Cars are regulated for safety – why not information technology?

Cars are regulated for safety – why not information technology?
Modern cars are safer than this – but not because auto companies got more ethical. Credit: Richard Thornton/

As the computing industry grapples with its role in society, many people, both in the field and outside it, are talking about a crisis of ethics.

There is a massive rush to hire chief ethics officers, retool codes of professional ethics and teach ethics to students. But as a scholar of computing – and a teacher of a course on computing, ethics and society at Rice University – I am skeptical of the assumptions that what ails technology is a lack of ethics, and that the best fix is to teach technologists about ethics.

Instead, in my view, the solution is government action, which aims at balancing , ethics and markets. This isn't a radical new idea: It's how treats cars and driving.

Consider, for instance, the Ford Model T, the first mass-produced and mass-consumed automobile. Its debut in 1908 launched the automobile age, a time of great mobility – and widespread death. Car crashes kill more than a million people worldwide each year – but the fatality rate per mile driven has been dropping almost since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line.

The reason for that improving safety record is not that people learning to drive studied the ethics of responsible and safe driving. Rather, they were taught, and tested on, the rules of the road, in order to obtain a driving license. Other regulations improved how roads were built, required car makers to adopt new safety features, mandated accident insurance, and outlawed drunk driving and other unsafe behaviors. I believe a similar approach – regulation, in addition to ethics education for technologists, as well as market competition – is needed today to make modern technology safe for society as a whole.

Cars are regulated for safety – why not information technology?
Credit: The Conversation

Flaws in the basic business model

In the 1980s, internet pioneers adopted a philosophy that "information wants to be free" – so website owners didn't charge readers for access to the content. Instead, internet companies used advertising to support their efforts. That led them to collect on their users and offer micro-targeted advertising to make money, which social scientist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism."

This business model is enormously profitable, so it's unlikely internet companies will abandon it on their own as a result of ethical qualms. Even in the face of blistering critiques and Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, the massive profits are compelling.

The real problem with surveillance capitalism is not that it is unethical – which I believe it is – but that it is completely legal in most countries. It is unreasonable to expect for-profit corporations to avoid profitable businesses that are legal. In my view, it is not enough to simply criticize internet companies' ethics. If society finds the surveillance business model offensive, then the remedy is not an ethical outrage, but making laws and regulations that govern it, or even prevent it altogether.

Of course, public policy cannot be divorced from ethics. Selling human organs is banned in the U.S. in part because society finds it ethically repugnant to profit from life itself. But the ban is enforced by laws, not by an ongoing ethics debate. As Chief Justice Earl Warren remarked: "In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics."

Cars are regulated for safety – why not information technology?
Credit: The Conversation

Regulation has benefits

For decades, the information-technology industry has successfully lobbied against attempts to legislate or regulate it, arguing that "regulation stifles innovation." Of course, that assumes all innovation is good. It has become evidently clear that this is not always the case: Some of the internet giants' innovation has harmed democratic society in the U.S. and around the world.

In fact, one purpose of regulation is to chill certain kinds of innovation – specifically, those that the public finds wrong, distasteful or unhelpful to the advancement of society. Regulation can also encourage innovation in ways society deems beneficial. There is no question that regulations on the automobile industry encouraged innovation in safety and fuel efficiency.

Some members of Congress have proposed a number of ambitious plans to tackle information warfare, consumer protection, competition in digital technology and the role of artificial intelligence in society. But much simpler – and more widely supported – rules could make a huge difference for individual customers and society as a whole.

For instance, could require software terms and licenses include that's easily understood by anyone – perhaps modeled on the longstanding "plain English rule" for corporate financial filings to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Laws or rules could also require companies to disclose data breaches quickly, both to officials and the public at large. That might even spark innovation as firms increase their efforts to prevent and detect network intrusions and data theft. Another relatively easy opportunity would be to regulate automated judicial decision systems, including requiring that they not be deployed before passing an independent audit showing that they are fair and unbiased.

Those straightforward regulations could pave the way for thinking and talking about whether and how to regulate the sizes of these big technology firms. But rule-making need not start with the hardest problems – there's plenty to do that most people would agree on right away.

The bottom line is that technology advances have been moving very fast, while public policy has lagged behind. It is time for to catch up with technology. If technology is driving the future, society should do the steering.

Explore further

Code of ethics doesn't influence decisions of software developers

Provided by The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The Conversation

Citation: Cars are regulated for safety – why not information technology? (2019, March 22) retrieved 22 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Mar 22, 2019
Information does want to be free. Anyone who closes theirs behind a paywall is quickly losing viewership online, because people turn away if you demand the money up-front before you show them anything. That has nothing to do with advertising or "surveillance capitalism" - if you want to sell something, you give a sample.

