Welcome to the blog of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Program Director Irina Raicu will be joined by various guests in discussing the ethical issues that arise continuously on the Internet; we hope to host a robust conversation about them, and we look forward to your comments.
I linked to that article in a short piece that I wrote, which was published yesterday in Re/Code: “Metamorphosis.” I hope you’ll read that, too—and we’d love to get your comments on that story either at Re/Code or in the Comments section here!
And finally, just a few days ago, a new paper by Jules Polonetsky and Omer Tene (both from the Future of Privacy Forum) was released through SSRN: “Who Is Reading Whom Now: Privacy in Education from Books to MOOCs.” This is no bite-sized exploration, but an extensive overview of the promises and challenges of technology-driven innovations in education—including the ethical implications of the uses of both “small data” and “big data” in this particular context.
To play with yet another title—there are significant and ongoing shifts in “the way we read now”…
Last week, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, long-time member of the Select Committee on Intelligence and current chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, held a roundtable on the impact of governmental surveillance on the U.S. digital economy. (You can watch a video of the entire roundtable discussion here.) While he made the case that the current surveillance practices have hampered both our security and our economy, the event focused primarily on the implications of mass surveillance for U.S. business—corporations, entrepreneurs, tech employees, etc. Speaking at a high-school in the heart of Silicon Valley, surrounded by the Executive Chairman of Google, the General Counsels of Microsoft and Facebook, and others, Wyden argued that the current policies around surveillance were harming one of the most promising sectors of the U.S. economy—and that Congress was largely ignoring that issue. “When the actions of a foreign government threaten red-white-and-blue jobs, Washington [usually] gets up at arms,” Wyden noted, but “no one in Washington is talking about how overly broad surveillance is hurting the US economy.”
The focus on the economic impact was clearly intended to present the issue of mass surveillance through a new lens—one that might engage those lawmakers and citizens who had not been moved, perhaps, by civil liberties arguments. However, even in this context, the discussion frequently turned to the “personal” implications of the policies involved. And in comments both during and after the panel discussion, Wyden expressed his deep concern about the particular danger posed by the creation and implementation of “secret law.” Microsoft’s General Counsel, Brad Smith, went one step further: “We need to recognize,” he said, “that laws that the rest of the world does not respect will ultimately undermine the fundamental ability of our own legal processes, law enforcement agencies, and even the intelligence community itself.”
That brought me back to some of the questions I raised in 2013 (a few months after the Snowden revelations first became public), in an article published by the SantaClara Magazine. One of the things I had asked was whether the newly-revealed surveillance programs might “change the perception of the United States to the point where they hamper, more than they help, our national security. “ In regard to secret laws, even if those were to be subject to effective Congressional and court oversight, I wondered, "[i]s there a level of transparency that U.S. citizens need from each branch of the government even if those branches are transparent to one another? In a democracy, can the system of checks and balances function with informed representatives but without an informed public? Would such an environment undermine voters’ ability to choose [whom to vote for]?"
And, even more broadly, in regard to the dangers inherent in indiscriminate mass surveillance, "[i]n a society in which the government collects the metadata (and possibly much of the content) of every person’s communications for future analysis, will people still speak, read, research, and act freely? Do we have examples of countries in which mass surveillance coexisted with democratic governance?"
We know that a certain level of mass surveillance and democratic governance did coexist for a time, very uneasily, in our own past, during the Hoover era at the FBI—and the revelations of the realities of that coexistence led to the Church committee and to policy changes.
Will the focus on the economic impact of current mass governmental surveillance lead to new changes in our surveillance laws? Perhaps. But it was Facebook’s general counsel who had (to my mind) the best line of last week’s roundtable event. When a high-school student in the audience asked the panel how digital surveillance affects young people like him, who want to build new technology companies or join growing ones, one panelist advised him to just worry about creating great products, and to let people like the GCs worry about the broader issues. Another panelist told him that he should care about this issue because of the impact that data localization efforts would have on future entrepreneurs’ ability to create great companies. Then, Facebook’s Colin Stretch answered. “I would say care about it for the reasons you learned in your Civics class,” he said, “not necessarily the reasons you learned in your computer science class.”
Whether you’re reading about the latest data-mining class action lawsuit through your Google Glass or relaxing on your front porch waving at your neighbors, you probably know that there’s a big debate in this country about privacy. Some say privacy is important. Some say it’s dead. Some say kids want it, or not. Some say it’s a relatively recent phenomenon whose time, by the way, has passed—a slightly opaque blip in our history as social animals. Others say it’s a human right without which many other rights would be impossible to maintain.
