Ethical issues in tech: what it means for media businesses

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This article on ethical issues in tech is part of a series exploring key tech themes raised at the web summit and how they might affect media brands.  Read about all the themes here.

Technology has been evolving faster than our ability to develop ethical codes and regulation.  Social platforms and algorithms can be gamed for political ends.  Technology will destroy some jobs (including truck drivers and call centre agents) and create new roles, causing social disruption.  Large global tech corporations have enormous power and governments struggle to collect taxes and control monopolistic practices.  And as AI starts to surpass human intelligence, how can we ensure its power is not exercised to the detriment of human values?  But tech can also be used for good, to counter inequality and fight climate change.

So how should media brands react to these ethical issues?


Politics and social media

Social media now has far more influence in what news stories people see.  And the algorithms unfortunately can be gamed by unscrupulous organisations.  Platforms like Facebook are now starting to appreciate that they need to monitor how content is posted, and involve human editors in the process.  Meanwhile established news media need to build their reputation for accurate, trustworthy content, by investing in quality, investigative journalism, and focus a little more on reader revenue via subscription to ensure long term funding.


Impact on employment and social cohesion

Globalisation has already caused friction between the elite staff of international firms, and the former workers of disrupted national industries.  Technology shifts like AI will only exacerbate this, with dramatic impact on for example drivers and clerical workers.  The shift towards freelance work, or the “gig economy” will create flexibility and opportunity for some, and financial uncertainty and insecurity for others.  Media firms will need to accommodate a freelance workforce, plus there might be new audiences to serve with tailored content.


Regulation and taxation of global tech firms

The new tech behemoths are transnational and powerful, and can be hard for national governments to tax and regulate, although the EU Commissioner for Competition is already taking a tough stance, with big fines for Google for using its dominant search position to boost its shopping service.  The Paradise Papers have seemingly revealed that Apple has been actively using tax havens like the Channel Islands to evade corporate tax in Europe. The big tech firms may soon have to accept they have a responsibility to the societies and economies that provide their revenues, but regulators will need to evolve rapidly to adapt to a fast changing industry.


Technology for good

People working in tech are developing more of a social conscience, and more startups are focussing on solving big issues such as climate change, migration, inequality, mobile banking in emerging economies and tech literacy.  Initiatives like Techfugees, backed by Mike Butcher of TechCrunch, provide migrants with communications technology, information and tech skills training, resulting in high employment rates.


Diversity in tech

Technology has historically had a white male bias, but gender and ethnic stereotypes are very gradually shifting.   Several initiatives are focussed on encouraging school students in deprived areas, and particularly girls, to learn about tech and acquire basic coding skills.  Diversity in role models, speakers at events, startup founders and senior leadership will eventually benefit all in the industry.  The investor community is particularly male dominated, and only a tiny minority of founders are female.


Moral code for AI and robots

Perhaps the most significant ethical dilemma is how to shape the future of artificial intelligence, and ensure that driverless cars, robot healthcare assistants, and military systems respect a human moral code.  Many speakers chillingly evoked the dilemmas of a world where AI surpasses human intelligence.  Sounds like science fiction, but it is closer than you might think.

Stephen Hawking spoke eloquently on this issue as a keynote at Web Summit. (4:30)


Implications for media businesses

So what do these ethical issues in tech mean for media businesses?  The issue of trust in journalism and the algorithms behind social platforms are clearly central. But all the debates around regulation, tech for good, diversity, impact on employment and social disruption are opportunities for quality content.  Media is not immune from the effects of AI – there are clear benefits in being able to draw insights from large data sets, but also there are issues around data privacy and negotiating the future role of journalists when simple reporting can be carried out by automated bots.


If you’d like to discuss how these ethical issues in tech might affect your media business, or any of the other technology trends in this series of articles please get in touch for a chat over the phone or over a coffee.

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About the author:

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on digital publishing strategy.

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