands, and some employees resigned over the issue. Again, more than one staffer noted the hypocrisy inherent in Google’s complicity with Chinese government censorship given the company’s Don’t No Evil motto. Senior Google scientist Jack Poulson, who quit over Dragonfly, sounded the alarm over the move’s wider global implications. “I view our intent to capitulate to censorship and surveillance demands in exchange for access to the Chinese market as a forfeiture of our values and governmental negotiating position across the globe,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “There is an all-too-real possibility that other nations will attempt to leverage our actions in China in order to demand our compliance with their security demands.” But even when employee protest initially fails to achieve its noble objectives, persistent pressure is the key to eventual success.

Tech companies continue to be complicit in crimes big and small around the world, sometimes in shocking ways. The Palestinian struggle for liberation from half a century of illegal Israeli occupation and Jews-only settler colonization — a situation prominent international observers including Nobel Peace laureates Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu have called an apartheid worse than South Africa’s — comes immediately to mind. US tech firms including Hewlett-Packard provide technology, equipment, and services to the Israeli military and government that are used to oppress Palestinian men, women, and children. Israel is a leading player in the world of tech, and Israeli technology firms “enjoy” a unique position in being able to test their latest tech in real-time conflict against real-life human beings. When asked what the secret of Israel’s tech success is, Guy Keren, CEO of Israeli homeland security firm iHLS said it’s “because we are checking our systems live. We are in a war situation all the time. If it’s not happening right now, it will happen in a month.” Activists with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement hold hope that their concerted and persistent actions could make HP what they call the “Polaroid of our times,” a reference to the successful mass mobilization against the use of Polaroid technology utilized in the former South African apartheid regime’s racist passbook system. Polaroid pulled out of South Africa in 1977 in what is widely regarded as a turning point in the global anti-apartheid campaign.

In the darkest of hours it can be difficult to imagine that things can be better. Did people living behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1980s dare dream that they would be free by the decade’s end? Power and pressure — both from within and outside societies and organizations — can move even the mightiest of mountains if they are applied in the right way at the right time.

And so, dear reader, I leave you with a message of hope and a call to action. After all, most people working in the tech industry — like most human beings in general — are good people. They desire racial, gender, sexual, and economic equality. They bristle at the injustice and inequality in the world. But they’re busy. They’re distracted. They’ve got student loan debt and credit card debt and they don’t know whether they’ll still have the same job a year from now. They’ve got to put food in their mouths and roofs over their heads all while keeping their heads about them as they navigate the rough and uncertain waters of their professional lives. Still, they’re the only ones who can bring about a more just future and a more ethical tech industry. It’s an industry that is obsessed with customer success — customer obsession is literally first among Amazon’s leadership principles — but we rarely or never talk about our limits or what kind of projects we aren’t willing to work on. It happens sometimes, as former Google scientist Jack Poulson admirably demonstrated, but it’s rare. I once went to an interview with a major software company that shall remain nameless and I asked them, “Is there anything you won’t do for a customer?” I was met with a blank stare. Maybe if more of us asked questions like this we wouldn’t be met with incredulity but rather with a company codes of ethics that proscribes harmful policies and actions.

I am glad I went to work at Amazon. I have no regrets. The entire experience made me a better person. For all of its faults, I can’t sit here and tell you that Amazon is a “rotten company” like CSC. I don’t think Amazon C-suiters wake up in the morning and think of ways to screw their employees. They create hundreds of thousands of jobs. They feed the needs and cravings of countless millions of consumers. I don’t hate them, I just disagree with some of their business practices and values, or lack thereof. Amazon hires the best and the brightest workers and accordingly expects excellence from them, but the company also suffers from a profound lack of empathy. It’s a world of drone workers where contractors are treated like second-class citizens, as are most of the people paid to do the low-tech work. The custodians, receptionists, security personnel, and others who are essential to the smooth and profitable operation of the company are largely excluded from Amazonian culture. They’re just disposable resources to be used up and spit out. The bad news is this doesn’t make for a very pleasant place to work for many Amazon employees; the good news is that the problem is totally fixable. Amazon is redeemable, but it’s mostly up to Amazonians to redeem it. And it’s up to all of us who hold stakes in it to redeem tech, too. Over the years I’ve won and I’ve lost in the tech industry. I’ve spent a lot of time fighting and a lot of time crying. It literally drove me mad. But through it all what I remember most are the people without whom the indispensably ubiquitous technology we all need to survive simply wouldn’t exist. In addition to being brilliant creators and enablers, these people are also, well, people. Most people are good. They want a better world for themselves, their loved ones, and those who come after them. If you care about ethics in technology, don’t just sit there, get out there and help make a difference. Get engaged and get involved. Here in the Bay Area we’ve got EFF, the Internet Archive, and other organizations dedicated to digital rights issues. These organizations or other groups like them are active in most cities across America.

