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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 accountability. clear filter
  •  Questions about Mass Surveillance

    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

  •  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

  •  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