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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.

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  •  The Disconnect: Accountability and Consequences Online

    Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013

    Do we need more editorial control on the Web?  In this brief clip, the Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Seagate Technology, Stephen Luczo, argues that we do.  He also cautions that digital media channels sometimes unwittingly lend a gloss of credibility to some stories that don't deserve it (as was recently demonstrated in the coverage of the Boston bombing).  Luczo views this as a symptom of a broader breakdown among responsibility, accountability, and consequences in the online world.  Is the much-vaunted freedom of the Internet diminishing the amount of substantive feedback that we get for doing something positive--or negative--for society?

    Chad Raphael, Chair of the Communication Department and Associate Professor at Santa Clara University, responds to Luczo's comments:

    "It's true that the scope and speed of news circulation on the Internet worsens longstanding problems of countering misinformation and holding the sources that generate it accountable.  But journalism's traditional gatekeepers were never able to do these jobs alone, as Senator Joseph McCarthy knew all too well.  News organizations make their job harder with each new round of layoffs of experienced journalists.

    There are new entities emerging online that can help fulfill these traditional journalistic functions, but we need to do more to connect, augment, and enshrine them in online news spaces. Some of these organizations, such as News Trust, crowdsource the problem of misinformation by enlisting many minds to review news stories and alert the public to inaccuracy and manipulation.  Their greatest value may be as watchdogs who can sound the alarm on suspicious material.  Other web sites, such as FactCheck.org, rely on trained professionals to evaluate political actors' claims.  They can pick up tips from multiple watchdogs, some of them more partisan than others, and evaluate those tips as fair-minded judges.  We need them to expand their scope beyond checking politicians to include other public actors.  The judges could also use some more robust programs for tracking the spread of info-viruses back to their sources, so they can be identified and exposed quickly.  We also need better ways to publicize the online judges' verdicts. 

    If search engines and other news aggregators aim to organize the world's information for us, it seems within their mission to let us know what sources, stories, and news organizations have been more and less accurate over time.  Even more importantly, aggregators might start ranking better performing sources higher in their search results, creating a powerful economic incentive to get the story right rather than getting it first.

    Does that raise First Amendment concerns? Sure. But we already balance the right to free speech against other important rights, including reputation, privacy, and public safety.  And the Internet is likely to remain the Wild West until Google, Yahoo!, Digg, and other news aggregators start separating the good, the bad, and the ugly by organizing information according to its credibility, not just its popularity."

    Chad Raphael

  •  Internet Access Is a Privilege

    Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013

    What would our lives be like if we no longer had access to the Internet?  How much good would we lose?  How much harm would we be spared?  Is Internet access a right?  These days, whether or not we think of access to it as a right, many of us take the Internet for granted.  In this brief video, Apple co-founder A. C. "Mike" Markkula Jr. looks at the big picture, argues that Internet use is a privilege, and considers ways to minimize some of the harms associated with it, while fully appreciating its benefits.

    In an op-ed published in the New York Times last year, Vint Cerf (who is often described as one of the "fathers of the Internet" and is currently a vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google) argued along similar lines:

    "As we seek to advance the state of the art in technology and its use in society, [engineers] must be conscious of our civil responsibilities in addition to our engineering expertise.  Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection--without pretending that access itself is such a right."

  •  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 Need for Accuracy Online

    Monday, Apr. 8, 2013

    The Internet has surely surpassed the expectations of its pioneers.  As a communication medium, it is unparalleled in scope and impact.  However, the ease of publication in the Web 2.0 world has created new ethical dilemmas.  In this brief video, Adobe Chairman of the Board Charles Geschke points out the gap between what Internet users expect to receive (i.e. factual and accurate information) and what they too often get instead.  Is it the user's responsibility to judge which sources to access on the Web, and how much to rely on them?  Is it the publishers of information who have a duty to strive to be accurate?

    Below, Sally Lehrman (Knight Ridder/San Jose Mercury News Endowed Chair in Journalism and the Public Interest at Santa Clara University, and a Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Scholar) responds to Geschke's comments.  Add your own responses in the "Comments" section!

    "The Internet has certainly opened up opportunities for anyone to publish whatever they want.  In some ways, the proliferation of voices is good.  It provides access to ideas and perspectives that traditional news gatherers might miss. It also can put pressure on news organizations to get things right.  But, as Mr. Geschke points out, it's hard to tell when the information packaged like news on the Internet is really just marketing or propaganda.  That's why brands like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and local sites such as Patch.com and your own local newspaper are valuable.  Their reporting can be trusted.

    Ethical traditions in journalism ensure multiple sources and careful attention to facts.  But many people have come to expect their news for free, and feet-on-the-ground reporting and fact-checking are expensive.  That makes it very difficult for true news operations to survive.  Unfortunately, we're seeing a decline in quality as a result.  The public must learn to discern--and value--quality news.  One way is to learn more about traditional journalism ethics guidelines, found (on the Internet!) on sites such as www.spj.org/ethics.asp and www.rtdna.org/channel/ethics."

    Sally Lehrman

  •  Privacy Tradeoffs Online

    Tuesday, Apr. 2, 2013

    New technologies often bring both benefits and unintended consequences.  The same is true of laws aimed at new technologies.  In this brief clip, NetApp's Executive Chairman Dan Warmenhoven discusses the development of GPS-tracking technology and the ethical issues associated with the aggregation of GPS data into large databases.  Using HIPAA as an example, he then argues that data protection efforts can go too far, leaving us with inefficient outcomes.  How do we strike the right balance between benefits and harms?

  •  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

  •  On Designing a More Ethical Internet

    Monday, Mar. 18, 2013

    Over the following weeks, this video series will present the views of several Silicon Valley tech leaders on some of the key issues in Internet ethics today.  This first entry, however, sets the context of the conversation.  What does it mean to live well by means of the Internet?  In what ways can the Internet help us live well, or make it more difficult to live well?  In this brief video, Santa Clara University Associate Professor Shannon Vallor looks at the Internet through a philosopher's lens.  Now that the Internet has become a medium through which we live a big portion of our lives, she argues that we all need to think about Internet ethics much more broadly and deeply--and that the people who devise Internet tools and services should think not only about meeting the user's immediate desires and needs, but also about doing that in a way that promotes a good life.

    We invite you to sign up (via email or rss feed) to be notified as a new video clip is posted each week, and we look forward to your comments!