As I write this, Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident journalist who was very likely tortured and murdered in most gruesome fashion while visiting his country’s consulate in Turkey, is dominating headlines around the world. Although I find it very odd that this, the killing of one man, is what it took to get Americans (and indeed many people around the world) to sit up and take notice of the horror show known as the Saudi ruling regime, I also welcome the attention. Titans of tech like Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, whose firm has been greatly enriched by billions of dollars of Saudi investment, swiftly reacted to the crisis. The third annual Future Investment Initiative, also called “Davos in the Desert,” is just two weeks away as I write this. I can’t say just how many government and business leaders will ultimately skip or boycott the conference, which is held in the Saudi capital Riyadh, but I can tell you that the list of those who say they’ll do so is growing by the hour. Right now that list includes Khosrowshahi, Google Cloud CEO Dianne Greene, AOL co-founder Steve Case, Apple chief design office Jony Ive and, as of this morning, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Power and pressure — both from within and outside technology corporations — can move even the mightiest of mountains if they are applied in the right way at the right time.

We must always use what power we have to bring about the change that is possible only when enough of us come together to make it happen. Working together we can exert the necessary influence upon our elected officials that results in the laws and regulations that make technology companies’ policies and actions more ethical. They’re really not going to regulate themselves, after all. In this present climate of deregulatory mania in which the president has appointed to every cabinet position and agency people who are inimical to the stated missions of their respective offices, we need regulation more than ever. The wild, Wild West of unregulated capitalism very well may lead to the collapse of civilization as we know it if left to its own devices and given license to run amok. This is no exaggeration; the two greatest threats facing humanity today — climate change, and nuclear war — are exacerbated, not mitigated, by corporate capitalism. The Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement; the agreement was a statement which was widely viewed as the world’s best effort to combat global warming. Trump has also withdrawn the US from key arms control agreements like the landmark Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and the Iran nuclear deal, increasing the risk of nuclear combat.

As we continue to transition from the industrial to the information age, and from a manufacturing to a service economy, we will continue to see ethical challenges that we couldn’t have imagined a few short years ago. Self-driving vehicles facing imminent crashes involving multiple vehicles or cars and pedestrians will effectively “choose” who lives or dies. Unmanned but definitely not unarmed drones controlled by 18-year-olds in air-conditioned bases in Nevada are raining death and destruction upon Islamist militants and innocent men, women, and children alike 8,000 miles away in Afghanistan. We’re not going stop the inevitable transition to autonomous vehicles and autonomous warfare, but there are bold moves we can and must make to bring a more ethical balance to technology. We’ve got to think BIG, dear reader. And what could be bigger than breaking up Amazon the way the government balkanized the once-mighty Bell Telephone monopoly back in the 1980s — during the arch conservative Reagan administration, at that! Of course AT&T, one of the spinoff companies from that breakup, has gotten far too big and powerful in its own right, but breaking up Bell was one of the biggest and best deregulation efforts in modern history. It can serve as a model in our own time. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing for Amazon, either; I would submit to Jeff Bezos that he would grow even richer if he were to break up the company. This is exactly what happened over a century ago when the government broke up Standard Oil into the “baby Standards,” chief among them Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Amoco, and Marathon. That epic trust-bust created 34 separate companies, and Standard founder John D. Rockefeller continued to own significant equity in these. As each of them grew on their own, so too did the Rockefeller families’ fortunes grow. Rockefeller was the richest man of his time; Bezos is the richest man of our time. Bezos would still be wealthy — and perhaps be even wealthier — if Amazon were split up.

Technology is a double-edged sword, with the power to both solve and create some of humanity’s biggest problems. The same tech with which governments monitor their people can be used in positive ways. We rightfully lament the ubiquity of security cameras, but without cameras you wouldn’t know that Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, or that Eric Garner was unjustly killed by New York police, or that US Army helicopters murdered a dozen innocent Iraqis (thanks, Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks). Using technology for good, and making ethical decisions and changes within organizations, adds value. It’s better for companies, it’s better for their workers, and it’s better for humanity. When tech companies truly understand that being ethical is best for their bottom line, I believe they’ll be more inclined to do the right thing, if for no other reason than for the pure pursuit of profit. When all of us involved in tech — whether we be employees, consumers, partners, or other stakeholders — raise our voices against unethical policies and actions and demand more ethical behavior, positive change becomes not only possible today but also becomes one of tomorrow’s best practices. It is my humble hope that this book will serve to gently push tech toward that better future.