What kind of internet ought we to have?

Happy internet slowdown day! Here are some apropos practical ethics questions for all to discuss as we sit patiently, waiting for the internet to load. What kind of internet ought we to have? Should sovereign nations decide for themselves what kind of internet they will have, or is this an international issue, requiring cooperation between nations? What do particular internet companies owe their competitors, and more vaguely, the internet? What right does an individual or social entity have to know about or to police the storage and usage of data about that individual or social entity? What right does an individual or corporation have to access data or restrict access to data at certain speeds?

These kinds of questions are of massive practical importance to big internet companies like Google, who finds itself embroiled in an ongoing antitrust dispute with various entities in Europe, and like American cable company Comcast, who might stand to profit from a change in current net neutrality regulations.

And yet interestingly – and unsurprisingly, I suppose, given the power of moral language – much of the debate surrounding this issue is cast in moral, rather than practical, terms. I take it that this indicates something about how much of our identity is nowadays wrapped up in various kinds of data access and data usage. Consider a recent op-ed by Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s economic minister and vice chancellor. Gabriel discusses issues concerning data storage and data use in explicitly moral and even existential terms (i.e., “The fight for democracy in the digital age is a fight for human self-determination.”). In arguing for a more Europe-centric approach to data usage – especially with respect to Europe’s interactions with US companies like Google – Gabriel appeals to Europe as a kind of moral ideal:

“Europe symbolises just the opposite of the totalitarian idea of turning every detail of human behaviour, human emotion and human thought into an object of capitalistic marketing strategies. The dignity of a human being includes, above all, his or her right of self-determination, also and especially in respect of personal data. Europe’s idea of a market economy is not “cut-throat competition” in which the unlimited market power of one dominant party is able to prescribe the terms and conditions for everyone else wishing to participate in the markets.”

Usually on this blog we discuss ethical issues in the news and we offer some analysis of ethical theory that might clarify the issues somewhat. In this case, however, I am out of my depth except to note that (a) there are a number of closely intertwined ethical issues running through recent discussions of net neutrality, the behavior of companies like Google, and individual rights regarding usage of personal data, (b) I get the sense that answers to many of the ethical questions that arise here are very much unsettled. This is to say that there is work to do. (Some of this work is being done by professionals (in information ethics journals and at information ethics conferences, for example). But certainly there is a lot of room here for engaged citizens to influence political will in various ways via grassroots activity.)

Now, the way things normally go in the world is this: action happens, and later we sort through the ethical carnage. Ethical reflection is rarely at the leading edge of human action. There are happy exceptions, but still. (Also, there are sad exceptions, when ethical reflection leads action in the wrong direction.) Maybe ethical reflection will get ahead of action here – certainly some people out there are trying to force some ethical reflection on us (maybe check out Luciano Floridi’s book The Ethics of Information’). Undoubtedly others are trying to influence that reflection for their own, surreptitiously economic, reasons (cough, Verizon) (cough cough, Comcast). The point of this post is to draw attention to the fact that these issues exist, and that answers are being given and policies are being structured all the time, whether or not these answers and policies are informed by ethical reflection.

 

 

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2 Responses to What kind of internet ought we to have?

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    I wonder if one fertile ethical area here is the nature of commons. The term generally evokes positive feelings of joint, community-oriented ownership and ethically charged considerations of how to rein in individual rational self-interest in the interest of everybody or the future.

    On the Internet there are several kinds of commons: the infrastructure itself might be viewed as jointly owned (by who? companies, nations or everybody – this is part of the net neutrality debate) and jointly maintained for the good of all. There is also a kind of abstract commons in the form of standards, where open standards are important for maintaining trust, security, innovativeness and function (and limitations, like DRM in HTML standards, might be a warping of the meaning of the standard). Then there are the commons of user-generated content and interaction, like on Wikipedia, Facebook or DeviantArt, where people are active on a perceived common actually owned, maintained and exploited by an owner (here the issue becomes what the owner can morally do with the ‘commons’, and at what point public interest may trump ownership).

  • Dave Frame says:

    That Sigmar Gabriel guy sounds very scary. Sounds like he wants us to believe that European Governments pose less of a totalitarian threat than private sector companies (who have no monopoly on regulation, or violence, etc). Which would be weird. I find it absurd to hold a search engine responsible for what it finds. It’s like charging a sniffer dog with finding drugs.

    Anders wrote: “I wonder if one fertile ethical area here is the nature of commons. The term generally evokes positive feelings of joint, community-oriented ownership and ethically charged considerations of how to rein in individual rational self-interest in the interest of everybody or the future.”

    I don’t think you mean commons* – I think you’re getting at something a little different – the regulation of natural monopolies: a subset of the need to do something about the potential abuses that arise with monopolies generally. If a government is accountable, then it may be expected to manage a natural monopoly better than a private firm, since the incentives it has towards predatory pricing are a little weaker than in the private case. But for that material (natural monopolies) to be relevant here, you’d need to be talking about some core component(s) of the internet that might resemble a natural monopoly; can you give some examples? (I can’t think of any but you know way more about the net than I do.)

    Not so sure about “positive feelings”, either.. when I hear words like “community-owned” I generally think of connotations like “a bit crap” and “tediously worthy”. Your mileage may vary of course.

    *With commons problems the solution is quite frequently to harness (not rein in) self-interest through a deepening (not repudiation) of property rights. [Not always, of course, but often enough for Coase’s work to be deployed in an increasing number of situations (fisheries; emissions of pollutants, etc).]

    Reassuringly, Joshua wrote: “Now, the way things normally go in the world is this: action happens, and later we sort through the ethical carnage. Ethical reflection is rarely at the leading edge of human action.”

    I like this. This gives me hope. Far better for us to muddle through than have the way charted in advance.

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