A code of ethics in IT: just lip service or does it have teeth?

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A code of ethics in IT: just lip service or does it have teeth?
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The emissions scandal that has rocked car maker Volkswagen has again raised the issue of ethical standards in the tech industry.

Reports so far say the company is pointing finger at the “unlawful behaviour of engineers and technicians involved in engine development”.

But that’s led to questions about the strength of any codes or practice or ethics that such operators are supposed to comply with. So are such codes any good or are they just words?

Here two software experts present both sides of the argument.


Codes of Ethics – worthy sentiments, but no teeth when it comes to the public interest

Robert Merkel
Lecturer in software engineering at Monash University

The Australian Computer Society’s Code of Professional Conduct says nice, and generally sensible, things about the values its members should act upon in their professional lives.

The first, and most important value listed is, “The Primacy of the Public Interest”, which informs members that:

You will place the interests of the public above those of personal, business or sectional interests.

But IT professionals do not get paid by the public interest – their work is mostly paid for by business and sectional interests. While whose interests a business should serve is a subject of lively debate, to a first approximation management of businesses are expected to act in the interests of its shareholders, and within the law.

Even if the senior management of a business are technologists, in practice it is the legal and cultural obligations of their management role that are taken more seriously than any professional obligations that apply to IT professionals.

In my view, many businesses act in ways that are harmful to broader society in the interests of their shareholders. Some companies have management who, for ethical reasons, choose to avoid certain business activities. But, in a free market economy, if it’s legal (or even if it isn’t) and there’s a dollar in it, at least some businesses will attempt to collect that dollar.

These pressures are not unique to the IT industry. Engineers, accountants and lawyers are professionals employed by businesses in a similar way to IT professionals. But there is a key difference between those professions and IT – those professions have professional bodies or closely related registration bodies (such as the Victorian Bar Council) that control access to those skills, backed by the law.

The vast majority of Australian IT professionals work in roles for which there is no institutional gatekeeper of any kind, legal or otherwise. Nor do employers demand, or seemingly value, accreditation by professional bodies in IT.

Have a look at ads for IT jobs, which overwhelmingly value demonstrated professional experience in technologies and techniques. Credentials, including university degrees, are rarely mentioned.

While a body such as the ACS might seek a de-facto gatekeeper role through its credentials attaining employment cachet, it is hard to see how this might be workable.

IT work tends to hyper-specialisation, and those specialisations continue to evolve faster than institutions can keep up. And, for what it’s worth, I get little sense in my dealing with both students and current professionals that the IT workforce conceives of itself as a unitary profession, and is looking for an organisation to establish itself as a gatekeeper.

So, given the total lack of teeth, and no realistic prospect of gaining any, the ACS Code of Ethics is not something that there is any real obligation to comply with. At best, it is an educative tool and, sadly, not one that students prioritise. Why would they?

In a world where IT degrees are viewed as a meal ticket to a high-paying career, students gravitate to the topics which they believe employers will value. Experience in the perceived hot technology of the day is generally a far higher priority than ethics.

In my contact with IT students a substantial fraction express concerns about how IT can be put to use. Once in the workforce, some of these students might personally resist it being put to use in particular ways, despite a lack of institutional support and personal costs in doing so.

But that’s not enough. As long as those who wish to use IT for sectional interests can pay for sufficient talent, somewhere in the world, history shows that that they will be able to find it, ACS code of ethics or not.

Next: carrot more useful than stick, says ACS ethics chair

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