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Ethics washing in tech

Skimming through this edition of the Journal of Social Computing I came across a term for a thing I know and loathe: ethics washing.

Ethics washing follows in the tradition of other terms like pink washing and green washing; it is a deliberate ploy to make something look more ethical than it is through shallow gestures.

The ethical landscape in tech is shot through with ethics washing; independent bodies are often funded by big tech, including university departments and think tanks and companies do the bare minimum to avoid scrutiny, with u-turn after u-turn. Tech organisations fund and support only positive takes on their work and aims, and only enact changes that align with the ultimate aim of a group, which is often making money.

Business concerns are often wrapped up in a neat package of moral obligation. For example, Google's now shuttered Project Dragonfly, which would have developed a search engine compliant with China's censorship laws, was originally unveiled with arguments that expanding into new markets is a moral good, as it prevents misinformation.

Tech companies usually opt for internal ethical governance, avoiding legal enforceability and external accountability. Those developing systems and products that affect marginalised groups rarely consult them, and even more rarely meaningfully involve them in decision making.  

My personal experience with this is mainly in the accessibility realm, where the business justification or legal ramifications are often the only way to have any significant impact on whether accessibility concerns are taken seriously.

Ethics washing is a helpful frame for looking at the landscape of corporate responsibility and top down change that is often viewed by the mainstream as the forefront of tech ethics.