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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Wednesday, Apr. 1, 2015
Certain eighth graders I know have been reading “Harrison Bergeron
,” so I decided to re-read it, too. The short story, by Kurt Vonnegut, describes a dystopian world in which, in an effort to make all people equal, a government imposes countervailing handicaps on all citizens who are somehow naturally gifted: beautiful people are forced to wear ugly masks; strong people have to carry around weights in proportion to their strength; graceful people are hobbled; etc. In order to make everybody equal, in other words, all people are brought to the lowest common denominator. The title character, Harrison Bergeron, is particularly gifted and therefore particularly impaired. As Vonnegut describes him,
… Harrison's appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.
Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.
And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random.
In classroom discussions, the story is usually presented as a critique of affirmative action. Such discussions miss the fact that affirmative action aims to level the playing field, not the players.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, in a land that claims to value meritocracy but ignores the ever more sharply tilted playing field, “Harrison Bergeron” seems particularly inapt. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it should be read, only in conjunction with stories like CNN’s recent interactive piece titled “The Poor Kids of Silicon Valley.” Or the piece by KQED’s Rachel Myrow, published last month, which notes that 30% of Silicon Valley’s population lives “below self-sufficiency standards,” and that “the income gap is wider than ever, and wider in Silicon Valley than elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area or California.”
What such (nonfiction, current) stories make clear is that we are, in fact, already hanging weights and otherwise hampering people in our society. It’s just that we don’t do it to those particularly gifted; we do it to the most vulnerable ones. The kids who have to wake up earlier because they live far from their high-school and have to take two buses since their parents can’t drive them to school, and who end up sleep deprived and less able to learn—the burden is on them. The kids who live in homeless shelters and whose brains might be impacted, long-term, by the stress of poverty—the burden is on them. The people who work as contractors with limited or no benefits—the burden is on them. The parents who have to work multiple jobs, can’t afford to live close to work, and have no time to read to their kids—the burden is on all of them.
In a Wired article about a growing number of Silicon Valley “techie” parents who are opting to home-school their kids, Jason Tanz expresses some misgivings about the subject but adds,
My son is in kindergarten, and I fear that his natural curiosity won’t withstand 12 years of standardized tests, underfunded and overcrowded classrooms, and constant performance anxiety. The Internet has already overturned the way we connect with friends, meet potential paramours, buy and sell products, produce and consume media, and manufacture and deliver goods. Every one of those processes has become more intimate, more personal, and more meaningful. Maybe education can work the same way.
Set aside the question of whether those processes have indeed become more intimate and meaningful; let’s concentrate on a different question about the possibility that, with the help of the Internet, education might “work the same way”: For whom?
Are naturally curious and creative kids being hampered by standardized tests and underfunded and overcrowded classrooms? Well then, in Silicon Valley, some of those kids will be homeschooled. The Wired article quotes a homeschooling parent who optimistically foresees a day “when you can hire a teacher by the hour, just as you would hire a TaskRabbit to assemble your Ikea furniture.” As to what happens to the kids of the TaskRabbited teacher? If Harrison Bergeron happens to be one of those, he will be further hampered, and nobody will check whether the weight of the burden will be proportional to anything.
Meritocracy is a myth when social inequality becomes as vast as it has become in Silicon Valley. Teaching “Harrison Bergeron” to eighth graders in this environment is a cruel joke.
Friday, Mar. 27, 2015
Exciting news! A new course now being developed at Santa Clara University, funded by a $25,000 grant from Intel Corporation's Privacy Curriculum Initiative, will bring together engineering, business, and law students to address topics such as privacy by design, effective and accurate privacy policies, best‐practice cybersecurity procedures, and more. Ethics will be an important part of the discussion, and the curriculum will be developed by the High Tech Law Institute in conjunction with Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering, the Leavey School of Business, and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
More details here!
