I’m an independent web designer, and have been for most of my career. I make my living getting hired by companies, working alongside them, and helping them ship beautiful products and services. I love my job, and I’m fortunate to do it. And really, my clients have been stellar. Sometimes, I get to work with organizations like Source or ProPublica, and I get to use my design practice to help causes I care about.
And I’ve been thinking about causes recently. When I started working for myself, I decided I wouldn’t take on projects for a client whose business would make me lose sleep at night. Now, what’d cause you to lose sleep might very well be different from what’d cause me to stare at a bedroom ceiling, and I respect that. But early on, I’d decided I wouldn’t work for a military contractor, or for a company that published exploitative, hateful material. I wasn’t approached by too many companies that’d qualify, honestly, but—well, I felt better having those lines drawn for myself.
These days, the lines seem much blurrier than they used to be. In just the last few weeks, it’s come to light that Microsoft’s selling technology to America’s deportation force; Amazon has effectively been giving facial recognition software away to law enforcement agencies; and were it not for some herculean organizing by its employees, Google might still be providing machine learning to drone strikes. And these companies are just the tip of the iceberg. So to speak.
(Quick aside: I don’t presume to think that these companies are monoliths. To any folks at these companies who are dismayed by their employers’ decisions, you have my heartfelt sympathies; if you’re organizing internally, well, you have my thanks.)
In other words: when I started working for myself, it felt easier to distinguish the companies I’d work with from the companies I wouldn’t. Now, there’s no longer a clear boundary between a given software company and, say, one of the American government’s more inhumane agencies. And as a small business owner, I’m not sure what to do with that. How do I screen a potential client for something I’d consider unethical—or worse, immoral? It doesn’t feel as clear-cut as sending over a list of questions similar to the ones I send conference organizers. Besides, when I’m speaking with a prospective client, can they tell me with certainty that their company’s not conducting business I’d find problematic?
I don’t know. Honestly, I’m feeling a bit lost over this. So I’ve been reading, and researching, and looking for examples of other companies that’ve navigated this problem. Both Kellogg and Deloitte Southeast Asia have shared their codes of ethics online, and the UK Government recently published its Data Ethics Framework.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting these are model documents, or perfect institutions. But as examples of prior art, these codes of ethics have been helpful references. And it’s a little comforting to know I’m not running the first business that’s tried to jot down how it should operate. Because at the moment, I’m feeling like I need to write down not just the kind of work I like, but the kind of projects I can allow myself to do. I need to come up with an ethical framework for myself, and how I run my business.
Maybe the answer will be that there’s no ethical web design under capitalism. Maybe the line simply is much, much blurrier than it used to be. Maybe the line was always this blurry, and I’m just now paying attention. I don’t know. I do know this is a small problem amidst everything else that’s happening. But it might be one I can fix. Or at least, I have to try.
Update: I’m going to try to keep a running list of resources I’ve found on this topic. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
- Casey Fiesler has a Google spreadsheet of syllabi for courses teaching tech ethics. For background, here’s her post on the project. (Via Anil Dash.)
- Last year, Thoughtbot wrote about their purpose statement, and how it guides the way they select work. (Via Sam Kapila.)
- Ruby developer Caleb Thompson shares a story about how he realized an interesting engineering problem was actually a weapon. (Via Joel Oliveira.)
- Amazon employees have written an open letter to Jeff Bezos, asking him to stop selling the company’s facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies, and to stop selling Amazon Web Services technology to Palantir. (“As ethically concerned Amazonians, we demand a choice in what we build, and a say in how it is used.”)
- Rob Kerr wrote a post on making ethical decisions on software development projects, with a series of questions he uses to guide a product’s design. (Via Malcolm Young.)