Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Great Digital Divide and Other Cyber Quandaries

By Michelle Quinn

When it comes to talking about technology's impact, society's "ethical reflex" is weak, says Thomas Shanks, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Especially in Silicon Valley, people tend to defend new technology as good, clean products that should be left alone to grow. But as technology such as the internet expands, Shanks says, the "don't mess-with me" libertarian stance will have to make room for other ideals such as viture and the common good.

To that end, Shanks hosted an ethical workout for Silicon Valley leaders. On the first day of the two-day Ethics and Technology Conference on Friday, participants debated murky areas such as privacy, property rights and information haves and have-nots.

For example, Shanks asked, should a hypothetical town called CyberCities puts its services onto a network and thus offer fast, efficent service to the one-third of its residents who have access to computers? "Who has something to gain," Shanks asked the 60 attendees. "Who has something to lose?"

As might be expected from an ethical conference, there were more question than answers. Do internet service providers have a responsibility for what adults can view? Is it ethical that, according to a Federal Trade Commission study of 1,400 Web sites, 85 percent collect personal data but only 14 percent tell users they are collecting it?

Some of the issues are being addressed by new technology, said Hal Varian, dean of the School of Information Management and Systems at University of California Berkeley. For example, companies are developing more sophisticated filtering software that rates content, so that a teenager could look up information about breast cancer and still be shielded from pornography.

Participants said they worry about "digital divide," a demarcation between those who have computers and those who don't. Robert Furger said she saw the divide more along gender lines. Furger, the author of "Can Jane Commute," worried out loud that girls' passion for technology falls off too quickly to help prepare them for the future.

"If our children weren't interested in reading, we wouldn't say, 'That's OK,'" she said. "We would do everything we can to get them interested."

Companies can strive to be ethical, said Mike Markkula, a cofounder of Apple Computer Inc., owner of ACM Investments and the ethics center's namesake. To do so, the company's culture has to work at it. His advice for chief executives: Behave ethically, meet regularly to take the company's ethical temperature and avoid ethics pep talks. They don't work.

Michelle Quinn is a Mercury News staff writer.

(c)1998 San Jose Mercury News

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