Ethics, Software Engineering, and The Web

One of the required classed for my engineering degree was an engineering ethics course. They said the reason this class was required was due to all the ethical failures engineers had been making. At the time I thought of people working on children’s toys or military applications. An ethics course could be good to help them work through or realize any dilemmas they had going on. At that time I would never have imagined I would see more ethical failures working on the web than I did working for a military sub-contractor. Unfortunately, this has been the case.


Ethics a the branch of philosophy that deals with right and wrong behavior. For example, putting sharp small objects inside a toy for a one year old is considered wrong. A lot of wrong behavior can get you in trouble or hurt those around you. This is why large companies tend to have ethics training for their employees. Well, that and CYA.

Fail, Fail, Fail

I’ve seen numberous developers and web companies fail at ethical issues. My gut reaction is to think they don’t realize what they’re doing. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Many of these developers are focused on themselves and their product well more than 40 hours a week. Being so me focused leaves little time and energy to focus on the implications to others. And, where I had a university education that covered ethics many of those building the web today didn’t. Ethics may not be on their mind.

A Nonthreatening Example

I first saw this one a few years ago. A startup that was doing quite well had done it. This startup web application had taken a JavaScript library and in minifying it stripped out the license and attribution. It was part of their web interface and the JavaScript was distributed from their servers to a users browser. This was a violation of the license and the developer contacted the startup over the issue. The license he chose had been violated and he felt wronged. The startup didn’t respond to him.

This isn’t a one time failure or a singled out case. I’ve seen this disregard for licenses (even open source ones) happen numerous times. I’ve talked with angry developers who’ve been wronged.

It Doesn’t Stop There

There are a lot of cases of more problematic ethical failures. They happen all around us and they are hurting people. My professors were right to think an ethics course was a good idea.

If you’ve never taken an ethics course and don’t know much about it consider taking a professional development course, watching some of the free iTunesU videos, or picking up a good book (anyone have a good recommendation?). I’m regularly asking myself, when we build the future of the web are we building an ethical place? I’m not so sure the answer is yes.