Posted by Anthony Mooney
2 August, 2019

As machines become integral to our lives, how can we make sure the internet is inclusive and fair for all?

Today, the world of technology is alive with the hum of ethical standards. As modern algorithms indenture themselves more greatly to us, it’s only right that we address the issue of ethics across our entire technological landscape.

Machines have become our collaborators and we’re now connected to one another like never before. The technical advances to achieve these feats are staggering – but as science marches forward, too often its greater impacts on society are ignored. Although the internet has been around for 30 years and has impacted almost every aspect of modern life, there are still sections of our society that feel that the web should be more inclusive, as well as being safe, sustainable and fair for all of its users. These are some of the many factors we consider when we build or work upon a website and at its core, this is what we mean by ethical web development.

As trained professionals providing services to customers, web developers need to be familiar with the ethical issues and laws that affect businesses online. Written by Adam Scott, the Ethical Web series provides developers with a guide to ethics and, most importantly, the rationale behind why that matters. Scott's work serves as a moral evocation to all who read it, but it’s far from legally binding. In the UK, we’re lucky to have some regulation that should guarantee a certain level of safety on the web and this is closely aligned to the values of our wider society. These laws help to keep the web safer and more secure, but they’re loosely enforced and only represent a tiny part of a much bigger picture. Much of the toxicity surrounding the internet is mitigated by professional standards set amongst developers themselves.

Adam Scott, ‘Building Web Applications for Everyone’

The idea of a professional code of ethics can be traced back to the Hippocratic Oath, an oath taken by medical professionals first written during the fifth century BC. Today, medical schools continue to administer the Hippocratic or similar professional oath.

The internet was born out of some fundamental principles. With every passing year, these principles feel the pinch as governments and big technology wrestle each other for control – but at the heart of it, the core values still remain. 

At Nixon we’re advocates for inclusivity, so accessibility is always a priority for us. Universal access is one core value of the internet, and for developers that means following guidelines to build websites that can be accessed by everyone. But not everyone feels the same – sadly, figures suggest that many developers and operators don’t rate the needs of the disabled high enough, with around 70% of UK sites being inaccessible to some users. Given that the disabled community accounts for some £212bn per annum to the British economy, it’s hard to understand. 

Privacy and security are paramount online and something we take very seriously. Without certain guarantees, it’s hard to imagine that any of us would use the internet in the ways that we do. Switching over to HTTPS from HTTP – a move that keeps your information safe from hackers – was a big step in strengthening those guarantees, and as developers we must take every precaution when handling sensitive data, particularly financial details. We look at every aspect of our websites to identify vulnerabilities and ensure that the technology we incorporate passes rigorous security checks before we even consider using it. Historically, content managements systems have been a favourite target of would-be attackers, with Wordpress often coming under the greatest strain, partly because of its popularity and its ubiquity. This, amongst other reasons, is why we choose Craft as our CMS of choice because they take security as seriously as we do, and that gives us the assurance we need to build secure sites for our clients. 

As developers, we have a duty to maintain certain standards when it comes to performance. Nobody enjoys slow loading, janky scrolling or broken links. We need to respect our users and appreciate the time they are spending on a website we have built. As a result, we monitor all of our sites to ensure that they are up and running smoothly. We test and test again before we release anything and we validate our code using development tooling and online resources that also contribute to SEO improvements. 

Pagespeed Insights gives us a clear idea of how well our sites are performing, and also where we can make improvements. Imagery is optimised and served at the appropriate size; overall ensuring that we only require the leanest amount of user data. Along with browser support, it’s crucial that web experiences are whole and engaging, no matter the device. Earlier this year, the World Advertising Research Center (WARC) published figures suggesting that around 3.7 billion people will access the internet solely via their mobile device by 2025, representing some 72% of the global population. Already, responsive design and development is key to a website’s success so it follows that we should build services that can include people who don’t access the internet by any other means.

Version control – keeping track of the changes we make – is something developers rely upon. Public repositories like Github offer the industry transparency and provide developers with the opportunity to contribute to other people's work, making suggestions and amendments, which can, in turn, form communities. This cooperation exemplifies another core value of the internet: open standards.

The last port of call on our ethical development voyage is progressive enhancement. So what is this? At its most plain, progressive enhancement means making online services work without Javascript or when network speeds are reduced. But, as Adam Scott details in his book 'Building Web Applications for Everyone', progressive enhancement is more than simply turning features on or off. At its heart, progressive enhancement requires us to define our service's core functionality – the key thing that users want to do – and guarantee that this will always be made available. Anything that might then add further value, like interactive features or graphics, will represent the ‘bonus’ of progressive enhancement. 

Adam Scott, ‘Building Web Applications for Everyone’

The goal of progressive enhancement is to provide the absolute minimum for a working product and ensure that it is delivered to user's browser.

Where pragmatic solutions fail, developers may seek to use programmatic means to enhance their user's experience but the accepted and ethical best practice is to always make functionality available to all users.

The ethical implications of technology affect us all. Independent bodies such as the W3C do great work in maintaining equality standards online, and as developers and online professionals, it’s our responsibility to take ethics seriously. In doing so, we aim to build products and services that we can all feel safe and included in using. It’s an unrelenting process and an ever-changing one, but by promoting best practices and bettering standards we can build an online ecosystem that adapts to everyone’s needs.

If you’re interested in accessibility, take a look at our post about design for dyslexia and our two-part accessibility series.