Don't Ban Infinite Scrolling, License Engineers Instead

Yesterday, the Verge reported that Sen. Josh Hawley sponsored a bill that aims to reduce the tech industry’s use of "addictive design" practices by putting a ban on features like infinite scrolling and autoplaying video. While I applaud Congress for focusing on this important issue, the proposed solution is both naive and unproductive. When a surgeon is accused of malpractice, the appropriate solution is not to ban their use of the scalpel, it's to revoke their license.

I have long argued that Software Engineers (especially those at large companies that affect the lives of millions of people) should be licensed. Requiring a license to practice Software Engineering would finally place software in the realm of the other classical engineering fields and require practitioners to use their skills ethically and for the benefit of society. It would also help educate engineers on the risks and trade-offs with the decisions they make and give the government a lever to pull when trying to encourage ethical practices across the industry. Likewise, licensed engineers are able to refuse to implement unethical or unsafe designs when they fear that they could lose their license.

One common argument against this point is that the tech industry is filled with lots of independent developers and others who operate relatively small businesses and that licensing them would put an damper on overall innovation in the industry. However, while we do often require Civil Engineers to have a license, we don't apply the same logic to carpenters, and we can apply the same kinds of criteria to Software Enginering licensure.

We've required licenses for those practicing classical Engineering, Medicine, and Law for a long time1, and those licenses have helped governments and the licensed individuals themselves steer industry practice away from things that can be considered unethical or unsafe. Instead of trying to take powerful tools away from Engineers, we should instead be focused on enabling and educating them to make ethical and societally beneficial decisions. The Internet is part of the infrastructure of our modern world, so let's ensure that the people who build and maintain it have society's best interests at heart.

1 As an aside, we even license hairdressers and locksmiths. If unlocking cars or cutting hair requires a license, why doesn't building software that impacts 20% of the world's population?

Filed under: software engineering, ethics, legal,
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