back to article Ethics? Yeah, that's great, but do they scale?

This March I'll be co-running the first ethics track for the tech conference QCon London. We've had so much enthusiasm that QCon New York has added ethics too (Americans are notoriously behind the curve). Why the interest? I suspect because widely available tech is now creating hyperscale software products but, as …

  1. Paul Johnson 1

    Something like "fiduciary duty" for software engineers?

    Some time ago I wrote a blog post (see link below) wondering if "fiduciary duty" would cover it. That is the kind of duty that lawyers owe clients and doctors owe patients; to act in their best interests and not take advantage of a position of trust. The consensus in the comments was that it didn't fit. However I still think that something like that is needed; software acts as a trusted agent for the end user, and should be designed to act in their best interests. Obviously you can only cover the end users as a class, and in the case of cloud software its a nice question whether the end user is the cloud company or their client (but perhaps the cloud company owes a duty to the client, so its transitive).

    The key issue is that, whatever these duties are, they need to be legally enforced. The principles of the GDPR do actually go some way in this direction, but they don't fully embrace it. For instance, what about a program that ostensibly gives medical advice but actually steers the user towards a specific drug? (This is not hypothetical). This would be fine under the GDPR but is clearly not in the end user's best interests.

    1. Brangdon

      Re: Something like "fiduciary duty" for software engineers?

      Fiduciary duty doesn't seem to cover effects on bystanders. Examples being litter dropping, Bitcoin mining, diesel fumes. Arguably the people who suffer from Facebook misinformation are not limited to Facebook users.

  2. wolfetone Silver badge

    But Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable?

    1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

      Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar, who could think you under the table.

      1. wolfetone Silver badge

        David Hume could out-consume Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel.

        1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

          And Wittgenstein was a beery swine who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

          1. wolfetone Silver badge

            There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya 'bout the raising of the wrist,

            Socrates himself was permanently piiiiiiiiiiiiissed.

            1. jake Silver badge

              Thank you for sharing.

              I'll bet nobody reading ElReg has heard that before.


              1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
                Thumb Down

                Re: Thank you for sharing.

                Oh, jakie, are people once again having fun in a manner of which you disapprove? Tsk, tsk, how dare they?

                1. This post has been deleted by its author

                2. jake Silver badge

                  Re: Thank you for sharing.

                  Plagiarizing an ancient comedy routine is "fun"? OK, if you say so. Personally, I look on it as roughly the same as mindlessly regurgitating religious canon ... which I guess some people find "fun", sad though it may be.

                  At least twist it enough to make it your own. See this post.

                  1. bish

                    Re: Ancient?!

                    In what way is anyone here guilty of plagiarism? As you yourself noted, few (if any) readers here will not recognise the lyrics, so I can't see how anyone above can be accused of passing them off as their own.

                    It sounds as though you're having a bad day. Cheer up, the weekend approacheth.

                    1. jake Silver badge

                      Re: Ancient?!

                      bish, the definition of plagiarism doesn't include the phrase "except in cases where everybody knows the author of the work in question". If it did, Disney (for example) could put a fair percentage of North America's lawyers out of work.

                  2. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

                    Re: Thank you for sharing.

                    Show us where the internet hurt you.

                    1. jake Silver badge

                      Re: Thank you for sharing.

                      I don't think I've ever seen a doll with an area labeled "overloaded with repetitive attempts at last century's humo(u)r". Can I buy one online? Is there a pr0n version?

                  3. wolfetone Silver badge

                    Re: Thank you for sharing.

                    I guess Jake we can always find you in the kitchen at parties.


                    1. jake Silver badge

                      Re: Thank you for sharing.

                      In the kitchen, yes. But never alone ... it's where I pour the homebrew. It's also a good place to get away from boors trying to imitate (yet again) other people's comedy routines.

  3. Blitheringeejit

    Ethical is as ethical does

    Nice article, well written and raising interesting and relevant questions - thankyou.

