With changing societal habits and rapid advances in technology, governments often lag behind in creating structures that keep runaway possibilities in check. Issues from data privacy and disinformation to artificial intelligence have become areas of concern where regulation would ideally keep technology ethical. But since there’s such a gap between technology’s growth and government action, is it the tech industry’s responsibility to step in and take the lead?
As we moved into 2020 and the new decade it heralded—not even knowing, yet, some of the massive life changes that were around the corner—Microsoft executives Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne wrote about what they saw as the most pressing tech issues that this era would face. Following that line of thought, let’s delve into a few of these ongoing issues and how the tech industry can play a role in shaping good outcomes around them.
Much of our technological journey has been a drawn-out exchange of convenience for privacy. One of the obvious places this plays out is in home assistant devices, which can record, store, and even share what you say in your private space. Another aspect of privacy, which has received the most regulatory attention, is internet data collection and usage. Many countries have instated privacy laws to protect consumers and give them more control over how their data is used. (The United States has yet to address this federally, but the California Consumer Privacy Act that went into effect last year was a start.)
Smith and Browne envision a new wave of privacy protections on the horizon, which go beyond giving consumers more management of their data and into more encompassing rules about how data can be used at all. As we wait for governments to make these rules, it’s up to the tech world to support and uphold consumer privacy, and to view positive, trustworthy customer relationships as more important than any marketing or profit benefits that could come with sleazy practices.
As Mark Coecklebergh argues in AI Ethics, policy on artificial intelligence should take several different forms: legal regulation, ethics codes, education, and measures within the tech industry. Smith and Browne agree that this must be addressed broadly, and technology providers are responsible for doing their part. A few years ago, Microsoft stated six principles of ethical AI design. The European Union also has a list of seven requirements of trustworthy AI. These kinds of principles are essential—but we need to see them mature into concrete operational actions too. Some examples of where this can play out are in engineering requirements, training, monitoring, and compliance. Since AI is a massive field regarded generally, it will be helpful to focus on specific issues one at a time—like algorithms, for example, or lethal autonomous weapons. AI ethics work needs to scale from these specific measures to a united global effort.
Every year the Economist Intelligence Unit measures the state of global democracies in its Democracy Index. Already in the previous decade, the index showed the health of the world’s democracies declining. In 2020, the global average score went lower than it had ever been since the index began in 2006. And the events surrounding the recent U.S. election and inauguration, as well as the following new voting legislation, have only made it more clear that our democracy is in a fragile place. Part of the tech industry’s role here is cybersecurity: protecting our digital spaces from hacks that endanger democracy. Another aspect is ensuring secure voting and election processes, and yet another is combating election-related disinformation campaigns.
Information & Journalism
Likewise, Smith and Browne remind us that healthy democracy requires healthy journalism, and the state of journalism isn’t looking so good right now. The internet, with its search algorithms and social media, has undermined newspapers. Reliable, accurate news must compete daily with false claims and stories that boast a higher shock-and-share factor. Something clearly needs to be done to combat the erosion of reliable information. One start is something like Project Origin, a coalition to detect and label manipulated media, with the aim of building an international standard for authenticity.
A Responsible Tech Industry Builds a Better World
As Smith and Browne argue, those who create and support technology that changes the world also bear a responsibility to help address the world they’ve created. With every innovative advancement comes the possibility for abuse or unintended offshoots. Governments need to come together to keep this potential in check. In the meantime and alongside that effort, the tech industry has a big role to play in shaping technology toward ethical and beneficial outcomes. After all, making the world a better place is what innovation is all about.