Challenges and Opportunities of Software Ethics

What makes software ‘ethical’?

Partner overview

Reply is a design studio that works to create digital products and services that have a positive social change. Reply works to create an ecosystem of good practice and support that helps others to do the same.

Project details: This project was completed in Spring 2021 as part of the Collaboration Labs programme, a PhD research consultancy programme created by REALab, with funding from the ESRC, the NWCDTP and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester.

The challenge


It is difficult to find relevant information to choose a software product or service that is aligned with specific ethical values. Ethical concerns regarding data treatment are becoming increasingly relevant for businesses, however, there are currently no uniform guidelines for the ethical use of data. Ethics of software is itself an emerging topic. While the general principles of responsible procurement are enshrined in laws, standards, and best practices, there is no widely accepted ethical software assessment framework to date. This presents a problem both for software creators who want to create or market their digital products as ethical in a comparable way, and for the consumers who want to compare software’s ethical credentials and make consistent responsible procurement decisions.

Research team

  • Ben Wills-Eve, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Lancaster
  • Chris Rhodes, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Music, The University of Manchester
  • Dr Dmitry Dereshev, School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Humanities, The University of Manchester

The solution

To support Reply in this challenge, the Research Team reviewed existing ethics assessment frameworks from academic literature and professional practice with a focus on software, identified companies behind the assessment tools, compared existing frameworks by assessing a consistent list of software against them, and derived recommendations for software-specific ethics assessment criteria. This combined knowledge produced a set of recommendations of how to either adopt an existing software ethics framework, or create a new one which is fit for Reply’s specific needs.

Outcomes and impact

Both the academic literature and professional practice considered privacy, transparency, and data protection as ‘ethical’ values for software. Professional practice further focused on environmental sustainability, corporate governance, market position, and human/worker rights. Academic literature focused on accountability, autonomy, beneficence and nonmaleficence.

In practice, the research found that companies rather than individual software could be assessed. The frameworks either assessed a broad, non-software-specific range of factors or only focused on data-related ethics, but none did both. Ethics scoring frameworks considered community volunteering, while rating only the most popular companies and brands in their geographic region, while also inviting companies to apply to be scored. This means that large, popular, public companies that generate substantial revenues are much more likely to be scored. Most companies of interest to Reply, however, were not scored and are unlikely to be scored based on inclusion criteria of existing frameworks. Where companies were scored, the scores for the same company varied widely depending on the framework and the factors assessed. 

This research provided Reply with both more insight into how existing ethics scoring frameworks work and a set of recommendations on how to develop their own ethics scoring framework in the future.

We’re a small, ethical driven design studio that works with charities, and we have limited resources, so this project has brought a lot of value to us that we otherwise may not have been able to afford. The output of this research project will play a valuable role in our exploration of the feasibility and market appetite for a product/tool/platform to help organisations make more responsible and ethical tech procurement choices. It was also a pleasure to participate in such a collaborative process throughout the [Collaboration Labs] programme, and the research team were extremely responsive and clearly well skilled with the work they delivered being of such a high quality.

Jonny Rae-Evans / Reply Director

The opportunity to learn about research consultancy has been a highlight, working with a partner in industry and seeing how research can differ in a more applied setting. It has been really interesting to see how discussion around ethical issues in the technology sector occurs outside of academia and how research can play a role in this area. In fact, as a result of the skills and experience gained during the programme I have secured a full-time position working within research at a charitable organisation, so the experience is definitely worthwhile and can be incredibly helpful career-wise.

Ben Wills-Eve / The University of Lancaster