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Tech’s Ethical Problem is also a Diversity Problem

Bärí A. Williams argues that many of the ethical issues that tech companies wrestle with, from data breaches to gentrification, could be solved with a more diverse group of people making decisions.

Principles and profit are not mutually exclusive. The balance between being profitable and being principled is only as hard as a business leader makes it. Some in Silicon Valley think hiring a chief ethics officer will help save their company from their own potential missteps. However, I would posit that the larger issue links back to the lack of diversity at tech companies. Ethical issues are diversity issues.

DIVERSITY’S EFFECT ON TECH COMPANIES, PRODUCTS, AND PRACTICES

In recent weeks, we have seen more stories around tech companies having privacy and data breaches, more disinformation campaigns, funding companies through investments from questionable sources, and platforms hosting fake profiles and groups full of hate speech. All of these instances present ethical dilemmas for tech companies: Not just how to solve the current crisis, but how to mitigate future risks while not limiting rewards.

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica fiasco from earlier this year revealed three things:

  • When people are the product sold to advertisers, what users share can, and will, be used, and monetized, against them.

  • Facebook doesn’t audit third parties on the site.

  • If there were greater diversity in the room when decisions are made, some ethical issues could be identified before they escalate. The Cambridge Analytica voter depression and disinformation campaigns were only possible because no one was in the room with the ability to point out how marginalized groups would be impacted by use of their data. This is due to a focus on speed and shipping product, and not identifying or thinking through consequences for users in general, and minorities in particular. The absence of people of color from the decision-making process indicates the absence of thought around concerns and ramifications to these populations.

DIVERSITY’S IMPORTANCE IN THE ETHICS OF FUNDING

Funding is another landmine of muddled morals. Investing in a company provides the investor with a say in how the money is used, and when the investor is of questionable repute, what the money funds may be viewed similarly. Early in October, it was reported that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, would be investing another $45 billion into SoftBank’s Vision Fund, bringing their total investment to $90 billion. Two weeks later, it was revealed that a journalist who was critical of the government was killed by the Saudi government in barbaric fashion in a foreign consulate, reportedly at the request of the Crown Prince. This begs the question of who is in the room when deciding what investments to take, and make, with Saudi money.

Decision makers with intimate knowledge of Middle Eastern politics, familiarity with years of state-led Saudi human-rights violations, and understanding of how to do business with certain individuals would be worthwhile in this instance. It’s a moral conundrum to decide whether accepting blood money to fund a startup is worth the cost of doing business. But having someone with diverse experience and understanding of the nuances can help founders, and funders, make those decisions. Divest or invest? Be mindful that, as my mother says, “All money ain’t good money.”

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