It’s a much-needed discussion—but one in which the tone is often not conducive to persuasion, and therefore progress. If you think concerns about information privacy are overrated and might become an obstacle to the development of useful tools and services, you may hear yourself described as a [Silicon Valley] sociopath or a heartless profiteer. If you believe that privacy is important and deserves protection, you may be called a “privacy hysteric.”
It’s telling that privacy advocates are so often called “hysterics”—a term associated more commonly with women, and with a surfeit of emotion and lack of reason. (Privacy advocates are also called “fundamentalists” or “paranoid”—again implying belief not based in reason.) And even when such terms are not directly deployed, the tone often suggests them. In a 2012 Cato Institute policy analysis titled “A Reasonable Response to the Privacy ‘Crisis,’” for example, Larry Downes writes about the “emotional baggage” invoked by the term “privacy,” and advises, “For those who naturally leap first to legislative solutions, it would be better just to fume, debate, attend conferences, blog, and then calm down before it’s too late.” (Apparently debate, like fuming and attending conferences, is just a harmless way to let off steam—as long as it doesn’t lead to such hysteria as class-action lawsuits or actual attempts at legislation.)
In the year following Edward Snowden’s revelations, the accusations of privacy “hysteria” or “paranoia” seemed to have died down a bit; unfortunately, they might be making a comeback. The summary of a recent GigaOm article, for example, accuses BuzzFeed of “pumping up the hysteria” in its discussion of ad beacons installed—and quickly removed—in New York.
On the other hand, those who oppose privacy-protecting legislation or who argue that other values or rights might trump privacy sometimes find themselves diagnosed, too–if not as sociopaths, then at least as belonging on the “autism spectrum”: disregardful of social norms, unable to empathize with others.
Too often, the terms thrown about by some on both sides in the privacy debate suggest an abdication of the effort to persuade. You can’t reason with hysterics and sociopaths, so there’s no need to try. You just state your truth to those others who think like you do, and who cheer your vehemence.
But even if you’re a privacy advocate, you probably want the benefits derived from collecting and analyzing at least some data sets, under some circumstances; and even if you think concerns about data disclosures are overblown, you still probably don’t disclose everything about yourself to anyone who will listen.
If information is power, privacy is a defensive shell against that power. It is an effort to modulate vulnerability. (The more vulnerable you feel, the more likely you are to understand the value of privacy.) So privacy is an inherent part of all of our lives; the question is how to deploy it best. In light of new technologies that create new privacy challenges, and new methodologies that seek to maximize benefits while minimizing harms (e.g. “differential privacy”), we need to be able to discuss this complicated balancing act —without charged rhetoric making the debate even more difficult.
If you find yourself calling people privacy-related names (or writing headlines or summaries that do that, even when the headlined articles themselves don’t), please rephrase.
Photo by Tom Tolkien, unmodified, used under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
This fall, Internet users have had the opportunity to view naked photographs of celebrities (which were obtained without approval, from private iCloud accounts, and then—again without consent—distributed widely). They were also able to watch journalists and an aid worker being beheaded by a member of a terrorist organization that then uploaded the videos of the killings to various social media channels. And they were also invited to watch a woman being rendered unconscious by a punch from a football player who was her fiancé at the time; the video of that incident was obtained from a surveillance camera inside a hotel elevator.
These cases have been accompanied by heated debates around the issues of journalism ethics and the responsibilities of social media platforms. Increasingly, though, a question is arising about the responsibility of the Internet users themselves—the consumers of online content. The question is, should they watch?
Many commentators have argued that to watch those videos or look at those pictures is a violation of the privacy of the victims depicted in them; that not watching is a sign of respect; or that the act of watching might cause new harm to the victims or to people associated with them (friends, family members, etc.). Others have argued that watching the beheading videos is necessary “if the depravity of war is to be understood and, hopefully, dealt with,” or that watching the videos of Ray Rice hitting his fiancé will help change people’s attitudes toward domestic violence.
What do you think?
Would it be unethical to watch the videos discussed above? Why?
Would it be unethical to look at the photos discussed above? Why?
Are the three cases addressed above so distinct from each other that one can’t give a single answer about them all? If so, which of them would you watch, or refuse to watch, and why?
Media coverage of the implementation of the European Court decision on de-indexing certain search results has been less pervasive than the initial reporting on the decision itself, back in May. At the time, much of the coverage had framed the issue in terms of clashing pairs: E.U. versus U.S; privacy versus free speech. In The Guardian, an excellent overview of the decision described the “right to be forgotten” as a “cultural shibboleth.”
