Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: CS Department needs ethical guidelines for industry partnerships

By
Editorial Page Board
Friday, October 11, 2019

At the fall Career Fair, a group of students affiliated with the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition protested four companies — Amazon, Microsoft, Palantir and Ernst & Young — that hold contractual agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These companies participate in Brown’s “Industry Partners Program,” a Department of Computer Science program, which asks tech corporations to pay anywhere from $5,000 to upwards of $15,000 to secure a place at Brown’s career fairs and gain special access to students, faculty and recruiting resources.

The Career Fair protest took place amid a larger, growing national conversation around how universities should confront the United States’ increasingly punitive immigration policies, which ICE upholds. Amazon, Microsoft, Palantir and EY have received criticism for providing tools and software to ICE, and students at over 25 universities throughout the nation have joined the #NoTechForIce campaign to petition their schools to cut ties with these businesses. Students have also signed pledges not to work for companies that have ties with ICE. At the moment, Brown’s department of computer science has paused on-campus events with Palantir and removed Palantir’s logo from their list of industry partner affiliates.

In light of recent events, and as the CS department reviews its industry partnerships, we call on the department to publicly clarify its policies and create a standard to assess corporate partnerships against departmental values of ethics and social good.

The CS department has recently taken steps to promote a more ethical computer science community and prioritize diversity and inclusion in the field. Through programs such as the “Responsible Computer Science” initiative and the introduction of Ethics TAs this semester, the CS department has placed new emphasis on the idea that ethical impact should be integral to its computer science curriculum and the field in general. Notably, Department Chair Ugur Cetintemel highlighted the importance of encouraging concentrators to “think critically about the usage and possible misuse of the solutions they build.”

But these actions, which we take to reflect departmental values, appear to conflict with the department’s decision to partner with companies like Palantir, Amazon, Microsoft and EY. While these corporations have created many benign technologies that have played important roles in advancing society’s progress, we cannot overlook how their contracts with ICE legitimize and empower the agency to take egregious actions. We have seen how ICE instills fear in local communities, separates children from their families and detains individuals for extended periods in inhumane conditions. By accepting money from these companies and giving them preferential access to students, the University normalizes the presence of these corporations, which serves as a form of indirect support. We recognize that not every student has the privilege of choosing where they work, nor does every employee within the four companies possess the influence to negotiate or end contracts with agencies such as ICE. To that end, our call to action is directed toward the executives of these companies and University officials.

The department should not be facilitating student employment in companies that offer financial security but create products that are irreconcilable with the University’s values, especially when legitimate alternatives must exist.

While the department rightly removed Palantir from its list of industry affiliates and ended campus events with the company, it should also reevaluate its partnerships with Amazon, Microsoft and EY, companies whose actions might not align with the values set forth by the department. Ultimately, the department owes it to the students, who are rightfully concerned about the implications of partnering with these companies, to establish a more transparent method of choosing which companies should or should not be partnered with Brown CS. Going forward, in any standard it constructs to assess future corporate partnerships, the CS department should incorporate ethical concerns and social impact into its criterion. Then, even if the department ultimately chooses to continue its relationships with such businesses, it will be able to justify those choices to students against its own standards.

To construct such a standard and facilitate discourse on departmental values, the department should consider creating an ethics board that includes a mix of undergraduate and graduate student representation. By consulting with and listening to students, we hope that the department can open avenues to bring a more diverse array of companies and organizations to campus. Overall, while Brown’s computer science department has made significant progress in building a class of computer science concentrators who are conscientious of the social impact of their work, it should extend this value beyond its classrooms to hold the industry at large more accountable to the ethical implications of the technology it creates.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Grace Layer ’20 and Krista Stapleford ’21, and its members, Dylan Tian ’21 and Riley Pestorius ’21. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

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