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Technology Law & Ethics

October 25, 2023

This Penn Carey Law course empowers a new generation of engineers to recognize and examine critically the ethical, moral, and legal quandaries.

Engineers have long viewed lawyers with skepticism; engineers dream of doing new things, while lawyers more often focus on what cannot be done. But as technology has become more central to daily life, engineers have increasingly sought to better understand how the law affects their work. An innovative class offered by the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School gives them this opportunity.

Christopher S. Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science Christopher S. Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science“Technology Law and Ethics,” Penn Carey Law’s cross-disciplinary course, empowers a new generation of engineers to recognize and examine critically the ethical, moral, and legal quandaries they will likely encounter at the workplace. Students in accredited engineering programs are required to take ethics courses, but this is the first such course to be offered through a law school.

The Evolution of the Course

Christopher S. Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science and Founding Director of the Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition (CTIC), pioneered the course in collaboration with faculty from Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS).

Zack Ives, Department Chair and Adani President’s Distinguished Professor of Computer and Information Science, says the class presents a unique and important opportunity for Penn students.

“Our students go on to be the leaders in the field who will confront the full range of technical, legal, and social dilemmas,” said Ives. “It’s wonderful that we can give them more than a basic grounding in engineering ethics. This class situates traditional engineering issues in a broader legal and social context and equips our students to navigate these challenges.”

Gus Hurwitz, Senior Fellow & CTIC Academic Director Gus Hurwitz, Senior Fellow & CTIC Academic DirectorThe class was first offered during the 2022-2023 academic year, with options for both engineering and law students to enroll. Moving into 2023-2024, Gus Hurwitz, CTIC Senior Fellow and Academic Director, joined the Penn Carey Law faculty to further develop opportunities at the intersection of law and engineering.

“The law is part of our built environment,” said Hurwitz. “For many engineers, a basic understanding of legal principles can be just as important as understanding the tensile strength of a steel beam or the computational complexity of a search algorithm.”

Hurwitz was previously a professor at the University of Nebraska, where he founded the interdisciplinary Governance and Technology Center.

“Technology Law and Ethics” was designed for undergraduate SEAS Computer and Information Science (CIS), Computer Engineering (CMPE), and Networked and Social Systems Engineering (NETS) students. It has been approved as one of the courses these students may take to satisfy their engineering ethics degree requirements. It is also one of several courses housed within Penn Carey Law that is open to undergraduates upon request and approval.

Preparing Technology Leadership for a More Ethical Future

The broad aim of “Technology Law and Ethics” is to introduce the concepts and analytical approaches engineering students must grasp to thrive as leaders in the technology sector. From the Boeing 737 MAX autopilot and self-driving cars to ChatGPT and the drones flying over Ukraine, ethical and legal considerations have become a core competence in technology-related research, development, and manufacturing.

Alex Mueller, CTIC Research Fellow Alex Mueller, CTIC Research FellowEngineering ethics is not a new field, but traditional engineering ethics courses operate retrospectively and focus on engineering and operational challenges. They do not address the fuller range of layered, complex legal, social, and political problems that the technologies engineers develop will encounter alongside traditional engineering challenges.

CTIC Research Fellow Alexander Mueller L’21, a former research assistant for both Yoo and Anita L. Allen, Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, teaches the course.

“The way I teach the class incorporates an entirely different dimension of relevant considerations. Traditionally, the SEAS ethics requirement covers engineering ethics, but now we’re exploring how the law shapes moral responsibility,” Mueller said. “As students go on to take professional roles within the technology sector, their decisions are just as much constrained by the law and regulations as they are by engineering considerations.”

Fundamental Principles and Application to Real World Dilemmas

Because many of the students will develop new technologies, course readings and discussions introduce principles and invite students apply to real world ethical, moral, and legal dilemmas encountered in product design.

“Ethical design questions are a major topic because many of the students are going to design actual technology products,” Mueller said. The course delves into such product design areas as cybersecurity, digital surveillance, artificial intelligence, and open-source software.

“Technologists have become aware of the need to better understand how to protect users’ privacy and navigate key legal issues like intellectual property protection, whistleblowing, and nondisclosure agreements,” said Yoo. “Having the class taught by law faculty brings explorations of these problems to life in the classroom.”

Yoo pointed out that ethics training has now become an accreditation requirement for engineers. The course satisfies the engineering ethics credit requirement for graduation and meets ABET standards. (ABET is nonprofit organization that accredits college and university programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology.)

Moreover, “Technology Law and Ethics” expands the longstanding research collaboration between SEAS and CTIC, which recognize the critical nexus between technology and the law—and one that will continue to play a consequential role in technological innovation.

“This ethics class is part of a larger collaboration between law and engineering,” said Yoo. “In addition to creating a new type of professional with advanced training in both law and technology, this class supplements the interdisciplinary research supported by National Science Foundation grants in ways that help ensure that technical research is actually deployed instead of simply sitting on the shelf.”

Learn more about the pathbreaking work of CTIC.