Exploring the ethics of APIs

API ethics

More than a decade on, the API economy continues to boom. As digital transformation sweeps organizations of every size in every industry and API-enabled digital channels like smart home devices become mainstream, the importance of APIs in people’s everyday lives is only increasing. However, just as the original gold rush that ballooned the population and wealth of San Francisco had devastating consequences for California’s original inhabitants, the 21st-century digital gold rush for which Silicon Valley stakes a major claim also has its collateral damage.

In fact, some of the virtues we preach about in the API economy can also become vices. Opening up your data and services to third-party developers can lead to innovative and lucrative business opportunities, but it can also lead to accidental and malicious use of that data. Focusing on customer experience and service personalization can provide convenience and reduce friction for users, but can also lead to addiction and have negative system effects. The increased analytical information and automation provided by APIs bring efficiency gains for businesses but also lead to disparity in job opportunities. Is there a way to maintain the benefits while addressing the negative impacts?

The API society

As a first step, it is important to apply a new perspective to digital transformation. As a movement, digital transformation has mostly focused on business considerations. For APIs specifically, this is reflected in the popular term, “API economy”. However, just as the industrial revolution had impacts on population growth, social organization, and political systems, we must broaden our view to consider the impact of the digital revolution on these and other socio-economic areas. Despite that important parallel, we have already observed some fundamental differences between the interrelationship of socio-economic factors in the industrial age and those in the digital age. Notably, the correlation between economic productivity and societal prosperity (measured by per capita GDP, employment, and median income) has softened, something MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call “The Great Decoupling.” This means that the 20th Century assumptions built into many social contracts no longer hold. For the API community, it means that we should consider the “API society”, not just the API economy.

Thinking from a societal perspective–and injecting that thinking into use, consumption, and provision of APIs–can help to address the ethical consequences of APIs listed above. To ensure data is used appropriately, API providers can define terms and conditions that lay out clear policies, design flows to ensure conscious acceptance of those terms, and proactively monitor usage through automated and human interactions. To reduce unintended negative consequences of digital products, API developers can use systems thinking to avoid exclusively user-centered design and instead focus on lessening the friction between interactions in the API’s system context. To address the reduction of job opportunities and quality of life, API providers can actively seek digital services that empower and enable human users, rather than attempt to replace them. Furthermore, by abstracting complex functionality in software ecosystems, APIs provide an opportunity to simplify the field of software engineering, the highest growth employment opportunity in the global economy.

APIs for good

The good news is that APIs are already being used to drive ethics in a number of industries and social communities. The Vatican recently hosted a hackathon with the goal of “encouraging social inclusion, promoting interfaith dialogue, and providing resources to migrants and refugees”. API activist Shelby Switzer documents more public service examples in her Civic Unrest blog. In the absence of air traffic regulations for drones, UK startup Altitude Angel has published an API to provide a means for ensuring safety. Last year, Lyft launched its Concierge API with the goal of removing transportation as a barrier to healthcare for lower-income Americans. The list goes on.

Applying ethical thinking to APIs is not just altruism: it also makes business sense. A recent study from Deloitte states that “ethical guardrails enable agility.” In the article, Metlife’s Chief Digital Officer, Greg Baxter, likens an organization’s ethical measures to brakes on a car: they are not there to slow things down, but rather to create the opportunity to go faster. Gartner has cited digital ethics and privacy as one of its top ten trends for 2019. Organizations with high ethical capacity have a competitive advantage in the API economy.

This blog post only scratches the surface of ethical topics related to APIs. It is the first in a series that will dive into more detail around data privacy, mental health and addictions, discrimination and inclusion, wealth distribution and employment opportunity, and many other areas. As stated here, ethics are an increasingly important concern for all digital organizations. I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments here or reach out to me on Twitter. I look forward to a long and fruitful conversation on these vital topics!



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