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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

  •  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