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The Contestation of Tech Ethics: A Sociotechnical Approach to Technology Ethics in Practice
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The Contestation of Tech Ethics: A Sociotechnical Approach to Technology Ethics in Practice

This article introduces the special issue “Technology Ethics in Action: Critical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives”. In response to recent controversies about the harms of digital technology, discourses and practices of “tech ethics” have proliferated across the tech industry, academia, civil society, and government. Yet despite the seeming promise of ethics, tech ethics in practice suffers from several significant limitations: tech ethics is vague and toothless, has a myopic focus on individual engineers and technology design, and is subsumed into corporate logics and incentives. These limitations suggest that tech ethics enables corporate “ethics-washing”: embracing the language of ethics to defuse criticism and resist government regulation, without committing to ethical behavior. Given these dynamics, I describe tech ethics as a terrain of contestation where the central debate is not whether ethics is desirable, but what “ethics” entails and who gets to define it. Current approaches to tech ethics are poised to enable technologists and technology companies to label themselves as “ethical” without substantively altering their practices. Thus, those striving for structural improvements in digital technologies must be mindful of the gap between ethics as a mode of normative inquiry and ethics as a practical endeavor. In order to better evaluate the opportunities and limits of tech ethics, I propose a sociotechnical approach that analyzes tech ethics in light of who defines it and what impacts it generates in practice.