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C of E policy commends five benchmarks of moral responsibility to Big Tech and its investors

28 September 2022

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THE national investing bodies (NIBs) of the Church of England say that they will continue to use shareholder leverage to ensure that the Big Tech companies in which they invest take moral responsibility for the products and services that they create.

The NIBs — the Church Commissioners, the Central Board of Finance (CBF), and the Pensions Board — have released a new policy on responsible investment in Big Tech companies, based on advice from the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG), which was published in the same report on Wednesday.

Big Tech companies refer to the largest internet and technology companies in the world, including Amazon, Apple, Meta, Twitter, and Microsoft. In 2018, after the Archbishop of Canterbury accused Amazon of “paying almost nothing in tax”, the Church Commissioners defended their multi-million-pound stake in the company, saying that it was “most effective to be in the room with these companies seeking change as a shareholder” (News, 21 September 2018).

In 2020, it was announced that the EIAG would conduct a year-long review of the Church’s technology investments (News, 3 January 2020).

The report, Big Tech: Policy and Advice, is primarily concerned with companies that make money from the aggregation and analysis of large amounts of personal data through “algorithm-based machine learning methods” to predict human behaviour — for example, targeted advertising.

It says: “There need be no basic conflict between Big Tech companies doing the right thing ethically and doing what is in their and their shareholders’ long-term interests.

“However, if they behave in ways that undermine public trust, they erode their public licence to operate, which in turn carries business risks and creates long-term implications for investor confidence. By contrast, to the extent that they enjoy and deserve public trust, they reward long-term investor commitment and make a genuine contribution to the common good.”

The EIAG advises investors to follow five Christian principles: flourishing as persons, flourishing in relationship, standing for the marginalised, caring for creation, and serving the common good. It recommends that the sector take responsibility for its creations by making four public commitments: to verifiable transparency, promoting human-centred design, enabling the flourishing of children and other vulnerable groups, and fostering a tech ecosystem that serves the common good.

“As complex technologies develop, as regulatory measures oscillate, as investor sentiment shifts and as public awareness of the human-scale impacts increases, the EIAG expects the tech ecosystem to continue to evolve.

“This Advice is therefore not intended to be a prescriptive final word but rather to set out high-level principles, grounded in the Bible and Christian theology, to allow the [NIBs] to steward their investment assets in this fast-moving sector in a way that is manifestly Christian.”

Following this advice, the NIBs commit themselves in their new policy to a case-by-case assessment of their portfolio of Big Tech companies, working both to improve public policy and regulation and to develop industry standards.

These are complex issues, the report warns. “It is a matter of detailed debate whether particular words or actions count as evils that should have been prevented or as allowable expressions of free speech. Many of the large tech firms have argued that they should not be left with the responsibility of adjudicating the many complex areas highlighted in this review, and that this should be a matter for democratic societies to decide.”

While the report acknowledges that all stakeholders, including investors, have a part to play in this, “it is essential that the large tech firms assume a moral responsibility to promote human-centred products and services.” This responsibility includes rights of privacy and freedom of expression as well as equal treatment and non-discrimination. There should be an emphasis on human rights — and, more broadly and theologically, the respect of all people as relational beings who are made in the image of God and called to love one another, the report says.

In his foreword to it, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, says that artificial intelligence is already affecting most aspects of modern life, but that, “in general terms, the deployment of artificial intelligence is running much faster than public awareness of the technology and good governance.”

Dr Croft was a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence and a founding Director of the UK Government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. Responsible Christian investors have a duty to mitigate the potential harm done by AI and Big Tech companies to individuals and society, and to focus on the potential for good, he writes.

The report suggests that the impact of the vast range and invention of Big Tech products and services “cannot be overstated”: its fast-growing culture has spread to all aspects of public and private life around the world. The Chinese and Western experience are compared, and the attention-economy business model, political and economic backgrounds, and conditions and sensitivities of Big Tech are explored in the report.

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who is deputy chair of the EIAG, said: “We recognise it can take years to fully understand how technology shapes how we work, play, and interact with each other — only very recently has the full impact of technology become clear.

“Investors like the Church’s National Investing Bodies can play a role in working with technology companies to ensure they take a human-centred approach, giving users more control and being transparent about their working practices. I am looking forward to discussing this critically important issue in the House of Lords when the Online Safety Bill is debated.”

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