Unlocking the key to a more ethical future

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Picture: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

In 2019 and beyond, we should support companies that hold themselves to the highest ethical standards, writes Dave Troy. Anything else is just a recipe for disaster.

Every few days, we hear another story about how technology companies have failed us — with data breaches, lax policies around user data protection, bad internal practices, and executives who seem either oblivious or openly antagonistic to any critique.

It’s almost as if encouraging a cult-like worship of money in a generation of young people might be having negative side-effects on everyone else.

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit unfair, but it’s past time that we start to ask some important questions about how and why we build tech companies. And it’s especially urgent that those of us in the technology field take a look in the mirror and ask whether we are part of the problem.

In late 2016, I started to research Cambridge Analytica and the role that they played in Brexit, in the Trump campaign, and elsewhere.

What became clear to those of us who were trying to make sense of what had happened was that Facebook was well aware of the vulnerabilities that were being exploited at least as early as 2014. And, to be fair, they took action to close some of the holes by May 2015.

However, it would take until March 16, 2018, for Facebook to publish a terse Friday-night news dump acknowledging the situation with Cambridge Analytica, and attempting to frame the problem in extremely limited terms; it is understandable that they would aim to downplay the problem.

But it took the company several years to publicly acknowledge the many problems with data misuse that had been reported by staff. And it wasn’t just Cambridge Analytica, there were dozens of companies just like it, harvesting data, trading it on open exchanges, setting up fake identities on Facebook pages, and attempting all manner of social engineering for both politics and profit.

The early pioneers of the internet were mostly hippies. Fans of Tolkien and science fiction, people such as John Perry Barlow (see his ‘Declaration of Independence of Cyber Space’) envisioned a kind of free-spirited online world that would be free of constraints imposed by governments and powerful corporations, where free thinkers could self-organise and associate in global communities. And this vision was right, for a while.

But some important ideas got lost in the handoff between generations. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg looked at Barlow’s vision and saw a way to make a lot of money, and the prescription was dangerously simple: “Make the world more open and connected.”

And it seems naïve now — just add more people to the network (and the advertising-driven bottom line) and “good” would somehow be magically manufactured.

Zuckerberg would have done well to stay at Harvard a while longer and take some history classes. Any student of 20th-century history would have concerns about how platforms such as Facebook and Twitter could be used to drive both misinformation (false information) and disinformation (intentionally misleading information).

I was 12 1984 when my father and I would tune into Radio Moscow and listened to their English-language news broadcast. I was struck immediately that they were saying things that weren’t true, and that put America in a very bad light.

This was, of course, the height of the Cold War. I asked my father: “Why are they lying like that?”

And now our information landscape has been activated in service of a full-throated hybrid information war. One can have a valid discussion about exactly who in this war is right or wrong and about what. The bigger concern is that we are surprisingly defenceless against information and data-driven warfare.

American business culture in particular places profits above all considerations; couple that with powerful, young executives who are naïve, mostly well-meaning, undereducated, surrounded by people who are mostly young and male and similarly motivated, and it becomes easy to control them.

Why did Zuckerberg (and Sandberg) not dig into the Russian interference sooner? Because it would open them to liability and affect the bottom line.

Ultimately, Facebook has had to up-end major parts of their advertising business which has had a major negative effect on revenue and profits. On July 26, 2018, Facebook’s stock lost 20% (or $120bn) of its value in a single day, as the full implications of the Cambridge Analytica story began to become clear. It has dropped an additional 21% since then.

We are also vulnerable because our populations are susceptible to fake news; every day we see a flurry of incorrect, strongly biased, outdated stories and propaganda fly across our social networks, reinforcing cognitive bias and helping to sharpen and define our “ingroups” and “outgroups”.

It is impossible in 2019 not to know what “team” you are on, because you have been told who you belong with and you know who you’re against. And our political discourse has taken on the character of rooting at a rugby match. Real listening is not only impossible, it’s simply unnecessary.

To address this state of affairs, we need to hold business accountable to higher ethical standards. It is unconscionable that we should have allowed a giant multi-billion dollar fraud of a company such as Theranos to get as far along as it did, but such is the mythos of the American entrepreneur.

Elizabeth Holmes managed to convince people she was the next Steve Jobs by replicating his piercing stare and wearing black turtlenecks. It shouldn’t be that easy.

We will need to make progress in our educational system; maybe more founders should be graduates, not dropouts. And maybe our curricula shouldn’t try to lean on the Stem (or even the febrile and sad Steam) fads and instead aim to produce well-rounded thinkers familiar with humanities, history, ethics, and philosophy.

In fact, this is exactly what the intelligence community is clamouring for: humanities majors with engineering competence. I attended a forum at Georgetown University last autumn and the biggest demand that employers cited was for well-read analysts who could understand not just numbers, but culture.

Western countries will need to learn lessons from Ukraine and the Baltic states, which have become accustomed to dealing with Russian propaganda.

As Ukraine became a testing ground for Vladislav Surkov’s (Putin’s theatre-master in Crimea) surrealistic “all sides war” propaganda, they have become better at spotting such “Active Measures”.

In Latvia, there is a weekly television show in a prime time slot that reviews the week’s most ludicrous Russian propaganda. And of course, it’s not just Russia that we have to be concerned with. China, Iran, North Korea, and others are getting into the business as well.

Democracies can be remarkably fragile, especially with elections that rest on a razor-thin 50/50 majority vote. Just a few thousand votes one way or another can sway the outcome.

Fans of the television series The Wire (set in my home town of Baltimore) may remember that one episode was titled ‘All the Pieces Matter’.

Truly this is the case here. Entrepreneurs, politicians, historians, philosophers, and technologists need to start working together to build a livable and ethical future. Just connecting people to the internet and selling ads is not only insufficient, it’s dangerous.

In 2019 and beyond, we should support companies that hold themselves to the highest ethical standards. Anything less is a recipe for disaster.

Dave Troy is a serial entrepreneur and community activist in Baltimore, Maryland. He is CEO and product architect at 410 Labs, maker of the popular e-mail management tool Mailstrom.co. He has been acknowledged by the founding team at Twitter as the first developer to utilise the Twitter API, with his project ,‘Twittervision’, which was featured in the 2008 MoMA exhibition ‘Design and the Elastic Mind’.

His crowdsourced project, Peoplemaps.org, uses social network data to map cities. He is also organiser of TEDxMidAtlantic and is passionate about data, cities, and entrepreneurship.

He is one of the speakers at the Nimbus Research Centre’s ‘Beyond IoT 2’ on January 21 at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork.

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