Whose side are ethics codes on? Power, responsibility and the social good

Anne L. Washington, Rachel Kuo

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


The moral authority of ethics codes stems from an assumption that they serve a unified society, yet this ignores the political aspects of any shared resource. The sociologist Howard S. Becker challenged researchers to clarify their power and responsibility in the classic essay: Whose Side Are We On. Building on Becker's hierarchy of credibility, we report on a critical discourse analysis of data ethics codes and emerging conceptualizations of beneficence, or the “social good”, of data technology. The analysis revealed that ethics codes from corporations and professional associations conflated consumers with society and were largely silent on agency. Interviews with community organizers about social change in the digital era supplement the analysis, surfacing the limits of technical solutions to concerns of marginalized communities. Given evidence that highlights the gulf between the documents and lived experiences, we argue that ethics codes that elevate consumers may simultaneously subordinate the needs of vulnerable populations. Understanding contested digital resources is central to the emerging field of public interest technology. We introduce the concept of digital differential vulnerability to explain disproportionate exposures to harm within data technology and suggest recommendations for future ethics codes..

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFAT* 2020 - Proceedings of the 2020 Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency
PublisherAssociation for Computing Machinery
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781450369367
StatePublished - Jan 27 2020
Externally publishedYes
Event3rd ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, FAT* 2020 - Barcelona, Spain
Duration: Jan 27 2020Jan 30 2020


Conference3rd ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, FAT* 2020


  • Data science
  • Digital differential vulnerability
  • Digital vulnerability
  • Ethics codes
  • Public interest technology
  • Social movements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Business, Management and Accounting
  • General Engineering


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