    Though it was a little sad in the context that the author couldn't resist the temptation to sneak in a plug for her company - albeit cunningly disguised by non-capitalisation.

  4. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "If products are successful, we demonstrably often fail to address scale issues later. "

    That was the striking thing about the web.

    Start a site for peanuts.

    Could run for years on peanuts (if five people are interested in what you supply)

    But could blow up 1000x by the end of the week.

    This phenomena has been observed at least since the late 90's.

  5. Lysenko


    This is one of the first conference promoting advertorials I've seen that wasn't a steaming pile of buzzword ridden drivel. Regardless of whether I agree with the implied conclusions, the case presented is coherent, thought provoking, provides a basis for debate, and is clearly not the product of the typical PowerPoint ninjas who infest many such events.

  6. Simon Ward


    It's a county just north of London, innit?

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: Ethics? It's a county just north of London, innit?

      Too right.

      Next to Kent.

      1. handleoclast

        Re: Ethics? It's a county just north of London, innit?

        Next to Kent.

        Immanuel Kent?

    2. AnneCurrie

      Re: Ethics?

      The county I am from, back in the 80's. Read into that what you will ;-)

  7. codejunky Silver badge


    "They're making more money and their customers are getting what they want. There's nothing wrong with that. So why do I feel nervous?"

    Because when people get what they want and this invariably comes from competition where a new upstart can use past advancements without having to do as much leg work it makes businesses uneasy. When the barriers for entry start to fall the incumbents worry. Especially if it delivers what people want.

    "We're getting close to the point where almost anyone could potentially affect the behaviour of a significant proportion of humanity"

    It is awful isnt it! For example the raspberry pi, a cheap product that people want for varying reasons and skill levels which lowers the entry bar for learning to use a computer but also for media systems/servers and god knows what else. I would guess television would be the same problem for newspapers and the internet certainly so for both. Look at the disruption caused by netflix and such. And the truly terrifying part is of course- the customer gets what they want. Oh the woe.

    "We've democratised scale using tech. I don't think we've got our heads round that yet."

    Democracy is scary. People dont necessarily do what others want (I am sure the internets vast content of porn is an issue for puritan types for example). People choosing instead of being told. Information flowing freely instead of from 'approved' sources. People picking the winners by actually wanting the product or service.

    "Now the cloud has commoditised scale that could be weaponised by your marketing teams"

    Get on the tin foil. We now have access to more information than before. Want something? Look not only at the seller description or the marketing information but also reviews. People have been moving away from adverts and the more they are pushed the further people move away.

    "If products are successful, we demonstrably often fail to address scale issues later. Bitcoin mining is projected to require as much energy as Italy by the end of the year. Car fumes are now producing dangerously toxic air in major cities, which software engineers addressed by faking a fix. Data centres are operating at only around 10 per cent energy efficiency, which doesn't support our projected growth. Not having a scalable plan for a bit of new tech that would be beneficial to all is short sighted"

    2 of these things are non-issues and one is because of this daft idea of ethically dictating the direction. Governments pushed people to diesel as the cleaner fuel, then realised they were wrong. On top of that they punish and attack Co2 output and then complain about the side effects of actually harmful toxic fumes. Both the result of detailed planning of the future without knowing the future.

    The bitcoin and energy efficiency is a non-topic at best. This is why we have a market system, as resources reduce in availability the cost goes up. Maybe it ends bitcoin, maybe a solution is worked out. As efficiency becomes necessary it will be implemented or the users will be squeezed out. What works continues and what doesnt falls by the wayside.

    1. strum

      Re: Hmm

      >This is why we have a market system

      Which fails, miserably, to address ethical issues. Your entire posting smacks of 'don't look here, look over there!'

      1. codejunky Silver badge

        Re: Hmm

        @ strum

        Nice of you to ignore the whole comment and write a short and pointless response that ignores everything said in the comment. Just so you can say 'whataboutary!'.