Tuesday, Mar. 17, 2015
Last November, the director of the NSA came to Silicon Valley and spoke about the need for increased collaboration among governmental agencies and private companies in the battle for cybersecurity. Last month, President Obama came to Silicon Valley as well, and signed an executive order aimed at promoting information sharing about cyberthreats. In his remarks ahead of that signing, he noted that the government “has its own significant capabilities in the cyber world” and added that when it comes to safeguards against governmental intrusions on privacy, “the technology so often outstrips whatever rules and structures and standards have been put in place, which means the government has to be constantly self-critical and we have to be able to have an open debate about it.”
Five days later, on February 19, The Intercept reported that back in 2010 “American and British spies hacked into the internal computer network of the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, stealing encryption keys used to protect the privacy of cellphone communications across the globe….” A few days after that, on February 23, at a cybersecurity conference, the director of the NSA was confronted by the chief information security officer of Yahoo in an exchange which, according to the managing editor of the Just Security blog, “illustrated the chasm between some leading technology companies and the intelligence community.”
Then, on March 10th, The Intercept reported that in 2012 security researchers working with the CIA “claimed they had created a modified version of Apple’s proprietary software development tool, Xcode, which could sneak surveillance backdoors into any apps or programs created using the tool. Xcode, which is distributed by Apple to hundreds of thousands of developers, is used to create apps that are sold through Apple’s App Store.” Xcode’s product manager reacted on Twitter: “So. F-----g. Angry.”
Needless to say, it hasn’t been a good month for the push toward increased cooperation. However, to put those recent reactions in a bit more historical context, in October 2013, it was Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, who reacted to reports that Google’s data links had been hacked by the NSA: "We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fibre networks,” he said, “and it underscores the need for urgent reform." In May 2014, following reports that some Cisco products had been altered by the NSA, Mark Chandler, Cisco’s general counsel, wrote that the “failure to have rules [that restrict what the intelligence agencies may do] does not enhance national security ….”
If the goal is increased collaboration between the public and private sector on issues related to cybersecurity, many commentators have observed that the issue most hampering that is a lack of trust. Things are not likely to get better as long as the anger and lack of trust are left unaddressed. If President Obama is right in noting that, in a world in which technology routinely outstrips rules and standards, the government must be “constantly self-critical,” then high-level visits to Silicon Valley should include that element, much more openly than they have until now.
Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015
One of the programs organized by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics is a Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership
that brings together Silicon Valley executives and scholars. Earlier this month, the partnership’s meeting included a panel discussion on the ethics of encryption. The panelists were David J. Johnson, Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Division of the FBI; Marshall Erwin
, a senior staff analyst at Mozilla and fellow at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society; and Jonathan Mayer
, Cybersecurity Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and Junior Affiliate Scholar at the Center for Internet and Society
Of course, since then, the conversation about encryption has continued: President Obama discussed it, for example, in an interview that he gave
when he came to Silicon Valley to advocate for increased cooperation between tech companies and the government; NSA Director Mike Rogers was challenged on that topic
at a recent cybersecurity conference; and Hilary Clinton and others continued to hope for a middle ground solution
. However, as the Washington Post
recently put it, “political leaders appear to be re-hashing the same debate in search of a compromise solution that technical experts say does not exist.”
(In the photo, L-R: Irina Raicu, Jonathan Mayer, Marshall Erwin, and David J. Johnson)
Friday, Feb. 20, 2015
Over the last two weeks, Julia Powles, who is a law and technology researcher at the University of Cambridge, has published two interesting pieces on privacy, free speech, and the “right to be forgotten”: “Swamplands of the Internet: Speech and Privacy
,” and “How Google Determined Our Right to Be Forgotten
” (the latter co-authored by Enrique Chaparro). They are both very much worth reading, especially for folks whose work impacts the privacy rights (or preferences, if you prefer) of people around the world.
And earlier in February, Google’s Advisory Council issued its much-anticipated report on the issue
, which seeks to clarify the outlines of the debate surrounding it and offers suggestions for the implementation of “delisting.”
