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Presentation: Why Should We Care About Technology Ethics?

Track: Tech Ethics: The Intersection of Human Welfare & STEM

Location: St James, 4th flr.

Duration: 10:35am - 11:25am

Day of week: Wednesday

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What You’ll Learn

  1. Learn about the newly updated ACM Code of Ethics.
  2. Hear ways to think about your job through a lens of ethics and responsibility.
  3. Find out what you as a developer can do to deal with ethical issues


Ethics is a rising buzzword in the technology sector. Users, developers, innovators, and the general public are increasingly concerned about the impact that technologies are having on society. Companies like Facebook and Google are facing internal and external pushback against their business and development decisions, particularly when it comes to privacy and data protection. Governments are slowly coming around to enacting policy to curb excesses of the technology industry.  How can companies and developers ensure that their technologies are beneficial to society, and socially acceptable? How can companies avoid a future of lawsuits and degradation of trust?


This presentation will look at some of these issues from the perspective of the recently updated Association of Computing Machinery's Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, and place it within a "responsible innovation" framework that asks technical innovators to anticipate the impact of their technologies, reflect on the ethical issues, engage with diverse stakeholders, and act to ensure issues that arise are mitigated or avoided.


What is the work you’re doing today?


The recent work I've been doing has been on what we call responsible research and innovation. This concept has come out of European funded projects looking at how we can make the tech industry better in terms of serving society with their innovations, as opposed to the primary goal of making a lot of money (or getting the most users).


Last year the ACM updated the Code of Ethics. What was your role with them?


I was on the steering committee to redevelop the ACM Code of Ethics. I was invited to do this because of my history looking at things like how do we practically integrate ethics in industry, how do we make a more responsible ethical society through tech, how do we get tech working with and for society, and the like.


The reason we updated  it in the first place is because the previous version was written in 1992, which is a little bit out of date. Since then, the Internet (and many other new and exciting technologies) came along, and it affected society in completely new and interesting ways that we didn't actually expect when the original code was written. Don Gotterbarn,  who was involved in writing the original code, was the chair of the Code update committee.


How do you answer someone who says the goal of a corporation is to return value to their shareholders, not to be ethical, not to do social good?


The original purpose of business is to serve society. If you don't serve society it’s less likely that someone will buy your product because you're not going to have a market. And these days there's a been huge push from society towards requiring more ethical business practices. We've also seen pushback from employees within several well-known large companies when it comes to ethical issues, so there’s internal as well as external push for more ethical technologies. We're seeing these sorts of demands for more environmental considerations, more sustainability considerations, and more concern for the societal impact of technologies too.


People are worried about their data, they're worried about their privacy, they're worried about their kids, they're worried about all kinds of ethical issues that impact them. The fact that a lot of these companies have been able to operate in a relatively grey area for so long has meant that we've actually seen where these cases can go. There's now demand for governments to regulate more heavily, as can be seen with the GDPR.


What do you hope people leave your talk with?


First, I hope that they'll leave with the idea that the Code of Ethics is not just a punitive kind of “Thou Shall Not” set of directions, because what we wanted to do with this code is also to make it an aspirational set of guidelines for positively working in the tech industry. 


We're aiming at anyone who works in computing, even if it's just peripherally, such as doing data entry in a finance job or something like that. We want to inspire people to think about their role and its impact on society, doing their job ethically and responsibly, and these ethical guidelines will hopefully help them do much more in service of society.

There are also some quite interesting nuances that I think some of the more philosophical minded people amongst the audience might be interested in like how we came up with the wording for some of the clauses.

Speaker: Catherine Flick

Member of ACM Committee on Professional Ethics and One of the Primary Contributors to the ACM Code of Ethics

Dr. Catherine Flick is a reader in computing and social responsibility at the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility at DMU. She graduated with a BSc (1st class honours) with majors in Computer Science and History & Philosophy of Science from Sydney University, Australia, while working in industry as a systems administrator and web programmer, and a PhD in Computer Ethics from Charles Sturt University, Australia, with a thesis on informed consent and ICT. Areas of research have involved responsible research and innovation in health technologies and cyber security, online child protection, trusted computing, ethics and video games, anonymous technologies and the darknet, and informed consent in ICT. She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy with a PGCHE. She is a member of the ACM’s Committee on Professional Ethics, and is a committee member of the ACM’s Code of Ethics update team. She is currently work package leader for the European funded projects COMPASS and Living Innovation, which look at integrating ethics and responsible innovation into SME and large company business practices, and has a long history of working on European projects in this area. In addition, she teaches research methods and computer ethics, and hosts a podcast on ethics and video games called “Not Just A Game”.

Find Catherine Flick at


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