        "Which fails, miserably, to address ethical issues"

        Maybe you can explain why? I have explained why it does so instead of 'punch and judy' how about a thought through response? I would agree that no system is perfect but the market system seems far more capable at ethics than the dictating of direction which I point out has been the cause of much damage.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hmm

          The market system may result in an expression of ethics - if enough people make purchasing decisions based on ethical criteria - but it is not in and of itself a system that determines the ethical value of a product.

          Governmental "dictating of direction" is, one dares to hope, often ethically driven. With hindsight some of those dictations on, per your example, environmental policy are indeed found to be wrong as the science advances, and so they need to be revised. We might call this progress.

          The market system is driven by ethical imperatives, eg. trust in the process of transactions, contractual law, and the idea of consequences for breaking an agreement, but in deciding the ethicality of a product it is at best neutral.

          Where did the imperative for engineering the diesel emissions tests come from? Dictated direction introduced an arguably pointless test, but the market system led to the production of popular cars that gamed it.

          1. codejunky Silver badge

            Re: Hmm


            "The market system may result in an expression of ethics - if enough people make purchasing decisions based on ethical criteria"

            The purchase is part of the equation. There is also the need for a business to think ahead so it will still have product to sell. The objective in poorer countries is to survive and so they build for energy, food, water etc but rich countries lean more towards a cleaner environment.

            "Governmental "dictating of direction" is, one dares to hope, often ethically driven."

            Unfortunately this is often not the case. Often it is driven for short term electoral gain and pleasing groups. For example Labour pandered to the green voters and has pushed up energy costs and caused a threat to our supply. Yet even now removing subsidy for failed tech and non-solutions is difficult. The congestion charge for London was tied to the pollution yet sadiq khan is against electric vehicles because he will lose out on revenue from this. Corbyn doesnt ethically agree with a nuclear deterrent, yet will still build trident because the unions want the jobs/cash (he just wont put nukes on it). The government picks winners and almost always chooses badly costing taxpayers.

            A good example would be Tata steel shutting down a dirty virgin steel furnace which is old technology and polluting. Not something for a rich country with high energy and labour costs plus environmental regulations up the waazoo. The good move by the gov to not save it was ethical for the environment and pushing out a dirty industry. Yet labour would have tried to save it due to the 'ethics' of protecting jobs in a loss making industry.

            "Where did the imperative for engineering the diesel emissions tests come from? Dictated direction introduced an arguably pointless test, but the market system led to the production of popular cars that gamed it."

            Very true. Bad government regulation to balance with bad government regulation caused business to find a way around the problem. The market complied with the regulation while providing what people wanted (A to B transport). As you say the cars were popular and defeated an arguably pointless test.

            Btw I do want to say good comment. You definitely hit on some good points to think about compared to the previous reply to my comment.

  8. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "The common theme was using cloud plus CI/CD plus microservices to get sub-hourly deploys."

    Why would you want to deploy at that rate unless you were chucking your every untested build out onto the net?

    Could we have a new paradigm: Get it right before you go live?

  9. a_yank_lurker Silver badge


    Ethical behavior should be the expected of anyone calling themselves a professional and it includes being discreet about client information. The problem with any real world scenario is not programmers lacking ethics but often lacking domain knowledge. In the case of VW, programmers did what their managers told them to do, however how many have ever read the relevant parts of the CFR about feral emission testing? (A cure for insomnia) I doubt many at any automaker have read them personally so they are relying on someone else's interpretation or presumed interpretation. The critical part is the programmers, even if they might have some domain knowledge, probably do not have the depth of knowledge to always spot ethically challenged specs or flat out interpretation errors.

    All it takes is a few unethical people in the correct places to undermine everyone else who are behaving ethically. Spotting this unethical behavior from afar is often not easy to do until it blows up.

  10. Claptrap314 Silver badge

    Try the officers first

    Perhaps one person making their living as a code slinger in a hundred actually has the scope to evaluate actions at the level being proposed here. On the other hand, the majority of managers (at least) do. And, as a rule, they cannot be bothered.

