This blog is part of our Tech In Review: 21-22 report series. Head to the hub to access the reports, insight and analysis. This article is written by Virginia Matthews
The race between London and Brussels to pass the toughest new laws on big tech has already spawned the UK’s Online Safety Bill and for the EU, the Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts.
Yet while forcing platforms to be legally accountable for a string of concerns such as fake news, privacy infringement, sexual harassment and AI bias earns plaudits, tech’s deep-rooted ethical dilemmas will not be solved by legislation alone.
When Facebook whistle blower Frances Haugen told UK MP’s last month that her former employer had an internal culture which prioritised profits over people, she spoke for the billions of us who love – and fear – technology with equal passion.
The role of marketing and PR
And while the majority of marketing and PR professionals in tech may never face the barrage of hostile headlines which followed her testimony, the industry’s communications challenge has become high stakes across the piece.
In the more regulated tech world to come, the role of marketing and PR professionals as a force for good will be pivotal, says Gareth Thomas of business ethics specialist GoodCorporation.
“Both disciplines are an essential part of any solution to issues around harmful content or lack of competition and as new legislation takes effect in 2022 and 2023, their expertise will be vital,” he says.
“By taking a progressive view of ethics across technology and behaving with integrity, practitioners can not only guide their clients in an ethical direction but can help promote a general culture of transparency which benefits society as a whole.”
With burning Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues now racing to the top of the boardroom agenda, the need for all organisations to be accurate, clear and transparent in what they claim around issues as broad as net zero or diversity & inclusion is vital.
Ethical action plans
In tech, where the very purpose of human beings in an increasingly machine-led world is now up for discussion, the stakes are particularly high.
With a mission to become the ‘world’s trusted identity platform,’ London-based biometrics software firm Yoti provides age-verification services to the private and public sector.
Unusually for the industry, the firm has a proactively-ethical standpoint which, it says, has inadvertently become a business advantage in a much-misunderstood technological niche.
Backed by an external ‘guardian council’ – comprised of experts in fields such as human rights and data privacy – and an internal trust and ethics group representing everyone from security personnel to HR, Yoti’s ethos has also helped build a united workforce.
With both Google and Microsoft accused of playing fast and loose with the entire notion of guardians however – setting up committees in a fanfare of publicity, only to ditch them, quietly, some months later – is the jury still out?
“In my view, ethics committees certainly have a positive role to play in tech, but they don’t tend to be where they perhaps need to be – on the sales side and in the engineering department, where the algorithms themselves are being created,” Mr Thomas argues.
The 2022 outlook for ethical tech
Given the current concern over developments in AI however, notably the potential for surveillance and discrimination, any deliberate ‘ethics washing’ by tech firms in 2022 and beyond will prove an increasingly risky business strategy, he predicts.
High on the list of issues which business leaders say keep them awake at night is their own organisational culture, particularly if it is out of step with changes in public mood.
While the prevailing culture in tech so often appears to lack moral compass, the impact of demographics cannot be underestimated.
The inevitable transfer of power from older, white males to a new generation of IT entrepreneurs – drawn from more diverse backgrounds – offers the hope of a sector-wide re-set which puts purpose, as well as profit, squarely on the dial.
And there are other reasons to be positive – not least the crucial role that tech will play in the global transition to lower carbon.
Tech has serious ethical problems to tackle, but the future opportunities are incalculable.