Unavoidable Ethical Questions About Search Engines
These questions follow the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics "Framework
for Ethical Decision Making".
From a Utilitarian Perspective
Google, Yahoo, and Amazon have all announced or begun programs to digitize
the contents of books so that they can be searched and downloaded by anyone
with a computer. In response to Google's announcement, the Authors Guild
and the American Association of Publishers filed lawsuits over the scanning
of copyrighted books. What are the benefits of allowing free access to
books on line? What are the harms?
From a Rights Perspective
Free Speech and Access to Information
All the major search engine companies have agreed to censor certain sites
when they operate in some foreign countries. The Chinese government has
insisted on blocking certain political sites; the German government on
blocking Nazi or other hate sites. Citing child pornography and unscrupulous
contractors as examples, Bill Gates recently told the Financial Times,
"There are Web sites that any government wants to block." Do
people have a right to all information? If not, what kinds of information
should be restricted and who should decide?
Recently the U.S. government subpoenaed search records from Google, Yahoo,
and MSN as part of an effort to control children's access to pornography
on the Internet. Yahoo and MSN complied, but Google argued that the subpoena
infringed on user privacy. To what extent are individuals' search records
deserving of strong privacy protection? What about aggregated search records?
From a Fairness Perspective
All Web site owners would like to have the Number 1 position in the major
search engines. In order to achieve that, many try to optimize their sites
so they will achieve higher page ranking. The search engines set rules
for search engine optimization (SEO); for example, webmasters are not
supposed to insert invisible text, create link exchanges with irrelevant
sites, etc. (For instance, to pack one's index keywords with words like
sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, even though the site might be about a new
math textbook.) Some argue that these practices-called black-hat SEO-undermine
the fairness of the results. Others say these tactics are not immoral
because they are only breaking the arbitrary rules set by the search engines.
What are the standards for a "fair" search environment, and
who should set them?
From a Common Good Perspective
Search engines that produce unbiased, relevant results have become a common
resource worth protecting. The information on the World Wide Web would
be essentially inaccessible without them. What social policies and business
practices will preserve that common good? Are sponsored links part of
paying for the public good?
From a Virtue Perspective
The search engine industry depends upon trust. Users come to a particular
search engine because they trust that they will get unbiased results.
What virtues does a search engine company have to practice in order to
gain this trust?
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