Tech innovation often undermines ethics

Photo by Casey Gomez

It seems that almost every month we are set upon by a new scandal out of some technology company. Facebook’s implication in the Cambridge Analytica incident left Americans concerned about the company’s potential impact on the 2016 presidential elections. In October, the FDA raided the offices of JUUL, an e-cigarette company, over concerns that the product was being marketed to underage users.

What these issues show is a seeming disregard by modern technology companies for even the most basic of ethical behavior standards. People do not give their personal information to companies like Facebook expecting it to be used to influence an election. Worse, the byzantine privacy policies and terms of use for these services often obscure how user information will be used and even what information the company gathers.

If you look into the marketing materials of many startups, they often claim to be disrupting some industry or upending a traditional method of service. Uber challenged the taxi-cab industry by providing cheaper fares through a combination of a decentralized ride request system and the use of individuals’ cars instead of company-owned vehicles. As a result, rides on Uber were often easier to hail and cheaper to use.

What this story hides, though, is the fact that Uber does not have to deal with the regulations imposed on taxi companies. Most taxi services have to have some level of insurance for the vehicles as well as the passengers inside. There are higher standards to become a taxi driver than to become an Uber driver and cities typically require taxi services to be registered and vetted before operations.

It should be no surprise that this regulatory scheme increases the cost of taxi services, and whether it is necessary or not, Uber sidesteps the regulations while providing the same type of service. Instead of playing by the rules and possibly fighting to change them, Uber places itself conveniently outside the regulated scope and claims that it is not subject to them.

Beginning last year, many Tech students have likely noticed an influx of electric scooters on the sidewalks, provided by companies like Bird, Lime and JUMP, a brand by Uber. These scooters are often strewn around on public property like Tech campus during the day, then taken to charge at night and re-released the following morning. Outside of Tech, you can sometimes find piles of scooters on the sides of roads, obstructing foot traffic and sometimes the road itself.

Companies like this show a disregard for the consequences of their business model and their impact on the city. They do not charge or collect the scooters, leaving that job to individuals through a process similar to driving with the Uber app. They also do not require that users place the scooters upright or in a location out of the way of traffic, leaving responsibility to the user.

At the same time, these companies have shown an aggressive stance towards protecting their property, having them sound off loud alarms when moved without first being rented through an app and, more prominently, opposing the use of so-called conversion kits that can be used to convert legally impounded scooters to scooters that can be used without an application. This stance creates this paradox of the company controlling its property while simultaneously claiming that they aren’t responsible for it.

It’s time for technology companies to step up to the plate and start taking responsibility for their actions. Not using people solely as a means to an end is, quite literally, Ethics 101, but technology companies seem to have lost sight of even this most fundamental rule. If we cannot even trust companies to follow that rule, how can we possibly trust them to make increasingly more complicated ethical decisions?