One of the authors of that report, Professor Luciano Floridi, will be speaking at Santa Clara University
on Wednesday, 2/25, as part of our “IT, Ethics and Law” lecture series
. Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford and the Director of Research of the Oxford Internet Institute. His talk is titled “Recording, Recalling, Retrieving, Remembering: Memory in the Information Age.”
The event is free and open to the public; if you live in the area and are interested in memory, free speech, and privacy online, we hope you will join us and RSVP
[And if you would like to be added to our mailing list for the lecture series—which has recently hosted panel presentations on ethical hacking, the ethics of online price discrimination, and privacy by design and software engineering ethics—please email firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015
Christine Cate is a recent graduate of Santa Clara University, where she majored in Public Health Science with a minor in Biology. She has worked at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics as the Character Education intern for the Character Based Literacy Program since October 2012. A version of this piece first appeared in November 2014 in the blog of the Ignatian Solidarity Network. Christine is a member of the Network’s social media team, focusing on contemporary issues of social justice and spirituality.
Sometimes, reading the news makes my stomach turn. Every day, headlines about sexual assault, racism, immigration, poverty, or infectious disease are intermingled with stories on Kim Kardashian’s newest racy cover, snow storms on the East Coast, and political speculations. The media is constantly bombarding us with stories ranging in importance from superficial fluff to deeply divisive topics.
The never-ending availability of news is positive in one sense, as the public is becoming more “informed,” but it also has its consequences. The media is desensitizing us to critical social issues like violence, racism, and sexism, while simultaneously flooding our feeds with stories of naked celebrities trying to break the internet or the most expensive Starbucks drink ever. Inane news stories focusing on things like which celebrity unfollowed whom on Instagram this week distract us from being able to critically observe and understand the world in which we live. Even political news stories can contain sensational levels of bias that make getting an objective comprehension of situations nearly impossible. And it’s nearly impossible to escape; anyone active on social media knows how often links to news articles show up among personal updates and advertisements. Individuals who aren’t constantly connected to social media, rare as they may be, are still saturated with current events from radio, print, and advertising outlets. It takes real effort to not know about what is going on in the world in our current society, and ignorance may be just as harmful as news-intoxication.
Both the lack of current event literacy and the over-saturation of news are serious problems in our world, as media is one of the most powerful influences in society today. After returning from the Ignatian Family Teach-In that took place in November 2014 in Virginia and Washington, D.C., I found myself reflecting on the role that news and social media play in our lives, and how that impacts both our spirituality and capacity to enact social justice.
At the Teach-in, in the rare moments between keynote speakers and breakout sessions, large projection screens and television monitors displayed live updates of tweets with the #IFTJ14 hashtag. Multiple photographers scurried around the crowded conference room, and cameras recorded every speaker for the online live stream. The slogan for this year’s Teach-In was “Uprooting Injustice, Sowing Truth, Witnessing Transformation.” The issues of immigration reform, divestment from fossil fuels, and Central American legislation were highlighted, as well as special recognition for the 25th anniversary of the UCA martyrs. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, conference attendees were challenged to view these issues, as well as other powerful issues like the criminal justice system and racism in society, through a lens of spirituality and social justice. During presentations, audience members tweeted out perspectives or quotes that they felt were especially eye-opening or striking, with their tweets flying out into cyberspace and appearing shortly after on the illuminated screens.
The reach of the Teach-In is hard to fathom. With an estimated 1,500 attendees, and the majority of them active on social media, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that tens of thousands of people were indirectly exposed to the messages of the Teach-In through media sources. The goal of the Teach-In was to give voice to the voiceless, to highlight areas in our collective history and present realities that need change, and I think that goal was accomplished spectacularly. Social media amplified the messages spoken at the Teach-In, and expanded the audience beyond just physical attendees.
