Report authors Emanuel Moss and Jacob Metcalf draw on interviews and ethnographic observation to outline the tensions that “ethics owners” in Silicon Valley must navigate to operationalize ethics within their companies.
In Ethics Owners: A New Model of Organizational Responsibility in Data-Driven Technology Companies, Data & Society researchers Emanuel Moss and Jacob Metcalf assert that understanding the work of ethics owners—and the tensions they face—is key to the future governance and regulation of tech companies, and the increasingly powerful technologies they design.
While actual job titles vary, ethics owners are tasked with “translating public pressure into new corporate practices” by creating an ethical framework for technology workers to operate within. While previous ethical frameworks exist in practice in many sectors, none of these fully encompass the unique work of ethics owners within technology companies.
Ethics owners run up against a multitude of challenges; what counts as ethics is not always clearly defined, and product designers and engineers don’t necessarily consider ethics integral to their role. Others view ethics owners as a compliance function, and might even consider them an annoyance. The authors identify six fundamental tensions that ethics owners face:
- Personal ethics: The personal ethics of the ethics owner do not always align with those of the corporation.
- Limiting harms: It’s easier to advocate for changes that limit harms rather than those that benefit the user.
- Business models: Whether it’s a direct-to-consumer or business-to-business model, standard practices vary and the business model has implications for how ethics owners approach their work.
- Nonmeasurable impact: Ethics owners’ work often cannot be measured with Silicon Valley’s traditional metrics model. They must work to create new ways of measuring impact.
- Users/nonusers: Ethics owners only have information on their users, making it difficult to understand the impact of their products on nonusers despite being tasked with understanding the full societal impact.
- Scale: Ethics must be applied contextually, and are difficult to scale across an industry, or even across teams in a single company.
Ethics owners, Moss and Metcalf find, aren’t working to resolve these tensions; rather, their job is to navigate them and create effective cross-team communication and product design while protecting the company’s bottom line.
Moss and Metcalf also present opportunities for ethics owners including publishing case studies, discussing failures, collaborating with civil society, and pushing for impact metrics that acknowledge and promote social benefit and justice.
This report was produced by the AI on the Ground Initiative (AIGI) at Data & Society Research Institute.
Emanuel Moss and Jacob Metcalf, Ethics Owners: A New Model of Organizational Responsibility in Data-Driven Technology Companies (New York: Data & Society Research Institute, 2020), https://datasociety.net/pubs/Ethics-Owners.pdf.