How To Be A More Ethical Techie

Monday, February 18, 2019
Environmental damage, conflict minerals, tax avoidance and exploitation of workers-the unethical side of tech is hitting the media mainstream. But what can the average consumer do to help? Max Figgett speaks to experts and offers a roundup of (almost)guilt-free hardware.

ways to be More Ethical Techie

Grappling with the "ethics of technology" isn't easy. The term encompasses myriad concerns about conflict-ridden supply chains in developing countries, the rise of artificial intelligence (Al), the environmental impact of manufacture and, of course, workers' rights in the Far East and elsewhere.

To take a recent example, Amnesty International created a campaign that led Google employees to sign an open letter urging the firm to drop its "Dragonfly" project in China According to the letter, the prototype search engine would enable censorship and government-directed disinformation, and destabilize the ground truth on which popular deliberation and dissent rely" by obeying the Chinese government's stringent rules.

While China may seem a long way from Chiswick, such issues affect everyone who consumes technology-who doesn't use Google, after all? But does that mean we should boycott the search engine and launch our unethical laptops into the nearest skip in a guilty panic? 

We asked experts to tackle the largest ethical quandaries facing technology consumers today, before offering a glimmer of hope in the form of ground-breaking companies that could help you become a more ethical techie. 

Where to start? 

The biggest challenge facing anyone who wants to become an ethically-minded tech consumer is where to start. "My top issues would be tax avoidance, toxic chemicals, data centers and how they're powered, conflict minerals, workers' rights, and general supply chain issues," said Tim Hunt, co-editor of Ethical Consumer, rattling off a list that gives us plenty to be getting on with. 

Founded in 1989 and based in Manchester, Ethical Consumer is a not-for-profit cooperative that champions the "ethical consumer movement" via its product guides, campaigns research and bi-monthly print magazine. The organization isn't limited to technology, investigating the ethical practices of the energy, clothing, food, beauty, travel and finance industries.

Those investigations are key, as it's easy to be oblivious to what's going on. "We're all being impacted by contemporary technologies, whether we actively 'use' them or not, but most of us aren't fully aware of how these technologies operate," Justin Sherman, co-founder and vice president of US-based non- partisan initiative Ethical Tech.

 As a result, we as consumers won't ask important questions like how a website collects and sells our data, or how an algorithm could be making decisions about welfare payouts and prison sentencing. It works in favor of unethical tech because we're not well-equipped to ask the right ethical questions.

If experts such as Sherman struggle to pose the right questions, what can the rest of us do? Hunt points to Ethical Consumer's rankings. "We rate each company on four broad categories: people, environment, animals, and politics, which includes campaign donations and anti-social finance like tax avoidance, he said. This is how each of the scores-out of 20 in its sector guides is reached. The higher the total, the more ethical the company.

"Within each of those companies, we look at 'policy versus practice. In terms of policy, we look at the possible use of tax avoidance strategies and we've got ranking criteria where we can give companies a best, worst or middle rating for tax avoidance, based on whether they're high-risk company types in tax havens or if they have a tox transparency policy.

When it comes to tax and other ethical issues, Hunt singles out one company in particular. "In our opinion, Amazon stands out as tax avoidance is central to its business model," he explained.

In 2017, Amazon paid £1.7 million in UK tax, despite posting profits of £72.3 million. "We pay all taxes required in the UK and every country where we operate," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement at the time. "Corporation tax is based on profits, not revenues, and our profits have remained low given retail is a highly competitive, low-margin business and our continued heavy investment."

But, according to Hunt, the film's failings aren't limited to tax and are symptomatic of a wider issue. "With regards to Amazon's policies, they score quite badly in all of the policy areas we research: environmental policy, workers' rights, supply chain, toxics and data centers. A lot of that is because they've lost any meaningful transparency about what they do."

That's in contrast to another big-hitter often criticized for its practices: "If you compare them [Amazon] to, say, Apple around workers' rights, there's still a lot of issues around Apple's supply chain, but they're more transparent about that. And they also have much better policies in place and at least acknowledge that they should be doing something."

Apple cut out the use of PVC [polyvinyl chloride, which according to Greenpeace, is the "single most environmentally damaging type of plastic"] a long time ago, which was streets ahead. And their conflict mineral reporting is a lot more advanced than a lot of their competitors and their supply chain management is as well

For instance, in the Supplier Responsibility section of its website (, Apple explains that "we hold ourselves and our suppliers to the highest standard when it comes to human rights, environmental protection and responsible business practices in our supply chain. It all includes a yearly Progress Report packed with statistics and diagrams.

But that's only one side of the story. A tech company's policy might dramatically differ from what happens in reality, which is where whistleblowers and surreptitious visits to factories come into play. "For example, War on Want or the Green Clothes campaign or Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) might produce a report where they've gone undercover into factories and they've listed 30 or 40 things they find problematic," explained Hunt. "We'll go through that report and add it to our database.

"You find instances where a company might score the best policy rating, but those doing work on their ground find that their policies don't match up with what's actually taking place That gives us a good story to go out to consumers and say look, we can find the greenwash that lies behind what companies are telling people.".

No pressure 
But where does this lack of transparency and "greenwashing come from? And will it always be a given in the technology industry? "Other markets tend to be a bit more open and there less of a concentration," said Hunt. "In the clothing market, there's lots and lots of small ethical retailers that are really putting the pressure on the big boys and girls. And it's the same in the energy market as well.

"In the tech sector, you don't necessarily get that. In that market, it's really only the Fairphone I see opposite] that's the uber-ethical' option. And that uber-ethical option doesn't really exist in the laptop market. The fact that there's very few players and the big players have a large percentage of the market means that it's not easy to change.

With few truly ethical buying options, in what other ways can consumers make their voices heard? Ethical Consumer, along with like-minded organizations such as Amnesty Internation offer a range of options. The nuclear approach, of course, is a total boycott-Ethical Consumer has called for a boycott of Amazon and includes a long list of other campaigns on its site (pcpro. link/293boycotts) - but that may not be realistic for most consumers, especially those on a tight budget.

Hunt, therefore, also suggests a lighter approach. 'In terms of tech, we always say to go for refurbished and secondhand where it's possible. And that's the number one easy thing that's ethical. You don't have to get an upgrade for a phone just because you're due one.

The most important step is self-education, agrees Ethical Tech's Sherman. "Reading the terms of service of just one major tech website could very likely scare you, just like it's alarming to find out just how much your city might be using Al to predict citizen behavior, or how your average piece of software is likely quite insecure.

But users shouldn't be put off by complicated jargon it's also important to keep up with technology news and know that you don't need to be a programmer or IT expert to everything. Reading the news is also a great way to identify search engines that won't track your search history or one of the many end-to-end encrypted messaging apps that are freely available".

If you need new hardware or want to switch services, it's time to get googling. The obvious thing is to check the ethics of the of buying from on our website suggested Hunt. Have a look and see what you're off buying. But make sure you arm yourself with the knowledge and know that you're making a purchase that's going to have an impact.

A positive affirmation can be just as effective as withholding your custom, too. "We well,;" said Hunt people to tell the companies as well. "So, if you've made a purchase based on ethics, tell the company you've bought from that it's the reason you've chosen to go with them.

And if there's a company you've decided you really don't want to buy from, having looked into their policy and  practice, let them know that you're not buying from them"