CALL TO ACTION: Collaborating on a Technologist Code of Ethics

Building an inclusive and rights-respecting digital future
Blog Post
June 10, 2022

At RightsCon 2022, USAID Administrator Samantha Power and New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter launched a collaboration between USAID and New America to support the drafting of a new technologist code of ethics. In concert with this announcement, a panel discussion, A technologist code of ethics: building a rights-respecting digital future, featuring technologists and civil society leaders delved into the potential for a code and the role of norms and culture in building a rights-respecting digital future.

In a zoom-side chat, Administrator Power and Slaughter discussed how authoritarian actors have gained support, including from fragile or backsliding democracies, for their holistic authoritarian approach to global technology. Yet, over the past decade in democratic countries, technological development and governance has come to be driven largely by the principles of efficiency and unbridled economic growth, to the detriment of democracy and human rights. The struggle for democracy is playing out on the battlefield of digital platforms, models, standards, and systems.

Administrator Power described the value of technology in creating progress, as well as its potential for abuse and misuse. “It's no secret that if we are to meet any of our development objectives globally, technology and the use of data, bringing in machine learning and AI, all of these are going to be incredible assets, whether in the realm of public health, in the realm of climate forecasting and soil mapping, which we're doing a lot of in light of the food security crisis –so I think, the potential for positive impact of the use of these tools knows no bounds.”

“But unfortunately, there's a lot of other things going on, as well, in the technology space: the misappropriation of these tools to crack down on citizens who are exercising their rights; surveying those citizens and using information gathered through that surveillance to accelerate crackdowns as part of this democracy recession.”

To help realign the values and ethics behind technology development and deployment, Slaughter and Administrator Power announced the launch of a collaboration between USAID and New America to support the drafting of a new technologist code of ethics.

It’s time to build on the momentum to scale best practices in public interest tech initiatives. Establishing a technologist code of ethics, with the ambitious aim of realigning the practices and standards of technology development and deployment with democratic values and respect for human rights, will require us to rethink both the transformative and diverse ways in which technology impacts every community.

Administrator Power further explained, “The purpose of this kind of code would be to support technologists, the civil society actors and the academics to come together to document a set of principles for how technology should uphold democratic values and human rights.

Slaughter and Administrator Power then discussed the opportunity to foster real cross-sector collaboration to change the norms and standards of technology development and deployment. As Slaughter stated, “ We have to come together to think through what a rights-respecting common digital future looks like.”

The process surrounding the creation of such a code matters. To be successful, this effort must engage a broad range of voices from around the world. The drafting process will be transparent and inclusive – creating conditions that allow for enthusiastic, facilitated, and varied debate among technologists and other stakeholders with a vast range of experience in academia, civil society, and the private sector. In the coming months, New America will help convene public engagement sessions that foster an open design and drafting approach, alongside a broad coalition of organizations, institutions, and individuals.

Discussion of the value, challenges, and opportunities for implementation of a technologist code of ethics were discussed in a follow-on panel. (See the summary of the panel discussion here.)

Both the zoom-side chat and follow-on panel at RightsCon about a technologist code of ethics emphasized that change does not happen through the articulation of values alone. Careful consideration should be taken to implement the code’s tenets in a wide variety of venues including emerging tech companies, tech incubators, universities, and vocational schools. Certification, compliance, and accountability will be discussed from the start and implementation plans will be developed as part of the drafting process.

This work is just one piece of a complicated puzzle. A code of ethics is not a panacea to all of our tech-related challenges – but it is a necessary complement to ongoing legal, regulatory, and multilateral policy work. The RightsCon community alone represents thousands of amazing global ideas for a brighter digital future – as the conference wraps up today, it is clear more venues are needed to ensure a robust examination of digital outcomes.

Today is day one of this effort. There is a lot of work to be done, and it must be done as a collective. While New America plans to help frame the architecture to facilitate the process, collaborative multi-stakeholder participation matters. We want to hear from you.

We encourage you to take the following actions:

  1. Consider filling out this brief survey. We want to hear what you are thinking. Share your thoughts anonymously if you wish.
  2. If you would prefer not to engage with the survey, but want to be kept in the loop, please email to be added to our distribution list as we convene public roundtables.

Thank you for all of the enthusiasm surrounding this initiative at RightsCon 2022. Updates to follow.

This post was updated on 6/21/2022 with links to event recordings and conversation summaries to reflect the conversation between Anne-Marie Slaughter and Administrator Power.