Ethics in Web Development

My friend is currently at a state-required class to keep his professional license. The class is called Ethics in the Modern World. He’s a massage therapist.

Two things stand out to me. One: I don’t have a professional license, and two, I cannot recall ever reading any stated ethical standard that professional web developers or designers must adhere to. And to be honest? I think it shows.

Professional bodies put these standards together, like architects and doctors and lawyers. It makes sense why a doctor should have a code of ethics (don’t kill people), and I can see why lawyers have one (follow the law). Why the architects of the web?

What I keep coming back to in my mind are those popups that say “yes I want to save all kinds of money” as a huge sign up button with the tiny text link underneath that says “No I’m a terrible person” to not subscribe. What the hell? How is that ethical? Great example of that here Or how about sites that don’t allow folks with low vision or just crappy monitors to see what they’re doing? Of course accessibility comes into play here.

But what about web development? I have found a code of ethics for software engineers , and maybe this is something taught as part of a CS degree, but for most self-taught web developers, I imagine they have never spent time looking into this. There are a few different bodies that put together codes of ethics for software engineers, but the very first bullet point listed on that Wikipedia article is: “Contribute to society and human well-being”.

The things we build can have a very direct impact on a person’s safety. Cyclists crashing trying to beat Strava segments. People falling off cliffs playing Pokemon Go. Women being sexually assulted by their Uber driver or their Airbnb host. Imagine being the architect of a system that caused that to happen.

Life-and-death situations aside, our software has a bigger impact on people’s lives, mentally and emotionally, then we think. Death by 1,000 cuts.

This is a huge topic, so this is the introduction to a series of posts on technology’s real world impact on our lives.