But amid the masses of news stories already flooding the eyes and minds of people today, is social media enough to make a change? How many news readers are intentional in what and how they read news stories? How many social media users are intentionally aware of their influence, and use their accounts as platforms to share morally important or challenging new stories? How many people are harnessing the power of social media to identify injustice, spread truth, and incite action for transformation?
There are plenty of examples of social media bringing faith into daily rhetoric. The hashtag #blessed is popular on Instagram and Twitter, and there are hundreds of accounts that exist solely to post encouraging scripture passages, quotes, or otherwise spirituality related content. Spirituality and faith have become trendy in certain spheres, with social media users around the world able to share prayers and encourage and inspire from afar. But rarely do faithful social media users (in both senses of the word) connect their spirituality, social media reach, and social justice.
What would it look like if the culture of mainstream news and social media changed to include the combination of spirituality and social justice? Would the voices of the oppressed and marginalized be heard more? Would people be more willing to confront the uncomfortable problems in our societies and work for positive change? Or would we just become desensitized to it, as we have to news coverage of war and violence? Can the integration of spirituality and social media be a powerful tool to expose injustices, spread truth, and document change?
I don’t have answers to these questions, not yet. I am far more aware of my social media presence and interaction with news outlets, and would like to be more intentional in how I read news stories and pass them along to my sphere of influence. I think by critically analyzing new stories, and calling out the biases that we have been so accustomed to, we can change the way information is transmitted in society. I think that by integrating spirituality and social justice on a conscious level with how we use social media platforms we will be able to uproot injustice, sow truth, and witness transformation.
Friday, Jan. 16, 2015
Was 2014 a great year for Facebook? That depends, of course, on which measures or factors you choose to look at. The number of videos in users’ newsfeeds more than tripled
. The number of monthly active Facebook users is 1.35 bilion, and going up
. Last June, however, Facebook took a drubbing in the media when reports about its controversial research on “emotional contagion”
brought the term “research ethics” into worldwide conversations. In response, Facebook announced that it would put in place enhanced review processes for its studies of users, and that newly hired engineers will receive training in research ethics when they join the company.
Then, in December, Facebook offered its users a way to share with their friends an overview of their year (their Facebook year, at least). It was a mini-photo album: a collection of photos from one’s account, curated by Facebook (and no, the pre-selected photos were not the most “liked” ones
). While customizable, their personalized albums showed up in users’ newsfeeds with a pre-filled cover photo and the tagline “It’s Been a Great Year! Thanks for being a part of it.”
Now, Facebook chooses things like taglines very, very carefully. Deliberately. This was not a throwaway line. But, as you may already know by now, a father whose six-year-old daughter died last year—and who was repeatedly faced with her smiling photo used as the cover of his suggested “It’s Been a Great Year!” album—wrote a blog post that went viral, decrying what he termed “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty
” and adding, “If I could fix one thing about our industry, just one thing, it would be that: to increase awareness of and consideration for the failure modes, the edge cases, the worst-case scenarios.” Many publications picked up the story.
Apologies were then exchanged
. But many other Facebook users felt the same pain, and did not receive an apology. And some were maybe reminded of the complaints that accompanied the initial launch of Facebook’s “Look Back Video” feature in early February 2014. As TechCrunch noted then
, “[a]lmost immediately after launch, many users were complaining about the photos that Facebook auto-selected. Some had too many photos of their exes. Some had sad photos that they’d rather not remember as a milestone.” On February 7, TechCrunch
reported that a “quick visit to the Facebook Look Back page now shows a shiny new edit button.”
Come December, the “year-in-review” album was customizable. But the broader lesson about “the failures modes, the edge cases, the worst-case scenarios” was apparently not learned, or forgotten between February and December, despite the many sharp intervening critiques of the way Facebook treats its users.
