We need to hard-code ethics into apps

Software may not have a moral code, but it is imbued with the biases of its creators

August 21, 2014 6:00AM ET

Uber, Airbnb, Tinder, TaskRabbit — it’s no secret that a growing list of apps and services has transformed the way we accomplish daily tasks, from finding a date to catching a ride home.

There are obvious benefits to technology that makes onerous processes such as transportation more streamlined and convenient. But as tech startups multiply and computer code increasingly mediates our social and material interactions, too many of those at the helm don’t seem to consider the potential negative effects of such apps as part of the process. The result is an increasing number of systems that impose values of their own rather than embrace the ethical standards that society at large tends to recognize.

Consider MonkeyParking, a service that San Francisco’s attorneys recently shut down, along with two similar apps, Parkmodo and Sweetch. Perhaps the most egregious example of what Silicon Valley misleadingly calls the sharing economy, the app allows users to locate nearby drivers and sell their public parking spaces for $5 to $20, effectively reserving a public amenity for those willing to pay. MonkeyParking’s Rome-based creators tout the service as an alternative to the wasteful urban adventure of circling blocks to look for free spaces. And naturally, they take a small cut from each transaction.

The company denies that the bidding system favors the wealthy, arguing that everyone can earn back their parking payments by selling spaces themselves — a justification with little basis in reality for many working-class people, who can’t afford to gamble with hard-earned money needed for food, rent and other essentials. Moreover, its defenders argue, the app is merely a reaction to bureaucratic complacency; the city has only itself to blame, they reason, for not solving the problem of parking congestion on its own. But if improving the city’s parking was truly MonkeyParking’s aim, why not help the city build a more equitable, publicly owned parking solution instead of establishing a private market for public spaces that encourages users to simply ignore municipal problems?

MonkeyParking, which still operates in Rome, is promising to return to San Francisco once it figures out how “to clarify [its] value proposition and avoid any future misunderstandings.” But even if a court accepts these arguments, there is little doubt that apps such as MonkeyParking and its East Coast equivalent, Haystack, are unethical scalping services that exploit free or public resources for private profit.

The same could be said of ReservationHop, a service launched last month that gets people into popular restaurants by making dozens of reservations under fake names and then selling them to users. Like MonkeyParking, it turns something that is supposed to be first come, first serve into a racket that advantages the well-off. Worse, if any of the company’s reservations go unsold, the restaurant is simply out of luck and must accept having lost money for holding the space. (ReservationHop’s founder has since backpedaled, saying he will begin cutting restaurants in on the deal.)

The social damage that unethical apps can unleash isn’t limited to selling public spaces or gaming the restaurant reservation system. Last month saw the launch of SketchFactor, an iPhone app that lets urban travelers get crowdsourced tips on avoiding “sketchy” neighborhoods. Responding to widespread criticism that the app seems bound to encourage racial (and other) profiling, the creators, both young and white and recently relocated to New York City from Washington, D.C., reassured skeptics that they are not “racists, bigots” or “sexists” and that any “discriminatory posts will be deleted.” But in relying on highly subjective user reviews rather than on more concrete figures such as police crime data, the creators seem oblivious to the app’s most likely use: helping rich tourists and gentrifiers avoid poor people.

It’s time for venture capitalists to stop funding parasitic startups that turn free or public resources into private profit under the banner of convenience.

With these kinds of attitudes, it should be no surprise that tech entrepreneurs are increasingly satirized as an elite class of tone-deaf techno-capitalists — a group that prides itself on innovation and disruption while rarely considering what societal harms those disruptions might engender. It’s the same reason that protest groups in Oakland and San Francisco have been blocking the private Google shuttles occupying public bus stops: not because they are anti-tech but because they oppose what they see as a tech monoculture guided by the Ayn Randian belief that business interests always outweigh the social damage they might cause.

Consider, by way of contrast, the late Reddit co-founder and tech activist Aaron Swartz, who was the subject of Brian Knappenberger’s recent documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy.” Swartz was, from a young age, regarded as a genius by his peers. While still a teenager, he engineered both the RSS news aggregation standard and an editable online encyclopedia that predated Wikipedia. He was one of the architects of Creative Commons, an alternative copyright system for sharing content on the Web. But unlike so many in the tech startup scene, Swartz couldn’t stand the thought of getting rich off the next big thing in software. He quit his job at Reddit and devoted his final years to online activism, both through political campaigning and a unique form of digital dissent against what he saw as the “private theft of public culture” — the cloistering of publicly funded knowledge behind online pay walls such as JSTOR and PACER.

Swartz understood that because technology shapes the way we live, it must be hard-coded with the values we collectively hold as a society. And yet his existence was an anomaly in the tech world. Few people in technology circles seem to possess both his deep understanding of the ethical implications of code and the willingness to use their skills toward advancing social good. For every engineer who codes in the public interest, there are at least a hundred more trying to make a buck with novelty apps that often act against it.

As more experiments like MonkeyParking test the boundaries between innovation and exploitation, it’s time for venture capitalists to stop funding parasitic startups that turn free or public resources into private profit under the banner of convenience. This doesn’t mean discouraging experimentation; creators must certainly have enough room to innovate on their own terms. But the two are not mutually exclusive. Companies such as the online marketplace Etsy have taken small steps, such as certifying themselves as B corporations, which adhere to standards of social and environmental accountability, not just to demands of shareholders and quarterly earnings reports. Tech companies large and small must push for social responsibility as a necessary parallel to innovation — not as an afterthought.

Programmers often say technology is a neutral element, neither good nor evil. This is only partly true. The software we use may not have a moral code, but it is imbued with the biases of its creators. And the more we fail to recognize this, the more we will find that our technology’s values conflict with those we hold as a society.

Janus Kopfstein is a journalist and researcher from New York City focused on contemporary themes of surveillance, technology, privacy and power. He is the author of “Lawful Intercept,” a semiregular newsletter of dystopian nonfiction.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter