Tech industry woes blasted as ‘failure in public policy’

Rice computer scientist: New laws needed to address tech industry ills

By Patrick Kurp
Special to the Rice News

One of the world’s leading computer scientists delivered a scathing review of the computing industry to a standing-room-only crowd on the Rice campus, calling for new laws to address problems created by 21st century technology companies.

“It is not an ethical crisis,” said Rice professor Moshe Vardi. “It is a failure in public policy.”

Vardi delivered his highly anticipated address entitled “An Ethical Crisis in Computing?” at Duncan’s Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium Jan. 22.  It was presented by the Dean of Engineering and the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology in honor of Vardi’s promotion last fall to rank of University Professor, Rice’s highest academic title.

Vardi reviewed the growing mood of public distrust, fear and anger prompted by high-tech security breaches, surveillance, the theft and sale of personal data, and interference in electoral politics. The professor quoted columnist Peggy Noonan who last year described Silicon Valley executives as “moral Martians who operate on some weird new postmodern ethical wavelength.”

Vardi said the tech industry has responded with a call for more training in ethics, and academic institutions have responded with “new courses on computing, ethics and society.”

“Others are taking a broader approach, integrating ethics across their computing curricula,” he said. “The narrative is that what ails tech today is a deficit of ethics and the remedy, therefore, is an injection of ethics. This leaves me deeply skeptical. It is not that I am against ethics, but I am dubious of the diagnosis and the remedy.”

Vardi likened computing to another technology, the automobile, which also revolutionized human society and had unintended consequences — traffic fatalities. Society adapted to this “dark side” automotive technology by adopting rules to reduce traffic deaths, which have declined steadily since the 1970s.

“It was not ethics training for drivers that was responsible,” Vardi said. “It was crash avoidance with mirrors. It was seat belts, anti-lock brakes, airbags, traffic lights and DWI laws. Public policy.”

Absent public policy, he said the tech industry has little incentive to curb its own worst practices. For example, a core part of the business model for Facebook, Google, Amazon and many other technology companies centers upon the collection of massive amounts of data about the likes, dislikes, choices, fears and desires of specific individual consumers.

“How does Google make almost $100 billion from advertising?” Vardi asked. “Advertisers pay. Where do advertisers get the money? From consumers. Consumers pay for Google services, but in a totally opaque way. Mass surveillance!

“The problem with surveillance capitalism, is not that it is unethical, but that it is completely legal in many countries,” Vardi said. “It is unreasonable to expect for-profit corporations to avoid profitable and legal business models. The criticism of internet companies for ‘unethical’ business models is misguided. If society finds the surveillance business model offensive, the remedy is public policy in the form of laws and regulations, rather than an ethics outrage.”

Much of the outrage over high-tech malfeasance is naïve, Vardi said. He proposed the adoption of such measures as a plain language requirement for terms and licensing agreements, laws obligating companies to quickly disclose data breaches, and legislation requiring internet companies to provide ad-free subscription options.

“Of course regulation chills innovation,” he said. “The whole point of regulation is to chill certain kinds of innovation, the kind that public policy wishes to chill. At the same time, regulation encourages innovation. There is no question that automobile regulation increased automobile safety and fuel efficiency. Regulation can be a blunt instrument and must be wielded carefully. Otherwise, it can chill innovation in unpredictable ways. Public policy is hard, but it is better than anarchy.”

Vardi was also announced as the new director of a Rice initiative focused on the intersection of technology, culture and society.

“It will study how technology impacts society and culture, and how society should respond to such an impact,” Vardi said. “It will have three legs: research and scholarship, education, and outreach.”

– Patrick Kurp is a science writer in the George R. Brown School of Engineering.



About Special to Rice News

The Rice News is produced weekly by the Office of Public Affairs at Rice University.