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.
Thursday, Apr. 30, 2015
Good friends understand boundaries and keep your secrets. You can’t be good friends with someone you don’t trust.
Facebook, the company that made “friend” a verb and invited you to mix together your bosom buddies, relatives, acquaintances, classmates, lovers, co-workers, exes, teachers, and who-knows-who-else into one group it called “friends,” and has been helping you stay in touch with all of them and prompting you to reveal lots of things to all them, is taking some steps to become more trustworthy.
Specifically, as TechCrunch and others recently reported, as of April 30 Facebook’s modified APIs will no longer allow apps to collect data both from their users and from their users’ Facebook “friends”—something they often did until now, often without the users (or their friends) realizing it.*
As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine puts it, “Some users will see [this] as a positive move that returns control of personal data to its rightful owners. Just because you’re friends with someone, doesn’t mean you necessarily trust their judgment about what developers are safe to deal with. Now, each user will control their own data destiny.” Moreover, with Facebook’s new APIs, each user will have more “granular control” over what permissions he or she grants to an app in terms of data collection or other actions—such as permission to post to his or her Newsfeed. Constine writes that
Facebook has now instituted Login Review, where a team of its employees audit any app that requires more than the basic data of someone’s public profile, list of friends, and email address. The Login Review team has now checked over 40,000 apps, and from the experience, created new, more specific permissions so developers don’t have to ask for more than they need. Facebook revealed that apps now ask an average of 50 percent fewer permissions than before.
These are important changes, specifically intended by Facebook to increase user trust in the platform. They are certainly welcome steps. However, Facebook might ponder the first line of Constine’s TechCrunch article, which reads, “It was always kind of shady that Facebook let you volunteer your friends’ status updates, check-ins, location, interests and more to third-party apps.” Yes, it was. It should have been obvious all along that users should “control their own data destiny.” Facebook’s policies and lack of clarity about what they made possible turned many of us who used it into somewhat inconsiderate “friends.”
Are there other policies that continue to have that effect? So many of our friendship-related actions are now prompted and shaped by the design of the social platforms on which we perform them—and controlled even more by algorithms such as the Facebook one that determines which of our friends’ posts we see in our Newsfeed (no, they don’t all scroll by in chronological order; what you see is a curated feed, in which the parameters for curation are not fully disclosed and keep changing).
Facebook might be becoming a better, more trustworthy friend (though a “friend” that, according to The Atlantic, made $5 billion last year by showing you ads, “more than [doubling] digital ad revenue over the course of two years”). Are we becoming better friends, though, too? Or should we be clamoring for even more transparency and more changes that would empower us to be that?
* We warned about this practice in our Center’s module about online privacy: “Increasingly, you may… be allowing some entities to collect a lot of personal information about all of your online ‘friends’ by simply clicking ‘allow’ when downloading applications that siphon your friends' information through your account. On the flip side, your ‘friends’ can similarly allow third parties to collect key information about you, even if you never gave that third party permission to do so.” Happily, we’ll have to update that page now…
Friday, Apr. 24, 2015
In October 2014, Google inaugurated a Transparency Report detailing its implementation of the European court decision generally (though mistakenly) described as being about “the right to be forgotten.” To date, according to the report, Google has received more than 244,000 requests for removals of URLs from certain searches involvijng names of EU residents. Aside from such numbers, the Transparency Report includes examples of requests received--noting, in each case, whether or not Google complied with the request.
The “right to be forgotten” decision and its implementation have raised a number of ethical issues. Given that, we thought it would be useful to draw up an ethics case study that would flesh out those issues; we published that yesterday: see “Removing a Search Result: An Ethics Case Study.”
What would you decide, if you were part of the decision-making team tasked with evaluating the request described in the case study?
Thursday, Apr. 9, 2015
Wednesday, Apr. 1, 2015
Certain eighth graders I know have been reading “Harrison Bergeron
,” so I decided to re-read it, too. The short story, by Kurt Vonnegut, describes a dystopian world in which, in an effort to make all people equal, a government imposes countervailing handicaps on all citizens who are somehow naturally gifted: beautiful people are forced to wear ugly masks; strong people have to carry around weights in proportion to their strength; graceful people are hobbled; etc. In order to make everybody equal, in other words, all people are brought to the lowest common denominator. The title character, Harrison Bergeron, is particularly gifted and therefore particularly impaired. As Vonnegut describes him,
… Harrison's appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.
Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.
And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random.
In classroom discussions, the story is usually presented as a critique of affirmative action. Such discussions miss the fact that affirmative action aims to level the playing field, not the players.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, in a land that claims to value meritocracy but ignores the ever more sharply tilted playing field, “Harrison Bergeron” seems particularly inapt. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it should be read, only in conjunction with stories like CNN’s recent interactive piece titled “The Poor Kids of Silicon Valley.” Or the piece by KQED’s Rachel Myrow, published last month, which notes that 30% of Silicon Valley’s population lives “below self-sufficiency standards,” and that “the income gap is wider than ever, and wider in Silicon Valley than elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area or California.”
What such (nonfiction, current) stories make clear is that we are, in fact, already hanging weights and otherwise hampering people in our society. It’s just that we don’t do it to those particularly gifted; we do it to the most vulnerable ones. The kids who have to wake up earlier because they live far from their high-school and have to take two buses since their parents can’t drive them to school, and who end up sleep deprived and less able to learn—the burden is on them. The kids who live in homeless shelters and whose brains might be impacted, long-term, by the stress of poverty—the burden is on them. The people who work as contractors with limited or no benefits—the burden is on them. The parents who have to work multiple jobs, can’t afford to live close to work, and have no time to read to their kids—the burden is on all of them.
In a Wired article about a growing number of Silicon Valley “techie” parents who are opting to home-school their kids, Jason Tanz expresses some misgivings about the subject but adds,
My son is in kindergarten, and I fear that his natural curiosity won’t withstand 12 years of standardized tests, underfunded and overcrowded classrooms, and constant performance anxiety. The Internet has already overturned the way we connect with friends, meet potential paramours, buy and sell products, produce and consume media, and manufacture and deliver goods. Every one of those processes has become more intimate, more personal, and more meaningful. Maybe education can work the same way.
Set aside the question of whether those processes have indeed become more intimate and meaningful; let’s concentrate on a different question about the possibility that, with the help of the Internet, education might “work the same way”: For whom?
Are naturally curious and creative kids being hampered by standardized tests and underfunded and overcrowded classrooms? Well then, in Silicon Valley, some of those kids will be homeschooled. The Wired article quotes a homeschooling parent who optimistically foresees a day “when you can hire a teacher by the hour, just as you would hire a TaskRabbit to assemble your Ikea furniture.” As to what happens to the kids of the TaskRabbited teacher? If Harrison Bergeron happens to be one of those, he will be further hampered, and nobody will check whether the weight of the burden will be proportional to anything.
Meritocracy is a myth when social inequality becomes as vast as it has become in Silicon Valley. Teaching “Harrison Bergeron” to eighth graders in this environment is a cruel joke.
Friday, Mar. 27, 2015
Exciting news! A new course now being developed at Santa Clara University, funded by a $25,000 grant from Intel Corporation's Privacy Curriculum Initiative, will bring together engineering, business, and law students to address topics such as privacy by design, effective and accurate privacy policies, best‐practice cybersecurity procedures, and more. Ethics will be an important part of the discussion, and the curriculum will be developed by the High Tech Law Institute in conjunction with Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering, the Leavey School of Business, and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
More details here!
Tuesday, Mar. 17, 2015
Last November, the director of the NSA came to Silicon Valley and spoke about the need for increased collaboration among governmental agencies and private companies in the battle for cybersecurity. Last month, President Obama came to Silicon Valley as well, and signed an executive order aimed at promoting information sharing about cyberthreats. In his remarks ahead of that signing, he noted that the government “has its own significant capabilities in the cyber world” and added that when it comes to safeguards against governmental intrusions on privacy, “the technology so often outstrips whatever rules and structures and standards have been put in place, which means the government has to be constantly self-critical and we have to be able to have an open debate about it.”
Five days later, on February 19, The Intercept reported that back in 2010 “American and British spies hacked into the internal computer network of the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, stealing encryption keys used to protect the privacy of cellphone communications across the globe….” A few days after that, on February 23, at a cybersecurity conference, the director of the NSA was confronted by the chief information security officer of Yahoo in an exchange which, according to the managing editor of the Just Security blog, “illustrated the chasm between some leading technology companies and the intelligence community.”
