Professions such as medicine, law, finance and others (especially in more advanced economies) that may have an impact on society as a result of their actions have been documented over the centuries and their codes of practice have been modified and legally adopted by their members in order to provide a framework of responsibility. Such professional bodies have recognised the impact that their members’ actions could have an extremely negative effect on society at large and their other members. As a result, being a practising professional in these areas requires membership and adherence to their rules or you operate outside the law and risk serious legal action and punishment.
The computing profession, in relation to these, is in its infancy. The industry has many such organisations that provide a framework of responsibility; qualifications, customer charters, development standards, documentation and so on. However there is currently no requirement to adopt any of these in order to practice as a computing professional despite increasing pressure to do so. This implies either that regulators do not judge the computing profession able to cause sufficient harm in order to warrant such regulation or they are relying on alternative regulations to police its actions (as with other non-regulated professions). However, given that the use of technology and computing professionals crosses the boundaries of all aspects of life and other professions and the use of technology is often critical of success (on a commercial or safety basis), it is possible for the computing profession not only to have a large impact on one system but many systems.
As a result computing professionals have a great responsibility to society at large and to other members of the profession. This was evidenced with the “millennium bug” where many systems could have been affected but largely were not. Ethical software development requires the need to consider whether the development may, in the foreseeable future, cause damage or harm, however “software design decisions often depend on more than one ethical issue, possibly conflicting, where the appropriate ethical choice is not always clear cut” (Thomson & Schmoldt, 2001). It is a debated topic whether the developers of system were unethical to have used a 2 digit date representation. Those developers were acting on the brief of their organisation and in terms of their company policies and goals, were successful, however this issue points clearly to the computing profession having an additional social responsibility and a need to consider business ethics seriously.
If we assume that the Y2K issue had caused major problems as the media hyped at the time; finance, medical, transportation and police systems failing causing many fatalities and chaos, would the computing profession be legally regulated today or, as it currently is, ethically regulated?
Adams & McGrindle, (2008) Pandora’s Box: Social & Professional Issues of the Information Age. University of Reading: Wiley.
BBC News: US satellites safe after Y2K glitch [Online]. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/589836.stm (Accessed 8 November 2009).
Thomson & Schmoldt, Ethics in computer software design and development [Online]. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T5M-429Y516-8 (Accessed 8 November 2009).