A month after US-based CRM giant Salesforce criticised Facebook’s abhorrent policies, the software company opened a new Office of Ethical and Humane Use of technology this week, hiring Paula Goldman to oversee it. Seen as the next step towards safeguarding ethical standards in technology, the move while being praiseworthy, owes itself partly to President Donald Trump’s controversial ‘zero tolerance’ policies concerning border control.
“We’re at an important inflection point as an industry, and I’m excited to work with this team to chart a path forward,” Goldman said in Salesforce’s statement on Monday. Her job is to “develop a strategic framework for the ethical and humane use of technology across Salesforce,” the company said in its press release.
The next step in tech’s ethical consideration
This is being seen as Salesforce co-CEO, Marc Benioff’s, latest effort to address one of the most pressing concerns for global technology companies which is waking up to the realisation that they need to protect their products and users better. In a speech at their San Francisco headquarters in August, Benioff said,
Now, here at Salesforce, we have determined that this ethical and humane use of technology, especially within this context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, must be clearly addressed, not only by us, but by our entire industry. Our industry has reached an inflection point that must be supported by a strong set of guiding values. We all know that and you see that every single day. We know that technology is not inherently good or bad. It’s what we do with it that matters. And that’s why we’re making the ethical and humane use of technology, a strategic initiative at Salesforce.
Benioff has been quite critical of other tech companies of late, leading social and political debates regarding tech privacy and social responsibility. He also supported a midterm legislation known as Prop C that subjects tech companies in San Francisco to heavy taxation, eventually helping the city’s homeless population. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was among the tech leaders opposed to this measure.
Homelessness is all of our responsibility which is why we are supporting Prop C @OurHomeSF. Together, as one San Francisco, we can take on our city’s most complex & difficult problems. As SF’s largest employer we recognize we are part of the solution. https://t.co/TOVCC1zPZG
— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) October 9, 2018
Last month, he specifically wrote Facebook off in a harsh post, comparing the social media giant currently beleaguered with a barrage of privacy issues and legal battles, with cigarettes that are “addictive” and “not good for you.”
The role of activist employees
The recent controversies courted by Google and Facebook have proven how products can get misused in ways that are unpredictable and sometimes dangerous.
In the wake of the recent Google+ scandal and Cambridge Analytica data breach, technology workers and software developers have also started demanding more transparency from their employers. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, for instance, have faced internal dissent regarding their ties to unpalatable government agencies. Microsoft recently protested against bids for a contract to weaponise their artificial intelligence technology with the Pentagon.
Border patrol controversy played a role in safeguarding ethical standards
Salesforce itself has faced internal resistance to some of its controversial programmes and systems. In June, around 650 Salesforce employees wrote to Benioff about Salesforce’s contracts with the U.S. Customers and Border Protection Agency that allowed CPB to use the software company’s analytics and cloud products, “to modernise its recruiting process, from hire to retire, and manage border activities and digital engagement with citizens.”
By September, the agency had become an object of international wrath over the separation of families at the US-Mexico border, which is when protestors marched to Salesforce’s massive Dreamforce conference, agitating against the company’s complicity in the government’s flawed and inhumane immigration policies. Microsoft too has come under fire for its role in helping the administration carry it out.
Other ethical concerns regarding Artificial Intelligence systems that drive facial recognition and autonomous computing have been raised time and again. This further underscores the need for more constructive regulations and standards for guiding conscionable development and use of tech. At this historic juncture in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is necessary for every tech firm to reevaluate if what they are doing in the name of innovation is ethical and humane, and contain the fallout to preserve democracy and human rights.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.