Santa Clara University

Bookmark and Share

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 internet of things. clear filter
  •  Et tu, Barbie?

    Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015

    In a smart city, in a smart house, a little girl got a new Barbie. Her parents, who had enough money to afford a rather pricey doll, explained to the girl that the new Barbie could talk—could actually have a conversation with the girl. Sometime later, alone in her room with her toys, the little girl, as instructed, pushed on the doll’s belt buckle and started talking. After a few minutes, she wondered what Barbie would answer if she said something mean—so she tried that.

    Later, the girl’s mother accessed the app that came with the new doll and listened to her daughter’s conversation. The mom then went to the girl’s room and asked her why she had been mean to Barbie. The little girl learned something—about talking, about playing, about technology, about her parents.

    Or maybe I should have written all of the above using future tense—because “Hello Barbie,” according to media reports, does not hit the stores until next month.

    After reading several articles about “Hello Barbie,” I decided to ask several folks here at the university for their reactions to this new high-tech toy. (I read, think, and write all the time about privacy, so I wanted some feedback from folks who mostly think about other stuff.)  Mind you, the article I’d sent them as an introduction was titled “Will Barbie Be Hackers’ New Plaything?”—so I realize it wasn’t exactly a neutral way to start the conversation. With that caveat, though, here is a sample of the various concerns that my colleagues expressed.

    The first reaction came via email: “There is a sci-fi thriller in there somewhere…” (Thriller, yes, I thought to myself, though not sci-fi anymore.)

    The other concerns came in person.  From a parent of grown kids: the observation that these days parents seem to want to know absolutely everything about their children, and that that couldn’t be healthy for either the parents or the kids. From a dad of a 3-year girl: “My daughter already loves Siri; if I gave her this she would stop talking to anybody else!” From a woman thinking back: “I used to have to talk for my doll, too…” The concerns echoed those raised in much of the media coverage of Hello Barbie—that she will stifle the imagination that kids deploy when they have to provide both sides of a conversation with their toys, or that she will violate whatever privacy children still have.

    But I was particularly struck by a paragraph in a Mashable article that described in more detail how the new doll/app combo will work:

    "When a parent goes through the process of setting up Hello Barbie via the app, it's possible to control the settings and manually approve or delete potential conversation topics. For example, if a child doesn’t celebrate certain holidays like Christmas, a parent can chose to remove certain lines from Barbie's repertoire."

    Is the question underlying all of this, really, one of control? Who will ultimately control Hello Barbie? Will it be Mattel? Will it be ToyTalk, the San Francisco company providing the “consumer-grade artificial intelligence” that enables Hello Barbie’s conversations? The parents who buy the doll? The hackers who might break in? The courts that might subpoena the recordings of the children’s chats with the doll?

    And when do children get to exercise control? When and how do they get to develop autonomy if even well intentioned people (hey, corporations are people, too, now) listen in to—and control—even the conversations that the kids are having when they play, thinking they’re alone? (“…Toy Talk says that parents will have ‘full control over all account information and content,’ including sharing recordings on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter,” notes an ABC News article; “data is sent to and from ToyTalk’s servers, where conversations are stored for two years from the time a child last interacted with the doll or a parent accessed a ToyTalk account,” points out the San Francisco Chronicle.)

    What do kids learn when they realize that those conversations they thought were private were actually being recorded, played back, and shared with either business’ partners or parents’ friends? All I can hope is that the little girls who will receive Hello Barbie will, as a result, grow up to be privacy activists—or, better yet, tech developers and designers who will understand, deeply, the importance of privacy by design.

    Photo by Mike Licht, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.


  •  IoT: The Internet of Trees

    Friday, Jul. 17, 2015

    Ethics is about living the good life, and, for many of us, trees are an important part of that good life (and not just because we like breathing).  This becomes clear in an article titled “When You Give a Tree an Email Address,” in which The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance writes about a project undertaken by the city of Melbourne.  As LaFrance explains, “[o]fficials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches.”  As it turned out, however, quite a few citizens chose, instead, to write messages addressed directly to particular trees.

