Skip to main content

What's wrong with tech leaders?

By Norman Matloff
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Norman Matloff: Leaders of the tech industry are looking a lot less heroic these days
  • Executives at tech giants colluded in a secret wage theft pact, Matloff says
  • He says tech leaders shouldn't get a pass for pushing the boundary of ethical behavior
  • Matloff: Labor and age discrimination issues won't go away; ethics are key

Editor's note: Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis. He is teaching a course in the fall about ethics in tech. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Leaders of the tech industry, long treated as national heroes, are looking a lot less heroic these days.

In case after case, we see tech titans and entrepreneurs misbehaving or breaking the law. They push the boundary of acceptable or ethical behavior that most of us have to play by. Even if some of them provide the technologies of tomorrow, it doesn't mean they can operate under different set of rules.

Norman Matloff
Norman Matloff

The biggest case to rock Silicon Valley in decades is a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of former engineers against tech giants such as Google, Apple, Intel and Intuit. The leaders of these companies -- Apple's Steve Jobs, Google's Eric Schmidt and others -- are accused of conspiring to avoid poaching each other's engineers.

These executives didn't want to bid against each other for talent and risk disruption of projects caused by departure of key personnel. By secretly colluding to halt the labor competition, their companies got to keep the engineers and put a brake on their salaries.

Passenger planes nearly collide midair
The future of smartwatches
Google's plans for your wrist

The plaintiffs, who claimed heavy lost wages as a result -- about $9 billion for the estimated 100,000 engineers who were affected -- submitted as evidence damning e-mail messages, such as ones written by Schmidt that show he not only agreed to the plan but admonished others to not leave a paper trail. While Google's noble motto is "don't do evil," its corporate practice has at times failed to match what the company preaches.

Artificially suppressing wages is not the only labor ethics issue.

Age discrimination is one of Silicon Valley's dirty little secrets. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook once made a comment tantamount to admitting that his company engages in age discrimination in hiring. And last year, Facebook quietly settled an age-related EEOC case.

In 2011, Google settled a multimillion dollar age discrimination suit brought by a former director, Brian Reid, who was 52 when he was fired. He had been subject to verbal slurs regarding his age, and data obtained during the legal discovery process suggested general ageist behavior by Google. (Disclosure: I served as an expert witness in that case.)

Then there's the issue of privacy.

Google has tried to get users to press Congress to support the company on the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, which it opposed as going too far in combating copyright infringement. Schmidt's chilling 2010 comment, "We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about," hasn't exactly inspired trust.

Facebook has repeatedly faced howls of protest over its privacy policies, and Zuckerberg didn't help matters with his feeble protestation that privacy is no longer a "social norm."

Joe Green, head of the immigration lobbying group FWD.us, which was founded by Zuckerberg, noted last year that the tech companies "... control massive distribution channels" that they could use to influence elections.

Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain described hypothetical scenarios in which this could be done surreptitiously, with both Facebook users and the public being unaware. Sounds creepy, doesn't it?

It's not all bad. Facebook declined to join the anti-poaching scheme, and Zuckerberg and his wife have given generously to California and New Jersey schools. And in 2010, Google withdrew from China rather than be complicit in China's Internet censorship -- an instance in which the company did live up to its noble motto.

Yet, there is no doubt that many tech leaders feel an almost messianic sense of entitlement. They consider their products as so beneficial to humanity that they act as though they are "boy kings."

Must we resign ourselves to these boy kings' shenanigans? What can we do?

For one thing, we should teach more ethics courses to people in tech. Engineering education has long included a component of ethics and social responsibility.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology requires ethics instruction in all accredited university engineering curricula. The ABET code of ethics consists of tenets such as "serving with fidelity the public, their employers and clients," and cites lofty goals of "integrity, honor and dignity."

The stated principles for the Association for Computing Machinery, the main computer science professional body, are similar but more detailed, notably in including a section on information privacy.

Yet idealistic instruction in ethics may be undermined by the perceptions that one can't fight the system.

For example, there seems to be no plan to bring criminal charges against the anti-poaching colluders, even though federal judge Lucy Koh indicated she is still not happy with the proposed settlement for the engineers who experienced lost wages as a result of the secret wage-theft pact. And it is doubtful that a jury of libertarian Silicon Valley peers would vote to convict the tech bigwigs anyway.

Bars banning Google Glass
Is this 'Google Translate' for music?
Google unveils Android auto, TV and wear

Perhaps the most effective method of ethics enforcement is the old-fashioned one: Public shaming. When startup CEO Greg Gopman made insensitive, condescending remarks in reference to San Francisco's very visible homeless population, or when fellow entrepreneur Peter Shih made demeaning public remarks about women, public uproars made them both apologize.

And the recent revelation that Facebook experimented on nearly 700,000 users without their knowledge has sparked outrage over the company's ethics policy -- or lack thereof. The company blamed the incident on a rogue research team and said to take "a very hard look at this process."

We may have to give the tech boys some time, but hopefully they'll be smart enough to realize that codes of ethics are just as important as computer codes.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT