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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Earlier this week, the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Miriam Schulman, published a blog post about one of the center's recent campus projects. "If we want to engage with students," she wrote, "we have to go where they are talking, and this year, that has been on Yik Yak." To read more about this controversial app and a creative way to use it in a conversation about applied ethics, see "Yik Yak: The Medium and the Message." (And consider subscribing to the "All About Ethics" blog, as well!)
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.”
[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 email@example.com.]
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.
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”…
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.
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!