Engineers and the Just Web

Engineers and the Just Web


Deirdre K. Mulligan • UC Berkeley School of Information

Contrary to today's portrayal of engineers as ethically deficient, in this talk, I highlight Internet architects' and engineers' decades long concern with the social and political values of their technical choices. While Internet standard setting organizations, such as W3C and the IETF, initially eschewed policy and politics, over time they accepted that protocols embed values and developed tools and methods for considering the impact of protocols on societal goals. Computer science research on values such as privacy and fairness has exploded. And perhaps most dramatically engineers within companies are opposing the use of systems they design to undermine human rights. At least some engineers are interested in protecting human rights through their design and engineering choices. But building technical standards, products, and socio-technical systems that align with human rights is a complicated task. It requires identifying relevant rights, prioritizing among them, and figuring out how best to distribute responsibility for protecting them across human and machine components, and public and private actors. In this talk I outline the guidance and support human rights law offers engineers, and offer a conceptual model to reason about the distribution of responsibility for protecting rights in socio-technical systems consistent with norms of democratic governance.

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