Good Code is a weekly podcast about ethics in our digital world. We look at ways in which our increasingly digital societies could go terribly wrong, and speak with those trying to prevent that. Each week, host Chine Labbé engages with a different expert on the ethical dilemmas raised by our ever-more pervasive digital technologies. Good Code is a dynamic collaboration between the Digital Life Initiative at Cornell Tech and journalist Chine Labbé.
On this episode:
Apple, Google, Facebook : these companies have become so big and powerful that they are often compared to empires. There is a sense of inevitability to them. They are here to stay, so we’d rather have our bread buttered by them than not, as Julia Powles puts it.
But this narrative is a recent one, and now is a good time to recognize it, she adds.
Our “long tradition of (…) fetishiz(ing) innovation and technological progress” shouldn’t prevent us from scrutinizing these companies, as closely as we would tobacco or pharmaceutical groups, she says.
We talked about:
- In this episode, Powles mentions a book called Blitzscaling, by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh. Yeh is an entrepreneur and writer. Hoffman is the co-founder of LinkedIn and serves on the board of many big tech companies. Their book, which came out in October 2018, theorizes “blitzscaling” as the secret to making a company “massively valuable.” And what does blitzscaling do? “It prioritizes speed over efficiency in an environment of uncertainty, and allows a company to go from ‘startup’ to ‘scaleup’ at a furious pace that captures the market”, as they put it on their website.
- Powles dissects the data-sharing deal between Google’s DeepMind and the UK’s National Health Service, to develop an app designed to help doctors identify patients with a risk of acute kidney injury. The UK data watchdog ruled in 2017 that the deal was illegal. Read about it here.
- In late 2018, Google Health absorbed DeepMind, raising privacy concerns, even though DeepMind promised they would not share any data with Google.
- In this episode, we also talk about the software company Palantir Technologies, and how it deployed predictive policing technology in New Orleans for six years, without public knowledge. The Verge revealed the program’s existence in February 2018. Just weeks after the report was published, the city mayor’s office said they would not renew the contract.
- Julia Powles is current doing research on Sidewalk Toronto with Ellen Goodman, our guest in Episode 5. Sidewalk Toronto is one of the hottest smart city projects at the moment. When signing the deal, Toronto’s mayor did not hide his excitement. “By having Sidewalk interested in coming here, we’re building up our credentials as the place to be in the world,” he told The Globe and Mail.
- In this episode, we also wonder why big tech companies are proving so hard to regulate. A piece of the answer is that they have created an illusion of unreachability, through legal innovation, Powles says. Legal scholar Julie Cohen has written expansively on the topic.
- Powles also discusses the “Right to be forgotten”, a principle that became law in the European Union in 2014. But as she explains, this quite innovative piece of legislation, allowing citizens to ask search companies to delist information about them, did not quite go as far as it could have. First, Google has insisted that it should be applied within the Union only, and not globally. Second, less than 50% of the requests were satisfied, according to the data shared by Google last year.