Casey Friedman by window in Jepson Hall

Casey Friedman, '21

May 4, 2021
The ethics of crafting technology policy

In April 2018, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg famously testified before Congress about the technology behemoth’s user privacy protections in the wake of a data breach by a third party. The hearing underscored not only the lack of regulation in much of the technology sector, but also the lack of understanding among many Americans—including U.S. senators—about technology.

The question of how leaders fashion public policy about technology they know little about fascinates Science Leadership Scholar Casey Friedman, ’21. This year, he mapped out a timeline of key U.S. legislation on technology and its effects on the public and private sectors. Dr. Kristin Bezio served as the faculty advisor on his independent research project.

“I’ve also looked at the outsized effect the president has on how businesses operate with regards to technology,” he said. He researched the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), formed during George H. W. Bush’s presidency.

“Although it comprises both business leaders and academics, business leaders have accounted for an ever-increasing percentage of PCAST members under each president since George H. W. Bush,” Friedman said. “President Trump’s PCAST, which included executives like the CEO of Disney, who had little technology knowledge, had the greatest business representation of any PCAST to date.”

This concerns the senior from Scranton, Pa. 

“We need some business representation on the PCAST, because some businesses produce a lot of new technology,” Friedman said. “However, business executives have almost an inherent conflict of interest in advising the president on technology policy. PCAST needs more science and technology academics who understand technology and ethics. Tenure protects against conflicts of interest by providing academics with the freedom to act independently from their institutions.”

His leadership studies and computer science majors provided insights into ethics and technology, respectively, he said.

“My computer science classes gave me technical knowledge,” Friedman said. “Leadership studies served as a bridge between my technical skills and real-world problem solving and critical thinking. In Leadership Ethics with Dr. Marilie Coetsee, we discussed different schools of ethical thought. This gave me the words to talk about ethical issues in technology and come to a decision.

“My Critical Thinking class with Dr. Terry Price was similar to my Discrete Structures for Computing class with Dr. Prateek Bhakta. Both used symbolic logic and deductive reasoning.”

This type of thinking is exactly what is needed to advise political leaders charged with crafting technology policy, he said. As society becomes more reliant on technology, fundamental questions about the intersection of ethics and technology will increase.

For example, he said, consider questions about net neutrality, a principle whereby all internet service providers treat all internet data and communications equally.

“The Federal Communications Commission started repealing net neutrality regulations during the Trump administration,” Friedman said. “This was problematic because the internet has become like a utility people rely on. Repealing net neutrality rules affects access to internet content and results in people paying more for some services. It stifles competition and gives internet service providers too much power.”

After graduation, Friedman hopes to work on infusing sound ethical practices into technology-related public policy, he said.

“I am considering working for a consulting firm or think tank where I can advise legislators on technology policy. At some point, I may pursue a PhD in ethics and technology and perhaps even serve on PCAST.”