Technologist - The FindLaw Legal Technology Blog

Do Programmers Need Lawyer-Like Ethics?

With all the recent advancements in technology, and with how interconnected everyday life has become with tech, the question arises whether programmers need to be held ethically accountable for their actions, in the same way lawyers are.

Currently, there are no requirements that programmers who release code publicly, or for sale, be licensed by any sort of governing body that ensures the protection of the public. Sure, there are best practices, and there can definitely be criminal charges, civil lawsuits, and other consequences for a programmer's unethical conduct. But there's no malpractice claim for individuals to bring that have been harmed by a programmer's professional negligence, nor is there a governing body for individuals to complain to that could sanction a programmer and prevent them from releasing future negligent programs.

Programmer Ethics

Recently, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) announced a major revision to the code of programmer ethics. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, this code is merely advisory. The Association for Computing Machinery doesn't have regulatory authority.

However, the ACM's "Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct" has been around for quite some time. It was originally adopted by the organization in 1992. And as you could've probably guessed, was sorely in need of updating (which it finally got). The update explains that programmers need to be aware of the problems that can arise unintentionally, such as discrimination, or hacking risks. It further explains that programmers need to be cognizant of the "public good," and that their work should further the "public good" rather than harm it.

Are Programmer Ethics a Legal Problem?

Currently, breaking laws and exposure to civil liability is the only real stick that keeps morally casual programmers honest. Unfortunately, as the internet has connected the world through a series of tubes, putting together a regulatory body with authority to actually enforce a code of ethics isn't as simple as regulating lawyers by state. After all, software consumers are not geographically limited in their ability to download software like they are when it comes to hiring a lawyer local to them or the court their case would be filed in.

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