My Op-Ed Today on CNN: Ethical Problems in Techland

Today CNN ran a piece by me on ethics issues in the tech world, titled, “What’s wrong with tech leaders?”  There I discuss some of the major transgressions by top tech CEOs, and suggest public shaming as the best solution. 🙂

In this blog post, I will expand on this passage in the op-ed:

Yet idealistic instruction in ethics may be undermined by the perceptions that one can’t fight the system.

 

For example, there seems to be no plan to bring criminal charges against the anti-poaching colluders, even though federal judge Lucy Koh indicated she is still not happy with the proposed settlement for the engineers who experienced lost wages as a result of the secret wage-theft pact.

This actually illustrates a general theme in American legal history:   If an illegal action is perceived to be committed by parties engaged in important economic development, there has been a tendency toward tolerance.  A famous example is that of workplace safety.  In the 19th century, the courts were reluctant to come down too hard on employers in workplace safety cases.  Though undoubtedly the general pro-upper-class political mood played a role in this, legal scholars have found that economic progress, as a general public good, outweighed safety considerations.

We are arguably in such a situation again today.  Though the Tech Revolution has been around for a while, there is a sense among many in DC, I’ve found, that U.S. economic dominance depends critically on technology, hence a desire to do whatever necessary to maintain the American lead in tech.

Much of this obsession involves China.  The Obama administration, making a distinction between espionage for the purpose of national security and industrial spying, recently indicted five Chinese nationals (who are in China!) on the latter charges.  China retaliated by threatening to cancel contracts with U.S. IT equipment makers.

In such a climate, note the recent news that Stanford University artificial intelligence expert Andrew Ng announced he was ending his relationship with Google Research, to become the head of the new Silicon Valley research branch of Google’s Chinese rival, Baidu.  This news caused quite a stir among computer scientists in China, but must have alarmed some DC policymakers.

In other words, even putting aside the major campaign donation clout the U.S. tech industry wields on Capitol Hill, there still will be plenty of sentiment in Congress to look the other way concerning the industry’s ethical lapses.

 

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5 thoughts on “My Op-Ed Today on CNN: Ethical Problems in Techland

  1. An important op-ed and issue.

    The public and especially media view tech billionaires through rose-colored glasses, finding them very cool. But they generally cooperate enthusiastically with the Chinese Communist Party in hunting dissidents. When Google objected it was so unusual as to be major news, and they seem to have reached some compromise since. China under Xi has taken a hard line toward democrats and other dissidents.

    After a rocky start, Bill Gates became a favored American in China by transferring technology and cooperating with the government around 2005 in hunting dissent, including on Skype in China, partly owned by Microsoft. The Chinese government pays for copies of Microsoft software, not just for the first one, as with many companies. A grad student discovered some terms searched for:

    http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-03-08/skypes-been-hijacked-in-china-and-microsoft-is-o-dot-k-dot-with-it

    “Since then, Knockel, a bearded, yoga-practicing son of a retired U.S. Air Force officer, has repeatedly beaten the ever-changing encryption that cloaks Skype’s Chinese service. This has allowed him to compile for the first time the thousands of terms—such as “Amnesty International” and “Tiananmen”—that prompt Skype in China to intercept typed messages and send copies to its computer servers in the country.”

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  2. Norm and Bill both make excellent points. I’m confident that the Silicon Valley execs also spend on public relations professionals that improve the image of those executives (for a fee.)

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  3. Yes, age discrimination is rampant in tech-related industries and for those of us working in STEM departments of large corporations. I’ve actually spent much of my time during the last 1 1/2 years training not only very underqualified guest and immigrant workers, but also training younger new managers who joined our company from outside.

    I’ve discovered that the three guest workers I trained very recently took the jobs my company offered very reluctantly. They had some good skills, but our jobs did not need those skills, so I’ve been training them on brand new technologies that we do need from the ground up! They, however, want to firm up their expertise on their chosen skill areas and are unhappy with being forced to change.

    No one ever claims that my technical knowledge is behind the times; I work very hard on my own time to stay trained and educated.

    Meanwhile, I am continually humiliated by NEVER being included in real projects; I’m isolated from the current work with my trainees (including managers I’ve trained) always in the middle of everything.

    Oh, yes, any complaints are met with threats of being laid off. My trainees are significantly cheaper, of course. I’ve suggested making me an official tech trainer for our department of the company in order to include longer-term employees in training on new tech.

    I received nothing in response to that idea other than hostile “don’t go there” glares. My status as tech trainer is only UNOFFICIAL; officially I’m “working with people on projects”. Things are very bad and getting worse all of the time.

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