Then, on March 10th, The Intercept reported that in 2012 security researchers working with the CIA “claimed they had created a modified version of Apple’s proprietary software development tool, Xcode, which could sneak surveillance backdoors into any apps or programs created using the tool. Xcode, which is distributed by Apple to hundreds of thousands of developers, is used to create apps that are sold through Apple’s App Store.” Xcode’s product manager reacted on Twitter: “So. F-----g. Angry.”
Needless to say, it hasn’t been a good month for the push toward increased cooperation. However, to put those recent reactions in a bit more historical context, in October 2013, it was Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, who reacted to reports that Google’s data links had been hacked by the NSA: "We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fibre networks,” he said, “and it underscores the need for urgent reform." In May 2014, following reports that some Cisco products had been altered by the NSA, Mark Chandler, Cisco’s general counsel, wrote that the “failure to have rules [that restrict what the intelligence agencies may do] does not enhance national security ….”
If the goal is increased collaboration between the public and private sector on issues related to cybersecurity, many commentators have observed that the issue most hampering that is a lack of trust. Things are not likely to get better as long as the anger and lack of trust are left unaddressed. If President Obama is right in noting that, in a world in which technology routinely outstrips rules and standards, the government must be “constantly self-critical,” then high-level visits to Silicon Valley should include that element, much more openly than they have until now.
Tuesday, Mar. 10, 2015
Last month, after the advisory council released its much-anticipated report
, Professor Floridi spoke at Santa Clara University (his lecture was part of our ongoing “IT, Ethics, and Law” lecture series
). In his talk, titled “Recording, Recalling, Retrieving, Remembering: Memory in the Information Age,” Floridi embedded his analysis of the European court decision into a broader exploration of the nature of memory itself; the role of memory in the European philosophical tradition; and the relationship among memory, identity, forgiveness, and closure. As Floridi explained, the misnamed “right to be forgotten” is really about closure, which is in turn not about forgetting but about “rightly managing your past memory.”
If you would like to be added to our “IT, Ethics, and Law” mailing list in order to be notified of future events in the lecture series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015
One of the programs organized by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics is a Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership
that brings together Silicon Valley executives and scholars. Earlier this month, the partnership’s meeting included a panel discussion on the ethics of encryption. The panelists were David J. Johnson, Special Agent in Charge of the San Francisco Division of the FBI; Marshall Erwin
, a senior staff analyst at Mozilla and fellow at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society; and Jonathan Mayer
, Cybersecurity Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and Junior Affiliate Scholar at the Center for Internet and Society
Of course, since then, the conversation about encryption has continued: President Obama discussed it, for example, in an interview that he gave
when he came to Silicon Valley to advocate for increased cooperation between tech companies and the government; NSA Director Mike Rogers was challenged on that topic
at a recent cybersecurity conference; and Hilary Clinton and others continued to hope for a middle ground solution
. However, as the Washington Post
recently put it, “political leaders appear to be re-hashing the same debate in search of a compromise solution that technical experts say does not exist.”
(In the photo, L-R: Irina Raicu, Jonathan Mayer, Marshall Erwin, and David J. Johnson)
Friday, Feb. 20, 2015
Over the last two weeks, Julia Powles, who is a law and technology researcher at the University of Cambridge, has published two interesting pieces on privacy, free speech, and the “right to be forgotten”: “Swamplands of the Internet: Speech and Privacy
,” and “How Google Determined Our Right to Be Forgotten
” (the latter co-authored by Enrique Chaparro). They are both very much worth reading, especially for folks whose work impacts the privacy rights (or preferences, if you prefer) of people around the world.
And earlier in February, Google’s Advisory Council issued its much-anticipated report on the issue
, which seeks to clarify the outlines of the debate surrounding it and offers suggestions for the implementation of “delisting.”
One of the authors of that report, Professor Luciano Floridi, will be speaking at Santa Clara University
on Wednesday, 2/25, as part of our “IT, Ethics and Law” lecture series
. Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford and the Director of Research of the Oxford Internet Institute. His talk is titled “Recording, Recalling, Retrieving, Remembering: Memory in the Information Age.”
The event is free and open to the public; if you live in the area and are interested in memory, free speech, and privacy online, we hope you will join us and RSVP
[And if you would like to be added to our mailing list for the lecture series—which has recently hosted panel presentations on ethical hacking, the ethics of online price discrimination, and privacy by design and software engineering ethics—please email email@example.com.]
Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015
The lack of diversity in the ranks of Silicon Valley tech companies has been a subject for debate for quite some time. It gathered more steam last year, when a number of companies including Apple, Google, and Twitter released their employment numbers, but many people had been writing and working for increased diversity for years. (I wrote about it, too, in MarketWatch
, back in June 2013.) And, as a recent San Francisco Chronicle article
noted, with the issue now in the spotlight, a number of startups are “seeking to turn Silicon Valley’s diversity problem into profit—helping tech companies find, recruit, and retain a diverse workforce, usually for a hefty fee. Still other companies have recently added diversity services to those already offered. In tech, diversity is now for sale.”
In the midst of these developments, last week’s Newsweek
cover article “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women
” seemed a bit of a throwback. The controversial cover that went along with it, which got even more attention than the article itself, seemed even more of a throwback. Many pixels were spilled, on media social and not, in arguments between those who thought the cover itself was sexist and those who felt that it reflected and therefore drew attention to sexism, and/or that it was effective simply because it drew lots of attention to the article and the magazine.
Then, Tsotsis turns to the Newsweek cover, which she describes as “a visceral gut punch”: “It portrays a woman without eyes, in a short skirt, getting her behind clicked on by a big black cursor. (Whoever these Silicon Valley people are who are thinking about women like this, they are not doing it on their phone or a tablet.)” She then argues that “Newsweek’s faceless and sexualized symbol of women in tech is… basic and reductive. We have worked so hard to broaden the scope of what we can be, in Silicon Valley, in the world, and here comes Newsweek… with an image that bluntly, sloppily trivializes how painfully that progress was won.”
And that is, indeed, the issue. Maybe stereotypical cartoons can draw attention to a critique of stereotypes (though would it really make sense to illustrate an issue like, say, anti-Semitism by creating a new anti-Semitic cartoon?), but the tone of this particular cover is not critical. It’s playful. It’s breezy. The “woman” on the cover is clearly young, and dressed in a very short red dress (whose hem is being lifted by the oversized cursor). She is also wearing very high-heeled red shoes. She has no eyes or nose, but she does have a very red mouth—and she looks back—almost gamely—over her shoulder at the cursor lifting her skirt. If the piece is about “what Silicon Valley thinks about women,” the cover visually “quotes” the misogynists.
Ironically, though the article itself focuses on the story of one particular startup founded by two women to illustrate the problem of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley, the reader has to scroll down quite a ways before getting to a photo of those two women entrepreneurs. What if those two real women had been on the cover? Their experiences were apparently seen as interesting and representative enough to illustrate the broader issue, but their faces weren’t. Instead, the key image of the piece (which, the cliché goes, is worth a thousand words), gives voice to those who demean such women.
As Tsotsis notes, the cover “gets to subconsciously influence a bunch of kids accompanying their parents on trips to the grocery … perpetuating what it purportedly denounces — It makes women feel excluded, sexualized and degraded as it tries to point out how bad it is to exclude, sexualize, and degrade women.”
In response to such criticism, the author of the Newsweek
article came to the defense of the cover’s designers; she said the backlash was “totally misguided
” and added that "For… people to be coming out being outraged by an image as opposed to actual [sexist] behavior is just petty.” That’s a false dichotomy, though: one—or many—can clearly be outraged both by sexist behavior and by a cover that trivializes (and perhaps perpetuates) the problem. Maybe the next time Newsweek
writes about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley (and yes, we need many more such articles, to keep the attention on an ugly reality that will take some time to change), it will take a page from a different startup highlighted by the San Francisco Chronicle
: Gap Jumpers “sells software that helps tech companies evaluate job candidates based on talent alone. The company offers different skills tests to vet people applying for job—a blind audition conducted via computer.” Some cursors aim to lift women, rather than skirts.