A Global Moral for the Tech Companies?

Netopia attended the annual Internetdagarna (“Internet Days”) conference in Stockholm, Sweden. Tuesday’s highlight was a panel on the tech companies’ moral obligations.

On stage were the public policy representatives for Twitter, Facebook and Google in Sweden – Ylwa Pettersson, Christine Grahn and Sara Övreby – and law professor Mårten Schultz. Schultz challenged the panelists with things like the Christchurch massacre and said the companies are not doing a good enough job moderating their systems. The tech representatives talked about transparency in community standards and terms of use.

Technology is the opposite of neutral. Technology is a product of ideology. Of public investment. Of legislation. Of public policy decisions.

They pointed to the difficulty in making content regulation that works in different countries. Grahn from Facebook said that the AI catches 99% or more of child abuse content. Google’s Övreby said YouTube takes down “supremacy content”, which means content that says one group of people is superior to another. Twitter’s Pettersson shared an interesting point that in hate speech, the AI looks more for behaviour patterns than content. Also, all three companies have signed up to Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s “Contract for the Web” (perhaps demonstrating that it will have no impact on their business).

Despite these efforts, calls for regulation are increasing. Not only on this publication, but only in the last few days Amnesty International and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen have joined these calls.

In a key comment, Google’s Sara Övreby said: “Technology has no morals or ethics” (my translation). Whether this is good defense play or at heart of the self-image of her employer, this comment captures why the strategies applied will not work. Because it’s wrong. Technology is the opposite of neutral. Technology is a product of ideology. Of public investment. Of legislation. Of public policy decisions. In other words, technology is a product of morals and ethics. Consider this:

Ideology: the internet itself is a result of the Cold War. The research for the computer-to-communication-protocols that created the internet was funded by the US military in the 1960s. The Cold War is one of the clearest ideological battles in history: Communism in the red corner, Capitalism in the blue.

Public investment: most of the research on the technology that runs the internet was publicly funded: microprocessors, harddrives, touch-screens, GPS, voice-control etc. Big public investment goes into upcoming technologies such as additive manufacturing, smart electric grids, self-driving cars, super-materials etc. It does not stop at that, even the famous venture capital funds on Sand Hill Road relied on public funding, using loan guarantees from federal pension funds, four public dollars to each private.

Legislation: the immunity from prosecution for intermediaries, laid out in laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the US, is the cornerstone of the platform economy. Without that paragraph, internet companies would have to operate in a completely different manner, taking responsibility for what users post on their systems.

Google itself is very much a product of the ideology that was popular at Stanford University in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when founders Page and Brin studied and did research there. Famously articulated by Stanford Review editor Peter Thiel (yes, that Peter Thiel, the Bond-villainous superstar tech investor): No Regulation, No Taxes, No Copyright, No Competition.

Technology is the product of morals and ethics. Accepting that is a great first step toward change.