Wanted: Defenders of the public interest

The first imperative of the CIPS Code of Ethics is to protect the public interest and maintain integrity.  First among the eight principles of the ACM/IEEE Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice is “PUBLIC – Software engineers shall act consistently with the public interest”

When I posed the question “what is meant by public interest?” to one of my classes, a student replied that if some member of the public is interested (in having a piece of software written), there is public interest!  I disagreed.

When blippy.com was unveiled, I asked my students if it served the public interest and if they would work there.  Responses were mixed.  Certainly, I think that the public benefits from diversity and innovation in general.  Sharing purchase details (that could and did lead to exposing credit card information) is not likely in the interest of the public.  Not enough members of the public were interested, because the company is no longer in business. Should we rely on the market to decide these questions?  Questions about the public interest are worth asking – more often than they are at present. More than just asking the questions, we have an important perspective to share with society.  Back in 1987, BloomBecker wrote about computer ethics as an antidote for despair.  There may seem to be a never-ending stream of reasons for despair, yet there is also reason for hope.  BloomBecker, quoting Macy, talked about 3 steps towards empowerment:

  1. To experience the power within us, recognizing our own adequacy and our capacity to choose.
  2. To broaden our vision of what is possible, and to see it clearly enough that our resolve and will are strengthened.
  3. To acquire skills for social change work.

Back in 1987, Donn Parker (quoted by BloomBecker) wrote that “Though computer technologists are garnering positions of great corporate trust, they belong to a profession that lacks a tradition and responsibility of ethical standards.”

The term professional is used almost everywhere these days. Google says that professional can be used as an adjective (either “relating to or belonging to a profession” or “engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as an amateur.”) or a noun (“a person engaged or qualified in a profession”).  A profession can be a lot of things, too.  However, “liberal profession” is clear: it is “practised on the basis of relevant professional qualifications in a personal, responsible and professionally independent capacity by those providing intellectual and conceptual services in the interest of the client and the public.”  This definition is found in the text of European Union’s Directive 2005/36/EC on the recognition of professional qualifications, last updated on March 24, 2011.

As Donna Lindskog wrote last month, IT (still) does not know ethics.  Some things have changed since then, but change comes slowly.  We teach ethics now, and we have the foundations for a liberal profession. According to wikipedia (something that I contend is very much in the public interest), computing in Canada is completing the milestones needed to be recognized as a profession: it is a full-time occupation, training schools and university degrees have been established, CIPS is the local and national association, CIPS has a code of ethics, and licensing laws are being established in the provinces.

As individuals, there is much we can do.  We can educate, advocate, and model the ethical imperatives of our Code of Ethics.  If we do these things, one day computing will take its place on the list of liberal professions.

How do you uphold the public interest in your work?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Daryl Hepting
Daryl Heptinghttp://www2.cs.uregina.ca/~hepting
Daryl Hepting is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and an associate member of the Film Department at the University of Regina. His research is focused on the development of tools to help people deal with and navigate complex information spaces, in application areas as diverse as environmental decision support, eyewitness identification, and multimedia composition.

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