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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 category Designing a more ethical Internet. clear filter
  •  Internet Values?

    Tuesday, Jun. 30, 2015

    "1.     The Internet’s architecture is highly unusual.

    2.       The Internet’s architecture reflects certain values.

    3.       Our use of the Net, based on that architecture, strongly encourages the adoption of those values.

    4.       Therefore, the Internet tends to transform us and our institutions in ways that reflect those values.

    5.       And that’s a good thing."

    The quoted list above comprises the premises that undergird an essay by David Weinberger, recently published in The Atlantic, titled “The Internet That Was (And Still Could Be).” Weinberger, who is the co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (and now a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society), argues that the Internet’s architecture “values open access to information, the democratic and permission-free ability to read and to post, an open market of ideas and businesses, and provides a framework for bottom-up collaboration among equals.” However, he notes, in what he calls the “Age of Apps” most Internet users don’t directly encounter that architecture:

    In the past I would have said that so long as this architecture endures, so will the transfer of values from that architecture to the systems that run on top of it. But while the Internet’s architecture is still in place, the values transfer may actually be stifled by the many layers that have been built on top of it.

    Moreover, if people think, for example, that the Internet is Facebook, then the value transfer may be not just stifled but shifted: what they may be absorbing are Facebook’s values, not the Internet’s. However, Weinberger describes himself as still ultimately optimistic about the beneficial impact of the Internet. In light of the layers that obscure its architecture and its built-in values, he offers a new call to action: “As the Internet’s architecture shapes our behavior and values less and less directly, we’re going to have to undertake the propagation of the values embedded in that architecture as an explicit task” (emphasis added).

    It’s interesting to consider this essay in conjunction with the results of a poll reported recently by the Pew Research Center. In a study of people from 32 developing and emerging countries, the Pew researchers found that

    [t]he aspect of the internet that generates the greatest concern is its effect on a nation’s morals. Overall, a median of 42% say the internet has a negative influence on morality, with 29% saying it has a positive influence. The internet’s influence on morality is seen as the most negative of the five aspects tested in 28 of the 32 countries surveyed. And in no country does a majority say that the influence of the internet on morality is a positive.

    It should be noted at the outset that not all of those polled described themselves as internet users—and that Pew reports that a “major subgroup that sees the internet positively is internet users themselves” (though, as a different study shows, millions of people in some developing countries mistakenly identify themselves as non-users when they really do use the Internet).

    Interesting distinctions emerge among the countries surveyed, as well. In Nigeria, Pew reports, 50% of those polled answered that “[i]ncreasing use of the Internet in [their] country has had a good influence on morality.” In Ghana, only 29% did. In Vietnam, 40%. In China, 25%. In Tunisia, 17%. In Russia, 13%.

    The Pew study, however, did not attempt to provide a definition of “morality” before posing that question. It would have been interesting (and would perhaps be an interesting future project) to ask users in other countries what they perceive as the values embedded in the Internet. Would they agree with Weinberger’s list? And how might they respond to an effort to clarify and propagate those values explicitly, as Weinberger suggests? For non-users of the Internet, in other countries, is the motivation purely a lack of access, or is it a rejection of certain values, as well?

    If a clash of values is at issue, it involves a generational aspect, too: the Pew report notes that in many of the countries surveyed, “young people (18-34 years old) are much more likely to say that the internet has a good influence compared with older people (ages 35+).” This, the report adds, “is especially true on its influence of morality.”

    Photo by Blaise Alleyne, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  “It’s Been a Great Year!”

    Friday, Jan. 16, 2015
    Was 2014 a great year for Facebook? That depends, of course, on which measures or factors you choose to look at. The number of videos in users’ newsfeeds more than tripled.  The number of monthly active Facebook users is 1.35 bilion, and going up. Last June, however, Facebook took a drubbing in the media when reports about its controversial research on “emotional contagion” brought the term “research ethics” into worldwide conversations.  In response, Facebook announced that it would put in place enhanced review processes for its studies of users, and that newly hired engineers will receive training in research ethics when they join the company.
    Then, in December, Facebook offered its users a way to share with their friends an overview of their year (their Facebook year, at least). It was a mini-photo album: a collection of photos from one’s account, curated by Facebook (and no, the pre-selected photos were not the most “liked” ones). While customizable, their personalized albums showed up in users’ newsfeeds with a pre-filled cover photo and the tagline “It’s Been a Great Year! Thanks for being a part of it.”
    Now, Facebook chooses things like taglines very, very carefully. Deliberately. This was not a throwaway line. But, as you may already know by now, a father whose six-year-old daughter died last year—and who was repeatedly faced with her smiling photo used as the cover of his suggested “It’s Been a Great Year!” album—wrote a blog post that went viral, decrying what he termed “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” and adding, “If I could fix one thing about our industry, just one thing, it would be that: to increase awareness of and consideration for the failure modes, the edge cases, the worst-case scenarios.” Many publications picked up the story.
    Apologies were then exchanged. But many other Facebook users felt the same pain, and did not receive an apology. And some were maybe reminded of the complaints that accompanied the initial launch of Facebook’s “Look Back Video” feature in early February 2014. As TechCrunch noted then, “[a]lmost immediately after launch, many users were complaining about the photos that Facebook auto-selected. Some had too many photos of their exes. Some had sad photos that they’d rather not remember as a milestone.” On February 7, TechCrunch reported that a “quick visit to the Facebook Look Back page now shows a shiny new edit button.”
    Come December, the “year-in-review” album was customizable. But the broader lesson about “the failures modes, the edge cases, the worst-case scenarios” was apparently not learned, or forgotten between February and December, despite the many sharp intervening critiques of the way Facebook treats its users.  
    In October, Santa Clara University professor Shannon Vallor and I wrote an op-ed arguing that Facebook’s response to the firestorm surrounding the emotion contagion study was too narrowly focused on research ethics.  We asked, “What about other ethical issues, not research-related, that Facebook's engineers are bound to encounter, perhaps even more frequently, in their daily work?”  The year-in-review app demonstrates that the question is very much still in play.  You can read our op-ed, which was published by the San Jose Mercury News, here.
    Here’s hoping for a better year.
    Photo by FACEBOOK(LET), used without modification under a Creative Commons license.
  •  #Compassion

    Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015

    For the 2014-2015 school year, the overarching theme being
    explored by various programs of the Markkula Center for
    Applied Ethics
    is “Compassion.” Fittingly, the Center’s first program
    on this theme was a talk entitled “What Is Compassion? A Philosophical Overview.” 

    Led by emeritus philosophy professor William J. Prior, the event turned out to be less of a talk and more of a spirited conversation. The professor had set it up that way—by handing out a one-pager with a brief description of the Good Samaritan parable and a number of questions to be answered by the audience. “In doing the following exercise,” he began, “I’d like you to try to forget everything you think you know about compassion and about this very famous story.” He also asked the audience to ignore the story’s religious underpinnings, and focus on its philosophical aspects.  After several questions that focused the reader’s attention on certain elements of the story, Prior asked, “Based on the reading of the text and your own interpretation of that text, what is compassion?”

    My scribbled notes reply, “Recognition of suffering and action to alleviate it.” As it turns out, that’s a bit different than many of the dictionary definitions of compassion (some of which Prior had also collected and distributed to the crowd). Most of those were variations of a two-part definition that involved a) recognition/consciousness of suffering, and b) desire to alleviate that suffering.

    But the Good Samaritan story argues for more than just desire. The two people who walked by the man who had been left “half dead” before the Good Samaritan found him might have felt a desire to help—we don’t know; however, for whatever reason, they didn’t act on it.  The Samaritan cared for the man’s wounds, took him to shelter at an inn, and even gave money to the innkeeper for the man’s continued care.

    The discussion of the Samaritan’s acts raised the issue of what level of action might be required. If action is required as part of compassion, is any action enough?

    And, I wondered, what does compassion look like online?

    As I am writing this, social media is flooded with references to the heartbreaking killings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. People are using #JeSuisCharlie, #CharlieHebo, and other hashtags to express solidarity with satirists, respect, sorrow, anger, support for free speech, opposition to religious extremism. But they are also using social media, and blogs, and online maps, and other online tools, to organize demonstrations—to draw each other out into the cold streets in a show of support for the victims and for their values. Do these actions reflect compassion?

    We often hear the online world described as a place of little compassion. But we also know that people contribute to charities online, offer support and understanding in comments on blogs or on social media posts, click “like…” Is clicking “like” action enough? Is tweeting with the #bringbackourgirls hashtag enough? Is re-tweeting? Are there some actions online so ephemeral and without cost that they communicate desire to help but don’t rise to the level of compassion?

    Would the Good Samaritan have been compassionate if he had seen the wounded man lying on the ground and raised awareness of the need by tweeting about it? (“Man beaten half to death on the road to Jericho. #compassion”) Does compassionate action vary depending on our proximity to the need? On the magnitude of the need? On our own ability to help?

    I am left with lots of questions, some of which I hope to ask during the Q&A following next week’s “Ethics at Noon” talk by the Chair of SCU’s Philosophy department, Dr. Shannon Vallor (author of 21st Century Virtue: Cultivating the Technomoral Self, as well as of our module on software engineering ethics, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on social networking and ethics, and more). Professor Vallor’s talk, which will be held on Thursday, January 15, is titled “Life Online and the Challenge of Compassion.” The talk is free and open to the public; feel free to join us and ask your own questions! 

  •  On Designing a More Ethical Internet

    Monday, Mar. 18, 2013

    Over the following weeks, this video series will present the views of several Silicon Valley tech leaders on some of the key issues in Internet ethics today.  This first entry, however, sets the context of the conversation.  What does it mean to live well by means of the Internet?  In what ways can the Internet help us live well, or make it more difficult to live well?  In this brief video, Santa Clara University Associate Professor Shannon Vallor looks at the Internet through a philosopher's lens.  Now that the Internet has become a medium through which we live a big portion of our lives, she argues that we all need to think about Internet ethics much more broadly and deeply--and that the people who devise Internet tools and services should think not only about meeting the user's immediate desires and needs, but also about doing that in a way that promotes a good life.

    We invite you to sign up (via email or rss feed) to be notified as a new video clip is posted each week, and we look forward to your comments!