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12 ethical dilemmas gnawing at developers today

Peter Wayner | April 22, 2014
The tech world has always been long on power and short on thinking about the ramifications of this power. If it can be built, there will always be someone who will build it without contemplating a safer, saner way of doing so, let alone whether the technology should even be built in the first place. The software gets written. Who cares where and how it's used? That's a task for somebody in some corner office.

Ethical dilemma No. 7: How far to defend customers against data requests

If you collect data, it's a safe bet that your organization will someday be caught between serving your customers and serving the government. Requests to deliver data to legal entities are becoming increasingly common, leaving more and more software and services organizations to contemplate to what extent they will betray their customers' privacy before the law. You can scrutinize these requests and even hire your own lawyers to contest whether they are truly lawful, but the reality is that the courts will be debating legalities long after your funding runs out.

There are no easy solutions. Some companies are choosing to leave the business rather than lie to their customers. Others are trying to be more open about requests, which the government often tries to forbid.

Ethical dilemma No. 8: How to deal with the international nature of the Internet

The Internet runs everywhere, avoiding many of the traditional barriers at the borders. This can be a recipe for legal headaches when customers A and B are in different countries. That's only the beginning, because servers C and D are often in entirely different countries as well.

This leads to obvious ethical issues. Europe, for instance, has strict laws about retaining personal information and views privacy breaches as ethical failures. Other countries insist on companies keeping copious records on dealings. Whose laws should a company follow when customers are in different countries? When data is in different counties? When data is transferred across international lines?

Keeping up with every legal contingency can be Herculean, leaving many organizations surely tempted to bury their heads in the sand.

Ethical dilemma No. 9: How much to give back to open source

Everyone knows that open source is free. You don't pay anything and that's what makes it so wonderful and complex. But not everyone contemplates the ethical issues that come with using that free code. All of the open source packages come with licenses and you need to follow them.

Some of the licenses don't require much sacrifice. Licenses like the Apache License or the MIT License require acknowledgement and that's about it. But other licenses, such as the GNU General Public License, ask you to share all your enhancements.

Parsing open sources licenses can present ethical challenges. One manager from a big public company told me, "We don't distribute MySQL, so we don't owe anyone anything." He was keying on the clause, written decades ago, that tied the license's obligations to the act of redistributing software. The company used MySQL for its Web apps, so he felt it could take without giving back.


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