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Communications of the ACM

Computing ethics

Shaping Ethical Computing Cultures

four hands holding worker tools

Credit: Jamesbin

Public concern about computer ethics and worry about the social impacts of computing has fomented the "techlash." Newspaper headlines describe company data scandals and breaches; the ways that communication platforms promote social division and radicalization; government surveillance using systems developed by private industry; machine learning algorithms that reify entrenched racism, sexism, cisnormativity, ablism, and homophobia; and mounting concerns about the environmental impact of computing resources. How can we change the field of computing so that ethics is as central a concern as growth, efficiency, and innovation? There is no one intervention to change an entire field: instead, broad change will take a combination of guidelines, governance, and advocacy. None is easy and each raises complex questions, but each approach represents a tool for building an ethical culture of computing.

To envision a culture of computing with ethics as a central concern, we start with the recent past, and a subdiscipline—computer security research—that has grappled with ethics concerns for decades. The 2012 Menlo Report3 established guidelines for responsible research in network and computer security. After Menlo, new requirements for ethics statements in computer security and network measurement conferences illustrate the use of governance for centering ethics in computing. Historically, a volunteer organization, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), engaged in advocacy beginning in the 1980s to shape a more ethical future of computing, and influenced many of today's leading Internet watchdog and activist groups.4


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