Opinion letter to the editor

How will the College of Computing teach ethics if its dean is on the board of Amazon?

Richard Stallman raises concerns about newly appointed College of Computing dean, Dan Huttenlocher

Dear editors,

MIT has announced that teaching ethics will be a focus of the College of Computing. This raises the question of what ethical principles it will teach to students.

Given that the college is named after the chairman of Blackstone, we must worry that “don't increase concentration of wealth,” “don't accelerate global heating,” and “don't support murderous autocrats” may be lacking among the principles to be taught. What more can we conclude from known facts?

Newly appointed Dean Huttenlocher is reportedly on the board of Amazon. We can surmise that he has no ethical qualms about Amazon's salient computing practices, starting with making software non-libre — controlled by Amazon, not by its users. This leads, in Amazon's case, to the usual secondary wrongs such as making software spy on the user for Amazon; designing software to block uses that many users will want; building in back doors, such as the one that Amazon used to remotely erase thousands of copies of the book, 1984, by George Orwell; and forcibly installing new versions of software, a practice known as “auto-update” or “sabotage,” depending on your point of view.

We can also surmise that he does not object strongly to Amazon's other business practices, such as taking control over retail markets, so that companies it doesn't recommend are greatly handicapped; dodging taxes; playing one city against another to obtain huge subsidies (i.e. welfare for the rich) and claiming this is doing them a favor; paying workers too little to live on; and working them so hard they get sick.

This conclusion is a surmise, not a certainty. We can hope Dean Huttenlocher will tell us that he disapproves of at least some of these practices.

The main question is, will the College of Computing teach students to see possible injustice in these practices, or will it legitimize them by focusing on more obscure ethical issues that don't come near “accepted” computing practice?

Richard Stallman is a visiting scientist at MIT. Stallman is also a leader of the free software movement.