Sunday, November 18, 2018

Ethics in Technology - FinTech

Last Thursday, @ThinkRiseLDN (Rise London, a FinTech hub) hosted a discussion on Ethics in Technology (15 November 2018).

Since many of the technologies under discussion are designed to support the financial services industry, the core ethical debate is strongly correlated to the business ethics of the finance sector and is not solely a matter of technology ethics. But like most other sectors, the finance sector is being disrupted by the opportunities and challenges posed by technological innovation, and this entails a professional and moral responsibility on technologists to engage with a range of ethical issues.

(Clearly there are many ethical issues in the financial services industry besides technology. For example, my friends in the @LongFinance initiative are tackling the question of sustainability.)

The Financial Services industry has traditionally been highly regulated, although some FinTech innovations may be less well regulated for now. So people working in this sector may expect regulation - specifically principles-based regulation - to play a leading role in ethical governance (Note: the UK Financial Services Authority has been pursuing a principles-based regulation strategy for over ten years.)

Whether ethical questions can be reduced to a set of principles or rules is a moot point. In medical ethics, principles are generally held to be useful but not sufficient for resolving difficult ethical problems. (See McCormick for a good summary. See also my post on Practical Ethics.)

Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly some useful principles for technology ethics. For example, the principle that you can never foresee all the consequences of your actions, so you should avoid making irreversible technological decisions. In science fiction, this issue can be illustrated by a robot that goes rogue and cannot be switched off. @moniquebachner made the point that with a technology like Blockchain, you were permanently stuck, for good or ill, with your original design choices.

Several of the large tech companies have declared principles for data and intelligence. (My summary here.) But declaring principles is the easy bit; these companies taking them seriously (or us trusting them to take them seriously) may be harder.

One of the challenges discussed by the panel was how to negotiate the asymmetry of power. If your boss or your client wants to do something that you are uncomfortable with, you can't just assert some ethical principles and expect her to change her mind. So rather than walk away from an interesting technical challenge, you give yourself an additional organizational challenge - how to influence the project in the right way, without sacrificing your own position.

Obviously that's an ethical dilemma in its own right. Should you compromise your principles in the hope of retaining some influence over the outcome, or could you persuade yourself that the project isn't so bad after all? There is an interesting play-off between individual responsibility and collective responsibility, which we are also seeing in politics (Brexit passim).

Sheryl Sandberg appears to offer a high-profile example of this ethical dilemma. She had been praised by feminists for being "the one reforming corporate boy’s club culture from the inside ... the civilizing force barely keeping the organization from tipping into the abyss of greed and toxic masculinity." Crispin now disagrees with this view. "It seems clear what Sandberg truly is instead: a team player. And her team is not the working women of the world. It is the corporate culture that has groomed, rewarded, and protected her throughout her career." "This is the end of corporate feminism", comments @B_Ehrenreich.

And talking of Facebook ...

The title of Cathy O'Neil's book Weapons of Math Destruction invites a comparison between the powerful technological instruments now in the hands of big business, and the arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons that have been a major concern of international relations since the Second World War. During the so-called Cold War, these weapons were largely controlled by the two major superpowers, and it was these superpowers that dominated the debate. As these weapons technologies have proliferated however, attention has shifted to the possible deployment of these weapons by smaller countries, and it seems that the world has become much more uncertain and dangerous.

In the domain of data ethics, it is the data superpowers (Facebook, Google) that command the most attention. But while there are undoubtedly major concerns about the way these companies use their powers, we may at least hope that a combination of forces may help to moderate the worst excesses. Besides regulatory action, these forces might include public opinion, corporate risk aversion from the large advertisers that provide the bulk of the income, as well as pressure from their own employees.

And in FinTech as with Data Protection, it will always be easier for regulators to deal with a small number of large players than with a very large number of small players. The large players will of course try to lobby for regulations that suit them, and may shift some operations into less strongly regulated jurisdictions, but in the end they will be forced to comply, more or less. Except that the ethically dubious stuff will always turn out to be led by a small company you've never heard of, and the large players will deny that they knew anything about it.

As I pointed out in my previous post on The Future of Political Campaigning, the regulators only have limited tools at their disposal, so this slants their powers to deal with the ethical ecosystem as a whole. If I had a hammer ...

Financial Services Authority, Principles-Based Regulation - Focusing on the Outcomes that Matter (FSA, April 2007)

Jessa Crispin, Feminists gave Sheryl Sandberg a free pass. Now they must call her out (Guardian, 17 November 2018)

Ian Harris, Commercial Ethics: Process or Outcome (Z/Yen, 2008)

Thomas R. McCormick, Principles of Bioethics (University of Washington, 2013)

Chris Yapp, Where does the buck stop now? (Long Finance, 28 October 2018)

Related posts Practical Ethics (June 2018) Data and Intelligence Principles from Major Players (June 2018) The Future of Political Campaigning (November 2018)

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