The advertisers rather took advantage of greedy site owners, paying a few pennies in exchange for the opportunity to spy their viewers. That money they charge off of the companies who advertise, who in turn charge it out of the consumers, so the whole market is about forcing people to view ads and making them pay for it.

The "content" that is funded by these ads is typically irrelevant, and in most cases non-content and non-information - simple clickbait and fluff. People with nothing to sell tricking people with nothing to do to view ads, which are paid collectively by everyone. This "market" is not only unethical, it's completely pointless and harmful.

Mar 22, 2019
And the thing about online advertising in general is that it doesn't work. It's cargo cult marketing - everybody's doing it, so everybody thinks they must.

People who actually need something will look for the information themselves. They don't look at the ads, they open up a catalog or make a search. By the time the person has found what they needed, it's too late for Google. What they end up doing is showing adverts for products that the person already bought, or didn't buy because it wasn't what they wanted.

But that doesn't matter for Google. It doesn't matter that their targeted ads don't work - all that matters is that the companies who buy the adverts believe they work. Google could be showing them to a bunch of lab rats randomly clicking the buttons - if only they could get away with it. In fact, probably the vast majority of click-through counts for ads come by accident or by people gaming the system with bots.

Mar 22, 2019
I mean, there's something fundamentally wrong in a world where I have to pay, in the price of my bread, the fact that some douchebag stole another douchebags stolen video on Youtube and is now collecting ad money for the fact that other people are watching this "ten funniest cats" video while Google is displaying them ads of the supermarket chain that I buy my bread from.

How much time and resources are wasted to support these useless parasites??

Online advertising should be treated exactly like email spam - filtered out by default. If you want to sell something, ask me if I want to buy it - don't come sneaking to my wallet while I'm not looking.

Mar 22, 2019
Well ⨋, in general, i can agree with much of your comments.
{ooh, there's that word again!}

The devil is in the details.
Now what?
How do we bell this clowder of cats?
Who are licking their chops & sharpening their claws.
every time they see us consumer-mice?

They have the money to buy a lot more political influence than you or I can afford!

Mar 23, 2019
Another call to fix something that ain't broke by armchair pundits.

The real problem with surveillance capitalism is not that it is unethical – which I believe it is – but that it is completely legal in most countries

There is nothing "unethical" about tracking your usage to shape the kind of advertising you see in an app or website you voluntarily chose to use. No one is forcing you to use the app or visit the website. And would you rather see advertising pertinent to you or completely random advertising?

Building an app or hosting a website takes time and costs money; sometimes a lot. There are two ways to recoup that cost: require people to pay for usage or have advertisers pay to display ads.

If you don't want your phone to track your movements, you can turn off location services. There are numerous browser plugins and apps to block pop-ups, ads, prevent tracking, and encrypt your communications to render you completely anonymous.

Mar 23, 2019
Modern cars are safer than this – but not because auto companies got more ethical

Safety equipment in cars was always introduced by manufacturers long before regulations required them. For example, airbags were introduced in the U.S. by auto companies because so many people weren't wearing seatbelts. They became widespread a decade before the federal government required front airbags, indicating that auto companies did indeed get more "ethical."

Isn't it amazing how a free market responds to consumer demand and provides solutions that are superior to the oppressive regulations proposed by busybody, autocratic socialists? Ironically (to unthinking socialists), the free market respects individual freedom and choice, which is, incidentally, more ethical than compelling people to behave the way you want them to.

Mar 23, 2019
The New Zealand gunman live streamed his killing spree. That "information" was free, but should it be? No doubt he was driven in part by his desire for notoriety/fame.

The mantra "information should be free" is naive. Should information on how to spy on people, steal, commit/plan mass murder or other acts of terror be free and readily available?

Some regulation is in order.

Mar 23, 2019
The whole discussion here is kind of funny. People are worried about a site searching their cookies and using the info to select which ads to show. Meanwhile they have a chip attached to their body that tracks their every movement, even their speed if the calculation is relevant to the end users information needs. This chip is called a cell phone.

Mar 23, 2019
Building an app or hosting a website takes time and costs money; sometimes a lot. There are two ways to recoup that cost: require people to pay for usage or have advertisers pay to display ads.

Are you by chance in favor of "net neutrality"? Your argument works against that concept. If a company spends billions of dollars on a network, shouldn't they be able to recoup that cost by giving preferential access?

It has always puzzled me that everyone wants free high speed internet access. Yet these same people want private (for profit) companies to spend enormous sums of money to create the infrastructure and not have a chance to recoup their investment."

Its not much different from building a house and having to let someone else move in and live there for free.

Mar 23, 2019
Led_Guy you a 101% correct about allowing companies to charge based on volume and speed of delivery. It is similar to Parcel Post vs Next Day Air prices.

The biggest worry in my mind is censorship by the large internet companies. THEY can influence and even create public opinion by limiting free speech. Google can alter search results to fit their political agenda.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more