On the other hand, privacy advocates (again on both sides of the Atlantic) have been arguing that the decision is much narrower in scope than has generally been portrayed and that it does not destroy free speech; that Google is not, in fact, the sole and ultimate arbiter of the determinations involved in the implementation of the decision; and that even prior to the court’s decision Google search results were selective, curated, and influenced by various countries’ laws. Recently, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill urged “thought leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to recognize that, just as we both deeply value freedom of expression, we also have shared values concerning relevance in personal information in the digital age.”
Amid this debate, in late June, Google developed and started to use its own process for complying with the decision. But Google has also convened an advisory council that will take several months to consider evidence (including public input from meetings held in seven European capitals--Madrid, Rome, Paris, Warsaw, Berlin, London, and Brussels), before producing a report that would inform the company’s current efforts. Explaining the creation of the council, the company noted that it is now required to balance “on a case-by-case basis, an individual’s right to be forgotten with the public’s right to information,” and added, “We want to strike this balance right. This obligation is a new and difficult challenge for us, and we’re seeking advice on the principles Google ought to apply…. That’s why we’re convening a council of experts.”
In this context, one bit of evidence makes its own public comment: Since May, according to Google, the company has received more than 120,000 de-indexing requests. Tens of thousands of Europeans have gone through the trouble of submitting a form and the related information necessary to request that a search of their name not include certain results.
But this, too, may speak differently to different audiences. Some will see it as evidence of a vast pent-up need that had had no outlet until now. Others will see it as evidence of the tens of thousands of restrictions and “holes” that will soon open up in the Web.
So—should we worry about the impending “memory holes”?
In a talk entitled “The Internet with a Human Face,” American Web developer Maciej Ceglowski argues that “the Internet somehow contrives to remember too much and too little at the same time.” He adds,
in our elementary schools in America, if we did something particularly heinous, they had a special way of threatening you. They would say: “This is going on your permanent record.”
It was pretty scary. I had never seen a permanent record, but I knew exactly what it must look like. It was bright red, thick, tied with twine. Full of official stamps.
The permanent record would follow you through life, and whenever you changed schools, or looked for a job or moved to a new house, people would see the shameful things you had done in fifth grade.
How wonderful it felt when I first realized the permanent record didn’t exist. They were bluffing! Nothing I did was going to matter! We were free!
And then when I grew up, I helped build it for real.
But while a version the “permanent record” is now real, it is also true that much content on the Internet is already ephemeral. The phenomenon of “link rot,” for example, affects even important legal documents. And U.K. law professor Paul Bernal has argued that we should understand the Internet as “organic, growing and changing all the time,” and that it’s a good thing that this is so. “Having ways to delete information [online] isn’t the enemy of the Internet of the people,” Bernal writes, “much as an enemy of the big players of the Internet.”
Will Google, one of the “big players on the internet,” hear such views, too? It remains to be seen; Google’s “European grand tour,” as another UK law professor has dubbed it, will conclude on November 4th.
Photograph by derekb, unmodified, under a Creative Commons license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the amount and kinds of information that people post on Facebook mean that people don’t care about privacy.
Like many other “truths” universally acknowledged, this one is wrong, in a number of ways.
First, not everybody is on Facebook. So to justify, say, privacy-invasive online behavioral advertising directed at everyone on the Internet by pointing to the practices of a subset of Internet users is wrong.
Second, it’s wrong to generalize about “Facebook users,” too. Many Facebook users take advantage of various privacy settings and use the platform to interact only with friends and family members. So it makes sense for them to post on Facebook the kind of personal, private things that people have always shared with friends and family.
Still—most Facebook users have hundreds of “friends”: some are close; some are not; some are relatives barely known; some are friends who have grown distant over time. Does it make sense to share intimate things with all of them?
There are several answers to that, too. The privacy boundaries that people draw around themselves vary. What may seem deeply intimate and private to one person might not seem that way to someone else—and vice versa. That doesn’t mean that people who post certain things “don’t care about privacy”—it means they would define “private” differently than others would. And even when people do post things that they would consider intimate on Facebook, that doesn’t mean they post everything. Some people like singing in choirs; that doesn’t mean they’d be OK with being spied on while singing in the shower.
