The Ethics of Cloud Computing – Part 3

​This is the final chapter in Seth Payne’s three-part series. Click here to read Part One or Part Two.

Where Do These Ethical Principles Come From?

As I mentioned above, I find that understanding the “why” of moral and ethical behavior is just as important as knowing “what” moral behavior is expected.  For this reason, I will briefly outline the origins of the ethical principles I have outlined above.

Broadly speaking, ethical and moral philosophy is dominated by two schools of thought.  On the one hand sit deontologists.  Deontology is the idea that there are certain moral rules to be followed simply because of the nature of sentient life.  For example, a strict deontologist, like the great philosopher Immanuel Kant and even great thinkers in the East, argue that being honest at all times is a moral principle to be observed under any and all circumstances.  The basic reasoning here is that human beings have value in and of themselves; completely separate from whom they are, what they may do or how they act.  This is a recognition of the universal value of sentient life, especially human life,  and certain moral rules are established which insist that sentient life is never to be used as a means to an end because, life is an end it itself.  As I say, this type of thinking is common in both Western and Eastern moral philosophy.  Even ancient Greek “Virtue Ethics” are based on a deontological thinking.

Consequentialism, by contrast, is not based on any set of pre-defined moral rules.  Rather, the morality of any given action is based on the consequences that result from the action.  So, if I choose to do X and this produces positive consequences, I conclude that X is moral.  If, however, X produces negative consequences then I conclude X is immoral.  Of course, this type of analysis is done before an action is taken and moral judgments are made on the expected outcome.  The biggest proponents of consequentialist thinking have been John Stuart Mill (19th Century), Richard Hare, and contemporary moral philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton.

Philosophers and ethicists debate deontology and consequentialism ad nauseum.  Some deontologists have even admitted frustration because consequentialism seems to right, but they know it must be wrong! And indeed, I think there is a good point to be made here.  Unless consequentialism is taken to extremes, it seems to be a very a substantive basis for moral thinking.  I see the relationship between consequentialism and deontology as being similar to that of the relationship between Newtonian mechanics and Einstein’s relativity.    When we look out into the cosmos, Newtonian mechanics break down.  But If I’m building a bridge, I use Newton, not Einstein.  It’s all a matter of context.

Regardless of any philosophical debate, the reality is that we live in a world where both consequentialist and deontological thought are necessary.

Consider the issue of respective individual privacy.  From a deontological viewpoint, we must seek ensure privacy because IT users are human beings with value in themselves and to invade their privacy is an affront to that inherent value.  On the other hand, if an employee inadvertently sends sensitive customer data outside the firm via email, then we may consider the question in consequentialist terms.  If sensitive customer data is leaked, it could result in serious negative consequences for both the customer and the firm, and thus should be avoided/prevented.  Of course, by preventing data leaks we are also fulfilling a duty to customers that is, generally, a moral rule borne of deontology.

The same applies to the other ethical principles discussed above.  There are times when we must honor a duty to customers and yet other times when preventing potential harm – to either the firm or to its customers – must factor into moral decision-making.

I have observed that most of us default to consequentialist thinking without even realizing we have done so.  There is no harm in this, necessarily.  However, if a firm attempts to minimize its own negative consequences and places its own needs above the duty to customers moral conflict arises.  Moral conflict leads to unhappy customers and unhappy customers are not just bad for business, they often represent a breach of trust – be it large or small, perceived or real.

It is important to note that moral culture within an organization begins at the top.  A service provider without strong moral leadership cannot hope to act morally in the aggregate.  Regardless of the number of customer service, technical support, or account management employees who seek to do right by their customers, these employees can only work within a larger corporate culture.  Moral leaders create moral employees.  Moral employees create happy customers who feel respected and valued.

Cloud Computing Ethics In Practice

As mentioned above, the core ethical principles of IT remain unchanged with the advent of Cloud Computing.  However, as the saying goes, while the play remains the same, the players have changed.  And even though the governing ethics remain largely unchanged, it is important to reexamine them especially in light of the fact that so much of what used to be entirely internal considerations of operations and risk management, has been entrusted to providers and individuals who sit well outside direct organizational control.

Service providers must understand the operational risk they are assuming for their customers.  Providers become stewards of customer data, functional operation, and risk mitigation.  Fulfilling this duty as stewards requires the proper investment in technology and talent.  It also requires explicit and honest communication with customers.

Customers too have a responsibilities and duties as they are, most likely, providing services to customers of their own.  Consumers of cloud services must have a deep understanding of the technology being utilized and its accompanying risks.  The only way to meet this responsibility is to 1) perform due diligence when considering a 3rd party cloud services provider and 2) maintain consistent communication with the chosen provider to keep abreast of any changes that may impact their ability to meet the needs of their customers.

Ultimately it really comes down to some pretty simple ideas.  Be honest, be responsible and transparent, respect privacy, and treat both customers and vendors as we, ourselves, would like to be treated.

Cloud computing can only reach its full potential if a real, lasting trust is established between providers and customers.  This trust can only be built on strong, well-defined system of ethics borne of organizational cultures dedicated to long-term relationships and customer success.

Seth Payne is a Sr. Product Manager at Skytap.  He received and MA in Religion & Ethics from Yale University and an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business.  Seth previously worked as a  Technical Product Manager at the New York Stock Exchange and has 15+ years experience in high-tech.


Join our email list for news, product updates, and more.