Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab (02 June 2017)
CAPE TOWN - IN 2007, when the ANC was electing its leaders, a decision was taken that electronic voting would not be allowed.

Why would a vote that could decide who will become the leader of the governing party and, ultimately, a leader of the country, not use an advance system to ensure the credibility of its election?

Those who supported this move cited their lack of trust in technology, they feared that the process could be manipulated. At the time this move was seen as backward and anti-technology.

When one considers recent developments in business and technology, it's easy to come to a conclusion that this decision was based on reasonable concerns.

Technology companies, leaders and their systems cannot be trusted anymore. Take Uber as an example, when its chief executive stepped down and introduced a new chief executive, he said: “Uber’s next chapter begins today, the old chapter ends, and the next one begins.”

By uttering these words he was promising the markets and users of Uber that everything would be different.

It was hardly a year and Uber was hit by another scandal that was committed during the tenure of its founder and previous chief executive.

The company disclosed that it experienced a serious data breach that compromised user data and also that it paid the hackers a ransom fee. As part of this breach the company lost 600000 US driving licence numbers and this could lead to further identity crimes being committed.

The company became aware of this incident in October 2016 and the chief executive at the time found out about it a month later. However, he did not inform the board and relevant regulators.

Sin committed

That the company was a victim of hackers was not itself the issue. The sin committed by Uber was not to disclose this at the time.

To make matters worse, it is reported that the company paid the hackers $100000 (R1.35million) to destroy the information.

Uber’s technology is not questionable. In fact, former chief executive Travis Kalanick created what is known today as the biggest-ever tech start-up.

What could bring Uber down is not the quality of its technology, but the quality of leadership and the lack of ethics in its founder based on recent media reports.

The lack of ethics at Uber is significant and should serve as a warning to technology leaders today. The ethics situation at Uber is so serious that it has inspired the City of London to ban Uber in the city, not because of bad technology or any tech-related matter, but ethics.

To understand the importance of ethics in building sustainable technology companies, you have to look at what happened to Naspers (Africa’s technology darling) this week.

The behaviour of its subsidiary company, MultiChoice, in its attempt for its technology to dominate the Pay TV space, has led to a criminal investigation and negative impact on its share price.

Again, the reason for this development at Naspers has nothing to do with the quality of its technology. In fact, the company is one of the leaders in technology, not just in Africa, but globally. At the root of Naspers's challenges currently are the ethics of its leaders.

Uber and Naspers should serve as a warning example to technology companies and their leaders. The simple lesson here is that technology alone is not sufficient to build a sustainable company in the information economy.

Ethics should be the foundation upon which technology companies are built. This will become more important as we move towards the 4th Industrial Revolution and use artificial intelligence, relying more and more on technology.

The adoption of technology by society will not be dependent on whether technology is great or not, it will depend on ethics of people who built the technology.

Ethics issue

South Africa and the business world is currently facing a major ethics issue which has left the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants scratching its head.

The Steinhoff case has reminded society that even the trusted professions cannot be trusted - as seen in the alleged behaviour by chartered accountants at Steinhoff and KPMG.

The current situation requires an overhaul within the technology industry. It requires a change in how technology leaders are taught.

Currently technology people are only taught the technical aspects of technology and little is done to teach people ethics. The education system that develops future technology people will have to embed ethics in its curriculum. New standards will also have to be developed to govern people and companies that develop technology.

A technology professional and company that develops a software for an airline will have to meet strict ethical standards and not just technical and technology standards.

This will we be more important for transport technology and health technology. The absence of ethics in the technology space will lead to a disaster that the ANC delegates tried to avoid when they rejected electronic voting. The ANC in the next few days will be deliberating about policies that will impact society going forward.

One of those policies may have to be technology policy, and particularly the need for ethics in this industry. The continent needs to show the world that it is possible for technology to co-exist with people.

The Independent Lab as part of its process to integrate tech people in the media sector has embedded ethics in its education curriculum to ensure that technology and media professionals that are developed can better apply technology for society.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs and head of the Independent Digital Lab.

-BUSINESS REPORT