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Monday, 1 May 2017

'Technology', Ethics and Business Realities

As one who grew up in the era of massive cotton mills, woolen mills, potteries, steelworks and engineering plant, the fashion of the last twenty years to call software companies 'technology' firms seems curious, if not perverse.

However, one must go with the language, as it evolves, if one is to purport to relevance in commenting on the contemporary scene. Today's headlines, alongside puzzlement and concern at Mrs May's increasingly apparent incomprehension of the Brexit situation, feature a parliamentary committee's concern that the leading 'technology' companies in the field of social media have been both reluctant and incompetent to remove material that is considered harmful to children. Vicious bullying is clearly unacceptable, and the incidence of suicide that is has provoked should have led the companies to improve their filtering processes more than they have.

In addition, terrorist groups and advocates of minority tastes and fads have been able to intrude their distasteful [to many] and dangerous [to all] messages alongside material that people want to be able to access. Since the pleas of social benefit have not been sufficient to persuade the leading providers to tidy up their sites sufficiently, the MPs are now proposing that fines should be set for companies that do not comply with set social and political norms: with the rider that such fines must be sufficiently large for the firms to be hurt by them.

One obvious difficulty of trying to implement any system of sanctions and fines is that although Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Alibaba have states of domicile where their regulators can exert some degree of authority, they are transnational organisations which are much more difficult to monitor than are national telephone or radio networks. The task of controlling the content over the whole of such a web is of mind-blowing complexity; to which the political riposte must be 'where there's a will, there's a way'. But should the provider of a global platform make the whole of their global user base conform to the specific requirements of Turkey and of China and of Israel; or should they attempt to deliver bespoke subsets of their system to countries with particular security and other requirements? At what point would the weight of regulation bear so heavily on the media that their social appeal is undermined?

It is probably unavoidable that, in the absence of a global regulator, regulations and sanctions  applied by the most powerful governments will be enforced. That necessity would be unfortunate, because it would seal the failure of the major players to adopt rigorous ethical standards that could better dictate their policy and practice on the eradication of harmful material. Ethics is a hugely complicated and controversial area as a branch of philosophy; and when it is brought out of the ivory tower and set as the basis for conduct in business a raft of technical questions appears, leading to the reduction of the ethical stance to a series of rules which a significant proportion of the regulated firms and individuals begin to reinterpret and circumvent. Most practitioners in business respond to surveys by asserting that they individually do have areas of ethical understanding that they try to implement in their dealings; but they do not believe that there could be a consensus of the practitioners as to what the basics of such a code must be. Towards the end of the last century the Worshipful Company of Insurers engaged a very distinguished philosopher to assess the state of ethics in the insurance business. The members of the Company are, by definition, senior members of their profession, largely drawn from the world-leading London market [including Lloyd's]. In response to a survey, the Livery of the Company evinced an awareness of the need for standards in the conduct of business, and agreed that the publication of common basic principles would be beneficial for entrants to the business. But when asked whether they thought that ethical standards were higher or lower than in the past, a very large majority firmly said that standards had declined. It was thought that publication of this finding would be damaging to the reputation of the industry at large [and to the reputation of London in the global market] and the report was received quietly within the company and shut away. The professional body, the Chartered Insurance Institute, introduced a basic introduction to ethical principles into its syllabus, without any great fanfare but with a beneficial effect; and so the matter stands.

In most areas of business, especially where the practitioners claim to be members of a 'profession'  there are pretensions to maintain 'ethical' standards; even in journalism. But these are very fragile structures compared with the legal forces that have to be brought to bear to eradicate fraud and other malpractice.

'The Law is a ass,' as one of Shakespeare's colourful characters tells us; but it is necessary in this region.

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