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TechRight Hosts Dinner Roundtable on Tech/Corporate Ethics

tech and corporate ethics roundtable photo

Technically Right at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, in collaboration with the Future of Privacy Forum and the Duke Law and Technology Review, hosted a dinner roundtable on Monday, November 11th, on tech ethics and corporate ethics. Suzanne Shanahan, Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, started the night’s discussion with opening remarks on the importance of robust conversations in addressing the ethical challenges and implications of technological innovation, particularly with regard to considerations of security and privacy at the intersection of technology policy and corporate responsibility.

tech and corporate ethics roundtable photo

Margaret Hu, KIE Visiting Professor, along with guest speakers Jules Polonetsky (CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum), and David Hoffman (Director of Security Policy and Global Privacy Officer at Intel Corporation and Senior Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law), kicked off the discussion, with contributions from Duke faculty discussants Richard Biever, Vincent Conitzer, Jolynn Dellinger, Wayne Norman, Matthew Perault, David Schanzer, Christopher Schroeder, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

Margaret Hu highlighted the need for ethical reflection in dealing with questions that fall beyond the purview of the law, acknowledging that philosophers and ethicists will hold an important role in shaping how technologies are developed and implemented within societies, as well as in considering how these technologies and the companies that are responsible for them are regulated. As David Hoffman noted, not only should we be concerned about how personal data are collected, but also how algorithms use those data to reach certain conclusions – which raises the question of where regulators ought to move first. Jules Polonetsky followed this line of reasoning, stating that “easy answers are pretty easy,” but the real challenge lies in having a good grasp on the nature of risks and benefits within an ever-changing digital economy in which data is one of the most significant commodities.

tech and corporate ethics roundtable photo

Many discussants agreed that some sort of ethical framework is needed in thinking through issues relating to data, but emphasized different approaches. Matthew Perault pointed out that being fast-acting – the very feature of tech companies that is often criticized in conversations about privacy and ethics – can be a benefit when we’re looking at companies’ responses to pressure from policy-makers or the press. Wayne Norman pointed out that the information asymmetries between tech companies and both the general public and policymakers complicates the problem, while David Schanzer argued that we can’t discuss the content of new regulations until we address the basic question of “what is ‘private’ and what is ‘public’” in contemporary society. Jolynn Dellinger observed that we don’t have a lot of historical evidence for companies successfully self-regulating, and argued for a shift in how we think about innovation and technology – perhaps building ethics into computer science and engineering curricula across the board. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong suggested an alternative approach, focused on understanding people’s values and how they actually want to see those values reflected in the technology they use.

Throughout the discussion, and the Q&A that followed, participants affirmed that centering ethics in discussions about regulation and corporate behavior is paramount. What is needed is analysis and action that takes seriously both good and bad uses of data, and anticipates how consent and intentionality are susceptible to new modes of data usage that we might not otherwise have predicted.


Technically Right advances ethical tech policy and innovation through interdisciplinary research, coursework for undergraduates and graduate students, and convenings of scholars and practitioners.