Are developers responsible for how their products are used?

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By Francis Moran

Ottawa finally got its version of the C100′s terrific Accelerate conferences last week and it was a stellar event from beginning to end.

The C100 is a group — or mafia, as they like to call themselves — of mainly Silicon Valley-based Canadian entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and others keen to support Canadian technology companies. Its 48 Hours in the Valley twice a year brings 20 Canadian companies to the mecca of technology for two days of networking, pitches and meetings. For several years now, The C100 has been bringing itself to Canada through Accelerate events, usually day-long conferences. I have been to several Accelerate sessions in Montreal and Toronto over the past few years and have long yammered at Atlee Clark, C100′s chief organiser, that Ottawa needed one of its own.

A local organising committee took that bull by its horns a few months ago and, notwithstanding a couple of bumps along the way, pulled off an amazing event that was well over subscribed. Unreserved congratulations on a job very well done go to Harley Finkelstein, Tobi Lütke, Invest Ottawa’s Jon Milne and the rest of the committee. Between the international technology and entrepreneurial superstars they persuaded to come out and the terrific line-up of home-grown talent sharing experiences and wisdom, it was a great mix of the inspirational and practical.

One of the clear highlights of the program was the opening keynote featuring Chamath Palihapitiya (pictured below), who grew up in Ottawa, attended the University of Waterloo, and made his fortune working at AOL and, particularly, Facebook, joining the latter company when it was just a year old. Now a venture capitalist, Palihapitiya was interviewed by Jason Calacanis, a pioneer blogger, internet entrepreneur and investor in his own right. It genuinely was a rare and fascinating discussion the likes of which we far-too-infrequently see in Ottawa.

I tweeted many of the highlights of the discussion so I’m not going to repeat them here. (Invest Ottawa pulled together a pretty good Storify of the event.) Nor do I want what I am about to write to overshadow my generally enthusiastic view of the discussion. Towards its end, though, the conversation between Palihapitiya and Calacanis detoured into the current high-profile issue of surveillance by the United States government (and others, including Canada’s) of its own citizens and the not-unrelated subject of how responsible technology developers are for the evil uses to which their inventions might be put.

Worryingly, not at all responsible seemed to be Palihapitiya’s position. Tasked directly on the subject by an audience member, he prefaced his response with, “You’re not going to like my answer” before saying, and I’m paraphrasing, that his job is to blaze new paths and not to put up guardrails on the dangerous curves that might be found along those paths.

With the very greatest of respect, I could not disagree more profoundly.

It’s not that I blame Alexander Graham Bell for the unwelcome telemarketing calls that now outnumber legitimate rings of his invention in our household. And nor do I hold Tim Berners-Lee responsible for the child pornography, spam and criminal scams made possible by his work on http. But, as with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life-long preoccupation with curbing the excesses of the nuclear genie he helped unbottle, I do believe that technologists have a very strong morale obligation to at least consider how their creations could be ill used and, in Palihapitiya’s elegant analogy, take some responsibility for also designing the guardrails on the more dangerous curves along the paths they blaze into the future.

I agreed with Palihapitiya when he said that technology will always be turned to evil purpose, and I agree that that alone is not reason enough to stop innovating. I also agree with his statement that if the good outweighs the bad, carry on, although I would add that it is very much a question of degree. Where I very much part ways, though, is with his abandoning of any sense of personal responsibility.

“It’s not my job,” he bluntly stated, to worry about the guardrails. And on that, he’s dead wrong.

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