IT professionals are the new guardians of ethical tech – but which global model should you follow?

A photo transition showing the US flag blending into the Chinese flag, which then blends into the EU flag
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Formerly relegated to an operational and technical role, IT professionals now wield significant influence. They play a pivotal role in reshaping the narrative surrounding technology, tasked with ensuring that technology serves humanity, rather than perpetuating societal inequalities. IT Leaders are becoming a peer ally to their CXOs, bridging the knowledge gaps between business, societal impact and technical possibilities of digitalisation.

In the contemporary landscape, technology is no longer agnostic. It’s imbued with ethics and biases, shaping the very fabric of society, and the development of algorithms and AI systems necessitates a critical examination of their ethical implications. However, the diverging approaches adopted by global powers underscore the ethical problems inherent in technological development.

It's within this global context that IT professionals must navigate the complexities of technological advancement with a steadfast commitment to ethics – and that means choosing one of three global ethical models.

The United States approach

An aerial photo of Apple's ring-shaped Apple Park headquarters, located in Cupertino, California

Apple Park in Cupertino, California (Image credit: Getty Images)

The United States has long been synonymous with technological innovation and entrepreneurship, driven by a culture of free-market capitalism and a relentless pursuit of progress. Silicon Valley has served as the epicentre of the global tech industry and home to some of the world's most influential companies, including Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon.

The prevailing ethos surrounding technology in the US is one of innovation at all costs, where tech has always followed a mantra of ‘break it till you make it’, and government policy is largely reactionary. Companies are encouraged to push the boundaries of what is possible, often at the expense of ethical considerations, as the federal government has historically taken a hands-off approach to regulating the technology sector, fostering an environment of minimal government intervention and allowing companies to operate with relative autonomy.

This approach has facilitated rapid technological development but has also led to serious concerns regarding data privacy, antitrust violations, and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few tech giants.

The China approach

An aerial photo of Shenzhen, China, showing the city's sky scrappers and green parks

Shenzhen, China, often referred to as 'China's Silicon Valley' (Image credit: Getty Images)

In contrast to the US model of innovation-at-all-costs capitalism, China has adopted a more centralised approach, characterised by state control, strategic planning, and a focus on technological sovereignty. 

The Chinese Communist Party has made this a top priority, viewing tech as essential for achieving economic growth, national security, and geopolitical influence. China's approach to technology is intertwined with its broader geopolitical ambitions, as evidenced by initiatives such as "Made in China 2025", which aims to transform China into a global leader in high-tech industries such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and telecommunications.

Additionally, China has invested heavily in infrastructure projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to establish a network of trade routes connecting China with countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The Chinese government has also used technology to implement extensive surveillance measures, including facial recognition, biometric data collection, and the widespread monitoring of online activities. Moreover, China's "social credit system" has raised alarm bells among human rights advocates, as it assigns citizens a score based on their behaviour and social interactions, with implications for access to services, employment opportunities, and even freedom of movement.

The European Union approach

An top down view of the circular meeting table at the European Commission, with various European leaders sat in attendance

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Europe finds itself in between competing ideologies, trying to carve out a distinct digital identity even as it grapples with the uncomfortable truth of losing the tech race to the US and China.

As such, Europe and the EU has increasingly embraced the principles of digital humanism, rooted in its tradition of Enlightenment humanism. At the heart of this lies the belief that technology should serve humanity, rather than the other way around, emphasising the importance of aligning technological progress with human values and ethical principles.

The EU's risk mitigation strategies, such as initiatives like the Digital Services Act, reflect a nuanced approach to technology regulation, balancing innovation with ethical considerations.

The Ethical Imperative of Digital Humanism

Central to the concept of digital humanism are several key principles that guide ethical technological development:

  1. Data Protection and Surveillance: Europe has been at the forefront of advocating for robust data protection measures, exemplified by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). While ensuring data privacy is paramount, there's also a need to empower individuals and businesses to retain control over their data, thereby mitigating the risk of exploitation by global tech giants.

  2. Digital Business Models: The emergence of ethically sound business models is essential for promoting inclusivity, sustainability, and social responsibility. By integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors into their operations, companies can create value while upholding ethical standards.

  3. Digital Tools for Human Empowerment: Technology should augment human capabilities rather than supplant them. Ensuring fairness and transparency in algorithms is crucial to combating biases and promoting inclusivity. Moreover, equipping individuals with digital literacy skills is essential to fostering responsible digital citizenship.

The Role of IT Professionals

While Europe's embrace of digital humanism is commendable, it is not without its challenges. This includes finding a balance between innovation and regulation. It's important to have strong regulatory frameworks in place to ensure ethical standards are upheld, but they should not hinder technological progress.

In addition, promoting digital literacy and ethical awareness is crucial for the widespread adoption of digital humanism principle. This will require collaboration between governments, educational institutions, and the private sector, to equip individuals with the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate an increasingly digital world. As the global technological landscape continues to evolve, the divergent paths taken by the US and China serve as a reminder of the complex interplay between technology, society, and governance.

IT professionals are uniquely positioned to shape the trajectory of technological development. By embracing their role as lawmakers in the digital age, they can advocate for ethical frameworks that prioritise human welfare and societal well-being. From data protection to algorithmic transparency, IT professionals have a critical role to play in safeguarding the ethical integrity of technological systems.

Therefore, IT professionals must navigate the complexities of technological advancement with a steadfast commitment to ethics. While this "call for ethics" surfs on an EU wave of environmental and consumer-orientated regulation and public discussion, IT professionals of all nationalities need to decide which of the three global models resonates with their own personal beliefs and the proclaimed or actual values of their companies.

Professor Martin Giesswein
Professor of digital economics and leadership at WU Executive Academy

Professor Martin Giesswein teaches digital economics and leadership, is a faculty member of the WU Executive Academy, book author, podcaster and executive sparring partner. He is a co-initiator of the community DigitalCity.Wien and was co-founder of the innovation campus Talent Garden Wien.