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Ethical Issues in the Online World

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.

The following postings have been filtered by tag privacy. clear filter
  •  Are You A Hysteric, Or A Sociopath? Welcome to the Privacy Debate

    Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014

     

    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
     
     
  •  Should You Watch? On the Responsibility of Content Consumers

    Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2014

    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?
    Would You Watch [the beheading videos]?” ask CNN and ABC News. “Should You Watch the Ray Rice Assault Video?” asks Shape magazine. “Should We Look—Or Look Away?” asks Canada’s National Post. And, in a broader article about the “consequences and import of ubiquitous, Internet-connected photography” (and video), The Atlantic’s Robinson Mayer reflects on all three of the cases noted above; his piece is titled “Pics or It Didn’t Happen.”
    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?
     
    Photo by Matthew Montgomery, unmodified, used under a Creative Commons license.
  •  Revisiting the "Right to Be Forgotten"

    Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2014

     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.”

    (I wrote about it back then, too, arguing that many of the stories about it were rife with mischaracterizations and false dilemmas.)

    Since then, most of the conversation about online “forgetting” seems to have continued on parallel tracks—although with somewhat different clashing camps.  On one hand, many journalists and other critics of the decision (on both sides of the Atlantic) have made sweeping claims about a resulting “Internet riddled with memory holes” and articles “scrubbed from search results”; one commentator wrote that the court decision raises the question, can you really have freedom of speech if no one can hear what you are saying?” 

    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.”

    The advisory council (to whom any and all can submit comments) has been posting videos of the public meetings online. However, critics have taken issue with the group’s members (selected by Google itself), with the other presenters invited to participate at the meetings (again screened and chosen by Google), and, most recently, with its alleged rebuffing of questions from the general public. So far, many of the speakers invited to the meetings have raised questions about the appropriateness of the decision itself.

    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.  

    And, perhaps surprisingly (especially given most the coverage of the decision in the U.S.), a recent poll of American Internet users, by an IT security research firmfound that a “solid majority” of them—61%--were “in favor of a ‘right to be forgotten’ law for US citizens.”

    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

  •  Singing in the Shower: Privacy in the Age of Facebook

    Tuesday, Sep. 9, 2014
     
    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.
     
  •  Protecting Privacy and Society

    Monday, Apr. 15, 2013

    Consumer and business data is increasingly moving to the "cloud," and people are clamoring for protection of that data.  However, as Symantec's President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board Steve Bennett points out in this clip, "maximum privacy" is really anonymity, and some people use anonymity as a shield for illegal and unethical behavior.  How should cloud service providers deal with this dilemma?  What is their responsibility to their customers, and to society at large?  How should good corporate citizens respond when they are asked to cooperate with law enforcement? 

    Providers of cloud services are all faced with this dilemma; as Ars Technica recently reported, for example, Verizon took action when it discovered child pornography in one of its users' accounts.

  •  The Right to Be Forgotten

    Monday, Mar. 25, 2013

    "Total interconnectedness," very cheap data storage, and powerful search technologies come together to create a new set of ethical questions.  Do we have a right to access and correct the data in our profiles?  Do we have a right to be "forgotten" by the Internet?  In this brief video, Reputation.com co-founder Owen Tripp asks us to consider the impact of the Internet's long memory on those among us who are most vulnerable.  Below, Evan Selinger--Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology--responds to Tripp's comments:

    "Owen Tripp is moved by the ideas driving the "right to be forgotten" movements. For the reasons he gives, we all should be, too.  In the age of big data, the permanent record threat we're confronted with as kids takes on a new and more ominous meaning.  Our digital dossiers expand all the time, in both obvious and unclear ways, and through processes that are transparent as well as surreptitious.  Now that unprecedented amounts of information are readily available about what we've done and what makes us tick, lamentable incidents and statements can follow us everywhere with the crushing weight of Jacob Marley's chains. With the past always present, time--as Shakespeare's Hamlet exclaimed--is out of joint.

    When citizens become open books, it becomes awfully tempting to manage heightened publicity with overly cautious and risk-adverse behavior.  With enough fear, we'll lose out on more than opportunity. Our character can be diminished, perhaps timorousness shifting from vice to virtue.  As David Hoffman, Director of Security Policy and Global Privacy Officer at Intel Corporation, contends, society thus needs solutions that safeguard a limited "right to fail" without encouraging reckless or anti-social behavior, or the problems that come from historical amnesia or revisionism.  At stake is nothing less than securing adequate space for social experimentation, the "breathing room" (to borrow a phrase from privacy scholar Julie Cohen) that enables people to learn and grow.

    While the right to be forgotten appears to be gaining traction in Europe, there are numerous challenges ahead, not least because the road from privacy interest to privacy right can be long and winding.  In the United States concern has been expressed over how legal enforcement of a robust right for individuals to control personal information could run afoul of First Amendment speech protections and squash innovation by subjecting companies like Google and Facebook to bureaucratic procedures that, practically speaking, are unworkable, and further burdened by the prospect of overly punitive sanctions.  Furthermore, as numerous scholars suggest, the notion of so-called "personal information" is hard to pin down in an age of networked citizens where lots of data involves or affects other people, implicating what law professor Sonja West aptly calls the "story of us." Finally, while the market can indeed provide helpful services, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that when privacy protection is commodified, greater burden is placed on lower income people.  Freedom and peace of mind become purchasing power privilege."

    Evan Selinger -- Twitter: @evanselinger