    Some of the messages quoted by LaFrance are quite moving.  On May 21, 2015, for example, a message to “Golden Elm, Tree ID 1037148” read, “I’m so sorry you’re going to die soon. It makes me sad when trucks damage your low hanging branches. Are you as tired of all this construction work as we are?” Other messages are funny. (All, by definition, are whimsical. How else do you write to a tree?) But the best part, perhaps, is that the trees sometimes write back.  For example, in January 2015, a Willow Leaf Peppermint answered a query about its gender. “Hello,” it began,

    I am not a Mr or a Mrs, as I have what’s called perfect flowers that include both genders in my flower structure, the term for this is Monoicous. [Even trees generate run-ons.] Some trees species have only male or female flowers on individual plants and therefore do have genders, the term for this is Dioecious. Some other trees have male flowers and female flowers on the same tree. It is all very confusing and quite amazing how diverse and complex trees can be. 

    Kind regards,

    Mr and Mrs Willow Leaf Peppermint (same Tree)

    Should we rethink the possibilities of the acronym “IoT”? With the coming of the much-anticipated “Internet of Things,” will trees eventually notify the city officials directly when they’re about to tip over, or a branch has scraped a car, or a good percentage of their fruits are ripe?

    In the meantime, is it pessimistic to worry that hackers might break into the trees’ email accounts and start sending offensive responses, or distribute spam instead of pollen?

    For now, the article made me think of a famous poem by Joyce Kilmer, “Trees,” which was published in 1913. With apologies, here is my take on the Internet of Trees:


    I thought that I would never see

    An email written by a tree.


    A tree whose hungry eyes are keen

    Upon a gadget’s glowing screen;


    A tree that doesn’t choose to Skype

    But lifts her leafy arms to type;


    A tree that may in Summer share

    Selfies with robins in her hair;


    Within whose bosom drafts might end;

    Who intimately lives with “Send.”


    Poems are made by fools like me,

    But emails come, now, from a tree.


    Photo by @Doug88888, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  "Harrison Bergeron" in Silicon Valley -- Part II

    Friday, May. 22, 2015

    A few weeks ago, I wrote about Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” In the world of that story the year is 2081, and, in an effort to render all people “equal,” the  government imposes handicaps on all those who are somehow better than average. One of the characters, George, whose intelligence is "way above normal," has "a little mental handicap radio in his ear.”

    As George tries to concentrate on something,

    “[a] buzzer sounded in George's head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

    "That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did," said Hazel.

    "Huh" said George.

    "That dance-it was nice," said Hazel.

    "Yup," said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. … But he didn't get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.

    George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.

    Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself, she had to ask George what the latest sound had been.

    "Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer," said George.

    "I'd think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds," said Hazel a little envious. "All the things they think up."

    "Um," said George.

    "Only, if I was Handicapper General, you know what I would do?" said Hazel. … "I'd have chimes on Sunday--just chimes. Kind of in honor of religion."

    "I could think, if it was just chimes," said George.

    Re-reading the story, I thought about the work of the late professor Cliff Nass, whose “pioneering research into how humans interact with technology,” as the New York Times described it, “found that the increasingly screen-saturated, multitasking modern world was not nurturing the ability to concentrate, analyze or feel empathy.”

    If we have little “mental handicap radios” in our ears, these days, it’s usually because we put them there—or on our eyes, or wrists, or just in our hands—ourselves (though some versions are increasingly required by employers or schools). Still, like the ones in the story, they are making it more difficult for all of us to focus on key tasks, to be present for our loved ones, to truly take in and respond to our surroundings.

    In anticipation of the Memorial Day’s weekend, I wish you a few days of lessened technological distractions. And, if you have some extra time, you might want to read some of professor Nass’ research.


  •  Who (or What) Is Reading Whom: An Ongoing Metamorphosis

    Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014
    If you haven’t already read the Wall Street Journal article titled “Your E-Book Is Reading You,” published in 2012, it’s well worth your time. It might even be worth a second read, since our understanding of many Internet-related issues has changed substantially since 2012.
    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”…

    Photo by Jose Antonio Alonso, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  The Internet of Things

    Tuesday, May. 28, 2013

    As we wrap up the "Internet Ethics: Views from Silicon Valley" series, we hope that its videos, comments, and related articles will continue to spark conversations about ethical challenges that arise in the online context.  All of the clips in the series will remain available on YouTube, as well as on the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website

    We leave you with one more issue to consider: The development of "the Internet of Things."  In this brief clip, Owen Tripp, the co-founder of, addresses the balancing act between convenience and privacy in our connected world.  As a recent Wired Magazine article notes, many of us now go about our lives "surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do."  Whether we call it "The Internet of Things," the "Sensor Revolution," or "The Programmable World," we still need to consider the ethical implications of this new reality.