    The fact that it was even necessary to give Heartbleed a catchy name should tell you just how hard it is to get management to allow software engineers to work on customer-damaging issues.

    I was dismissed from my last place of work because "my approach was different". My approach is to test all logic & to spend a bit of time every week to make sure that we're not passing CVEs downstream.

  11. jake Silver badge

    Whose ethics, Kemosabe?

    Yours? What makes you so much more important that me (a shareholder)? I get my dividend regularly, and if I don't I'm fairly certain that I (and the rest of the shareholders) will have something to say about it. Don't like this concept? Don't purchase shares in the company. We won't miss your presence.

    (Note that I no longer own shares in anything other than jakeCo ... I know I should demerge, but I am pretty certain that my business model is indefinitely sustainable ... and if it's not, I can always sell out and we can retire on the proceeds.)

    1. LucreLout Silver badge

      Re: Whose ethics, Kemosabe?

      Yours? What makes you so much more important

      Yup, it's at this point idealism about ethincs not just being a county near the sea tends to crash and burn.

      Everyones ethics are different and everyon assumes their set of ethics is the right one and superior to other peoples.

      Some people consider it unethical that tax is extracted via menaces (threats of imprisonment & career destruction) while others consider that it is unethical some people try to avoid paying tax. (Evasion != Avoidance - there's nothing illegal about avoidance, while there very much is for evasion).

      Some people consider it unethical to exploit the recent weather to have a free day off, while others consider it restores a little of what they perceive as an imbalance in the employer-employee arrangement.

      For any industry, occupation, hobby, or belief, there will be some in favour and some who oppose it; and all will believe they are right and the others wrong, and that will usually stem from their view of ethics. Each group believeing the other are misguded, malicious, or simply too stupid to understand.

      I had to take an ethics module with each of my degrees, and each boiled down to "as long as you are trying not to do harm then you'll be ok", which itself boils down to excusing ignorance. If someone runs you over because they were driving too fast, do you really think its ok because they didn't observe or comprehend what the speed limit sign told them?

      1. strum

        Re: Whose ethics, Kemosabe?

        >Everyones ethics are different

        That's why we have governments (and 'everyone's ethics' aren't that different). Governments legislate on ethical transactions, all the time.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Whose ethics, Kemosabe?

          So a government is functionally the ultimate arbiter of what is right or wrong? Really?

          What if my government says your government is wrong? Who decides then? And how do they decide? ICBMs at six paces?

    2. strum

      Re: Whose ethics, Kemosabe?

      > I get my dividend regularly, and if I don't I'm fairly certain that I (and the rest of the shareholders) will have something to say about it.

      And if this company is fined megamillions, because their ethical defences were tatty? Are you still going to demand unethical behaviour?

  12. Snow Wombat


    So coding will have to develop the same level of regulation and standards as real engineering.

    About damn time..

    1. Scoured Frisbee

      Re: Great!

      One of the (dis?)advantages of being a professional engineer is being held responsible for the general welfare, and having access to a board with which I could discuss ethics issues. It is a reminder to think of the public (not just customers!), though that probably would mean I'd be out of the company if it came to it.

      For me I'd rather be ethical than employed, but I can see how I would be tempted to compromise in such a situation. As such having the extra layer of oversight is good for me.

  13. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip

    How lovely. Where's protection for IT folk in this wonderful world?

    The question here is where the line is drawn, and if IT folk can push back on management decisions without being fired (clue : they can't). Go blame management, not coders or admins.

    At one end of the scale there are companies lying about what they are doing, and actively conducting illegal activities.

    One step below that are morally bankrupt but possibly not actively illegal services such as Ashley Madison (most women on there being bots, customers actively deceived).

    Then there are services that (for now) give customers what they want, basically work, but shit over employees and regulations. Hello Uber!

    One step below that are services which say they give the customer what they want, but are a pain to use in any way other than that which maximises advertising eyeballs. Hello Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where you only get to see what they deem useful.