In October, Santa Clara University professor Shannon Vallor and I wrote an op-ed arguing that Facebook’s response to the firestorm surrounding the emotion contagion study was too narrowly focused on research ethics. We asked, “What about other ethical issues, not research-related, that Facebook's engineers are bound to encounter, perhaps even more frequently, in their daily work?” The year-in-review app demonstrates that the question is very much still in play. You can read our op-ed, which was published by the San Jose Mercury News, here
Here’s hoping for a better year.
Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, philosopher Evan Selinger takes issue with many of the conclusions (and built-in assumptions) compiled in Dataclysm—a new book by Christian Rudder, who co-founded the dating site OKCupid and now heads the site’s data analytics team. While Selinger’s whole essay is really interesting, I was particularly struck by his comments on big data and privacy.
“My biggest issue with Dataclysm,” Selinger writes,
lies with Rudder’s treatment of surveillance. Early on in the book he writes: ‘If Big Data’s two running stories have been surveillance and money, for the last three years I’ve been working on a third: the human story.’ This claim about pursuing a third path isn’t true. Dataclysm itself is a work of social surveillance.
It’s tempting to think that different types of surveillance can be distinguished from one another in neat and clear ways. If this were the case, we could say that government surveillance only occurs when organizations like the National Security Agency do their job; corporate surveillance is only conducted by companies like Facebook who want to know what we’re doing so that they effectively monetize our data and devise strategies to make us more deeply engaged with their platform; and social surveillance only takes place in peer-to-peer situations, like parents monitoring their children’s phones, romantic partners scrutinizing each other’s social media feeds….
But in reality, surveillance is defined by fluid categories.
While each category of surveillance might include both ethical and unethical practices, the point is that the boundaries separating the categories are porous, and the harms associated with surveillance might seep across all of them.
Increasingly, when corporations like OKCupid or Facebook analyze their users’ data and communications in order to uncover “social facts,” they claim to be acting in the interest of the common good
, rather than pursuing self-serving goals. They claim to give us clear windows into our society. The subtitle of Rudder’s book, for example, is “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).” As Selinger notes,
Rudder portrays the volume of information… as a gift that can reveal the truth of who we really are. … [W]hen people don’t realize they’re lab rats in Rudder’s social experiments, they reveal habits—‘universals,’ he even alleges… ‘Practically as an accident,’ Rudder claims, digital data can now show us how we fight, how we love, how we age, who we are, and how we’re changing.’
Of course, Rudder should contain his claims to the “we” who use OKCupid (a 2013 study by the Pew Research Trust found that 10% of Americans report having used an online dating service
). Facebook has a stronger claim to having a user base that reflects all of “us.” But there are other entities that sit on even vaster data troves than Facebook’s, even more representative of U.S. society overall. What if a governmental organization were to decide to pursue the same selfless goals, after carefully ensuring that the data involved would be carefully anonymized and presented only in the aggregate (akin to what Rudder claims to have done)?
In the interest of better “social facts,” of greater insight into our collective mindsets and behaviors, should we encourage (or indeed demand from) the NSA to publish “Who Americans Are (Whey They Think No One’s Watching)”? To be followed, perhaps, by a series of “Who [Insert Various Other Nationalities] Are (When They Think No One’s Watching)”? Think of all the social insights and common good that would come from that!
In all seriousness, as Selinger rightly points out, the surveillance behind such no-notice-no-consent research comes at great cost to society:
Rudder’s violation of the initial contextual integrity [underpinning the collection of OKCupid user data] puts personal data to questionable secondary, social use. The use is questionable because privacy isn’t only about protecting personal information. People also have privacy interests in being able to communicate with others without feeling anxious about being excessively monitored. … [T]he resulting apprehension inhibits speech, stunts personal growth, and possibly even disinclines people from experimenting with politically relevant ideas.
With every book subtitled “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking),” we, the real we, become more weary, more likely to assume that someone’s always looking. And as many members of societies that have lived with excessive surveillance have attested, that’s not a path to achieving the good life
Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014
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”…
Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014
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 Santa Clara 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.”
Illustration by Stuart Bradford