Third, we need to acknowledge the effects of the medium itself. Take, say, a Facebook user who has 200 “friends.” Were all those friends to be collected in one room (the close and the distant friends, the old and the recently befriended, the co-workers, the relatives, the friends of friends whose “friend requests” were accepted simply to avoid awkwardness, etc.), and were the user to be given a microphone, he or she might refrain from announcing what he ate for dinner, or reciting a song lyric that ran through her mind, or revealing an illness or a heartbreak, or subjecting the entire audience to a slide show of vacation pictures. But for the Facebook user sitting alone in a room, facing a screen, the audience is at least partially concealed. He or she knows that it’s there—is even hoping for some comments in response to posts—or at least some “likes”… But the mind conjures, at best, a subset of the tens or hundreds of those “friended.” If that. Because there is, too, something about the act of typing a “status update” that echoes, for some of us, the act of writing in a journal. (Maybe a diary with a friendly, ever-shifting companion Greek chorus?) The medium misleads.
So no, people who post on Facebook are not being hypocritical when they say (as most people do) that they care about privacy. (It bears noting that in a recent national survey by the Pew Research Center, 86% of internet users said they had “taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.”)
It’s high time to let the misleading cliché about privacy in the age of Facebook go the way of other much-repeated statements that turned out to be neither true nor universally acknowledged. And it’s certainly time to stop using it as a justification for practices that violate privacy. If you haven’t been invited to join the singer in the shower, stay out.
But our community is neither monolithic nor uninterested. Back in 2013, for example, the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics started a blog called “Internet Ethics: Views from Silicon Valley,” with the goal of offering 10 brief videos in which Silicon Valley pioneers and leaders would address some key ethical issues related to the role of the Internet in modern life. While that project was completed (and those videos, featuring the co-founders of Apple and Adobe Systems, the Executive Chairman of NetApp, the CEOs of VMWare and Seagate, and more, remain available on our website and our YouTube channel), we have decided to restart the blog.
We hope to be a platform for a multiplicity of Silicon Valley voices and demonstrate that applied ethics is everybody’s business—not just the purview of philosophers or philanthropists.
We aim to blog about once a week, with entries by various staff members of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, as well as other Santa Clara University faculty members (and perhaps some students, too!) We look forward to your comments, and we hope to host a robust conversation around such topics as big data ethics, online privacy, the Internet of Things, Net neutrality, the “right to be forgotten,” cyberbullying, the digital divide, sentiment analysis, the impact of social media, online communities, digital journalism, diversity in tech, and more. We will also post advance notice of various ethics-related events taking place on campus, free and open to the public.
If you’d like to be notified as new entries are posted, please subscribe today! (There’s an email subscription box to the right, or an RSS feed at the top of the blog. ) You can also follow the Internet Ethics program on Twitter at @IEthics, and the Center overall either on Facebook or on Twitter at @mcaenews.
And to those of you who had been subscribed already, again, welcome back!
As we wrap up the "Internet Ethics: Views from Silicon Valley" series, we hope that its videos, comments, and related articles will continue to spark conversations about ethical challenges that arise in the online context. All of the clips in the series will remain available on YouTube, as well as on the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website.
We leave you with one more issue to consider: The development of "the Internet of Things." In this brief clip, Owen Tripp, the co-founder of Reputation.com, addresses the balancing act between convenience and privacy in our connected world. As a recent Wired Magazine article notes, many of us now go about our lives "surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do." Whether we call it "The Internet of Things," the "Sensor Revolution," or "The Programmable World," we still need to consider the ethical implications of this new reality.
Kim Polese, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and innovator, addresses a new and growing digital divide: the one between those who have high-speed wired broadband access to the Internet in their homes, and those who don't. Many of the services that we increasingly rely on in our daily lives require such access; Polese argues that the lack of affordable high-speed broadband access magnifies the inequalities in our society, keeping both necessities and opportunities out of reach for many Americans.
In a recent New York Times article, law professor Susan Crawford agrees with this assessment: she describes "[h]igh capacity fiber connections to homes and businesses" as "a social good" (as well as a business imperative). Both Polese and Crawford call for increased regulatory oversight in order to bring about affordable and widespread broadband access in the U.S.
The adoption of mobile devices and the use of social media are both growing quickly around the world.In emerging markets in particular, mobile devices have become “life tools”—used for telemedicine, banking, education, communication, and more.These developments give rise to new ethical challenges.How should the mobile be used for data collection among vulnerable populations?Can apps that bring great benefits also cause unintended harm?And who should address these concerns?In this brief video, tech entrepreneur and professor Radha Basu argues that the debate should include the manufacturers of mobile devices and the app developers, but also the young people who will be most affected by these new developments.