    We've not even got to companies which stretch the truth/put a very positive spin on something, in order to delay fixing/changing architecture/upgrading systems due to lack of/unwillingness to spend money, resource, etc.

    Hell, if you really want to push the boat out, let's highlight any service which isn't disability friendly (a legal requirement that is widely flouted), or that doesn't take account of sexuality, gender, race, age or various other characteristics. That probably wipes out 98% of services.

    Which of these should you complain about as a decent IT worker? All of them. What will it change if you refuse to work until improvements are made? Other than a P45 or a statement, blunt or coded, to 'shut up and get on with it' not much..

    1. AnneCurrie

      Re: How lovely. Where's protection for IT folk in this wonderful world?

      I do agree actually. The old solution for the protection of individual workers was a union but I don't think there are any that fit the bill yet. Someone higher up mentioned an ethics board in the company. Should we expect ethics boards?

      1. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip

        Re: How lovely. Where's protection for IT folk in this wonderful world?

        No, we should not, for the same reason why there are very few unions in the IT world : it gets in the way of business making money.

        If there was one, it would be toothless : see press regulation. See also foreign textile workers, where the companies lie through their teeth about employee conditions, 100 tailors get crushed in a substandard building collapse, there's two days of coverage in the national press, and people go back to buying their el cheapo clothes from high street stores. Ethical companies largely do not have a competitive advantage.

        I'm not saying you're wrong, but IT is the wrong target for this, and business will never comprehensively embrace thinking on an ethical basis, as they'll be out competed by businesses that are less committed (see above).

        The only way this will ever happen is via legislation, and there are too many business interests for that to occur.

        That's not to say you shouldn't challenge particularly egregious issues, but making it a professional requirement would necessitate paying IT staff considerably more (unlikely to happen, more likely is moving jobs offshore), setting up some sort of governing body (hasn't worked so far), and also the IT equivalent of NICE, and the implementation of QALYs (which people will endlessly argue over).

        Where does the money come from to fund this? Customers don't enjoy paying more for ill defined consequences.

    2. strum

      Re: How lovely. Where's protection for IT folk in this wonderful world?

      >clue : they can't

      They can, if they've got the law behind them.

  14. Eguro

    Providing ethical tools for people to consider their actions is a good thing.

    We should, however, also be careful that this is what is being done.

    It can easily turn into talks or courses, where ethical theories are discussed, but really we're just looking for a plausible way to defend current practices - perhaps with a few tweaks to make us all feel as though we've really changed for the better.

    Awareness and tools are great, but putting a pseudo-ethical veneer onto a field is not.

    1. AnneCurrie

      Re: Providing ethical tools for people to consider their actions is a good thing.

      Yes, apparently ethics courses really didn't work well in the financial sector (they started wringing their hands post 2009 to unfortunately little effect). It seems that bottom up works better - reminding individuals that they'd prefer to be ethical than unethical. The key individuals to remind are middle managers...

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Which Enlightenment Philosophers?

    Obviously Ms Currie read different "Enlightenment" Philosophers to what I had to. They did not obverse that ethics don't work at scale, they developed ethical systems that (1) begged the question, and (2) had major scaling problems.

    The greatest offender is Jeremy Bentham, who developed Utilitarianism. Essentially, we are meant to increase "happiness" without a real understanding of how to measure happiness or how any action will change it.

    Even Asimov had a better approach with his "Laws of Robotics" - and that is a much better place to start than any "Enlightenment" Philosopher, since the underlying assumptions are clear.

    1. AnneCurrie

      Re: Which Enlightenment Philosophers?

      The zeroth and first laws of robotics are a good place to start (if we also consider scaling the action up, the robotics laws were for a single actor)

  16. Steve Chalmers

    The IEEE code of ethics might be a good start

    As a hardware engineer, I had an IEEE membership until retirement, with this code of ethics. Not perfect, but has evolved over decades and touches on all the pertinent topics save privacy and security.

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