Signs of Triviality

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Velocity NY 2015 - See you there!

May 23, 2015

Yesterday, I was happily surprised to have received an email from O'Reilly stating:

We are pleased to accept the following proposal for
Velocity New York 2015.

* Primum non nocere - Ethical Obligations in Internet Operations

Please confirm that you have received this acceptance and can
deliver your proposed talk at the O'Reilly Velocity Conference,
October 12-14, 2015, in New York by ...

This of course throws me into a state of "Oh, crap, how am I going to put together a talk for this audience that competes with all the other speakers and who wants to listen to me anyway?". But I'm excited to have the opportunity, as I know this will help me more clearly develop and articulate a number of thoughts that I know are in me, in others, but haven't been able to reflect on explicitly.

But I could use your help! Below is my proposal -- give it a read, and if this speaks to you, if you have thoughts on the matter and would like to help me review a draft of the talk (when the time comes), please let me know.

Primum non nocere - Ethical Obligations in Internet Operations


A discussion of the ethical obligations in Internet Operations, where a
binding Code of Ethics or even a definition of the various professions has
been missing.  We will review the concept of a professionally defining
Code of Ethics and consider the impact software- and infrastrucure
engineers have in a world where software and internet applications are
increasingly dominating our lives.

Many professions are subject to strict guidelines and Codes of Ethics,
binding their participants to abide by common principles.  Violations of
these rules can lead to legal repercussions or a loss of a license to
practice one's chosen profession.  The Hippocratic Oath, the American Bar
Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct, or the American Society
of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics are examples of such self-regulating or
self-policing organizational definitions.

Information Technology has none of that.  Our profession remains entirely
uncontrolled, unlicensed, unregulated: anybody can -- and does! -- call
themselves a "software engineer" or "systems architect", for example.

The ACM's Software Engineering Code of Ethics or USENIX LISA System
Administrators' Code of Ethics are two examples of attempts to define such
guidelines for an undefined profession, yet the majority of WebOps,
SysAdmins, SREs, or software developers have never heard of them.

At the same time, we are increasingly responsible for building and
maintaining critical infrastructure components, for software that handles
our users' most private data, for products that directly or indirectly
influence people's lives.  We are building the internet and the world wide
web; we are connecting people (and increasingly: things), creating new
products and we like to "disrupt" existing industries and claim to strive
to "make the world a better place".

But rarely do we consider our direct ethical obligations as privileged
insiders of this dominant economic force.  How do we build self-driving
cars that might have to decide one day whether or not their passengers
should die to avoid a greater catastrophe when we can't even guarantee the
privacy of elementary students' data?  Is reliance on science fiction's
three laws of robotics sufficient to implement ethical decision making
engines?  Could (and more importantly: should) we develop automation and
monitoring solutions to "scale" the delivery of lethal injections?  Do we
have a requirement to protect user communications from warrant-less
government spying, whether or not our users demand it?

Does a simple guideline such as "first, do no harm" make sense in our
profession?  How would this translate into the many fields of work we

I'd like to review these questions and present a discussion of the
obligations we have beyond just increasing share-holders' wealth.  This
discussion would range -- as illustrated above -- from the big and
difficult decisions (e.g.  whistleblowing, life-and-death, changing jobs)
to simple best practices (e.g. protecting users' data in transit and at
rest, communicating clear terms of service).

May 23, 2015


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