Ethical constructs draw heavily from philosophy, and hence they are mired in abstractions without concrete “outcomes”. They drum up scenarios to explain how a particular process would “hurt individuals”, but they often fail to see the benefits accruing collectively. I’d agree with the quote that ethics in corporations only represent “moral vaporware” and I’d be surprised if it is taken by anyone seriously. I think they only serve to deflect media criticisms before it can become a public relations disaster.
While some tech firms have taken concrete steps to insert ethical thinking into their processes, Catherine Miller, interim CEO of the ethical consultancy Doteveryone, says there’s also been a lot of “flapping round” the subject.
Critics dismiss it as “ethics-washing,” the practice of merely kowtowing in the direction of moral values in order to stave off government regulation and media criticism. The term belongs to the growing lexicon around technology ethics, or “tethics,” an abbreviation that began as satire on the TV show “Silicon Valley,” but has since crossed over into occasionally earnest usage.
“If you don’t apply this stuff in actual practices and in your incentive structures, if you don’t have review processes, well, then, it becomes like moral vaporware,” says Shannon Vallor, a philosopher of technology at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “It’s something that you’ve promised and you meant to deliver, but it never actually arrived.”
For example, Apple doesn’t encrypt the backups in the “iCloud” (which is a terrible service) and makes it difficult (or at least appears to make it difficult) for the law enforcement agencies to access the background information. However, it has no moral compunctions to allow China to conduct full state surveillance by placing servers locally, claiming it is “adhering” to the laws of the land. These ethical questions are extremely murky when it comes to dealing with health data. Apple is collecting it with impunity, all the while claiming to be a privacy champion.
There is no nuance around this because they sidestep requirements in one dominion and comply in another. Its moral, financial, business and ethical hypocrisy.