Skip to main content

What's wrong with tech leaders?

By Norman Matloff
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
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
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
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.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
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.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT