Ethics is arguably the hottest product in Silicon Valley’s hype cycle today, even as headlines decrying a lack of ethics in technology companies accumulate. After years of largely fruitless outside pressure to consider the consequences of digital technology products, the very recent past has seen a spike in the assignment of corporate resources in Silicon Valley to ethics, including hiring staff for roles we identify here as “ethics owners.” In corporate parlance, “owning” a portfolio or project means holding responsibility for it, often across multiple divisions or hierarchies within the organization. Typically, the “owner” of a project does not bear sole responsibility for it, but rather oversees integration of that project across the organization.
This paper draws on ethnographic, textual, and other qualitative data that the authors have collected as part of a broad engagement with the development of data-driven technologies. These data were supplemented with interviews with 17 people from established and well-known companies who either “own ethics” in their formal role or who have made addressing ethics within their companies or the industry a personal mission.