Responsible Tech Takes Center Stage at Code 2019
The conversation at Code Conference 2019 sounded much different than in years past. Splashy product launches and startup pitches were out. Hard conversations about tech — and its potential harms to people, society, and culture — were in.
The conference saw sharp, inquisitive moderators, including conference hosts Kara Swisher and Ezra Klein, sparring with current and former executives from some of the largest technology companies. And while company leaders defended their ability to solve tech’s ills, they also welcomed government regulation and even acknowledged that tech platforms need to improve dramatically on issues ranging from content moderation to radicalization.
Nearly all agreed that solutions are needed from across the tech ecosystem to ensure that technology works, first and foremost, in the interests of its users.
Here are five key takeaways from the conference:
1. Big Tech is thinking more actively about ethics and fair standards. Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, described “heated debates” related to ethical quandaries, while Twitter’s Kayvon Beykpour and Vijaya Gadde touted the promise of AI tools to proactively flag policy violations.
2. Regulation is coming. Tech leaders ranging from Antonio García Martinez, author of Chaos Monkeys and a former Facebook product manager, to Jessica Powell, author of The Big Disruption and an ex-Google executive, foresee a greater role for government in holding tech companies accountable — with the important disclaimer that we must be clear about what problems regulation can and cannot solve.
3. Employee activism can be a positive sign. Nicole Wong, former deputy CTO of the United States, explained that not all employee activism is adversarial. More often, it’s a positive sign that employees feel a strong sense of ownership over the products they are building — but that those products just aren’t living up to their companies’ promises.
4. We need to move beyond silos. Stacey Abrams, founder and CEO of Fair Fight Action and a former candidate for governor of Georgia, insisted that stronger partnerships between tech and government are needed, noting that tech is now “too large to leave it to best intentions, and too many people intersect with it for individuals to be making those choices.”
5. Concrete solutions are taking shape. Writer, activist and comedian Baratunde Thurston spotlighted nine ideas in articulating a vision for what ethical tech might look like, from “permission, not privacy” to Omidyar Network’s own Ethical OS toolkit.
While Code 2019 showed we still have a long way to go, it’s clear that the conversation has shifted. Responsible tech is being recognized by insiders and outsiders as one of the most pressing challenges of our time.
Omidyar Network embraces this shift. We are actively working to promote a healthy tech culture from multiple touch points — including through our support of Open Sourced, a multi-platform, explanatory journalism project from Recode and Vox Media aiming to contextualize the benefits of the tech revolution while better explaining the risks.
We believe solutions will take multiple forms, such as:
- Training future technologists to think more critically about ethical implications, along with toolkits and practical frameworks for tech builders.
- Grassroots organizing by tech employees at a global scale, driving product changes through public awareness campaigns about screen addiction, and advocating that Congress goes further than an anti-trust investigation to rein in tech.