Information Ethics

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Giving Ourselves Away, by Callum Hackett

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Callum Hackett, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

‘Giving Ourselves Away: online communication alters the self and society’

Invention is a fertile source of new ethical problems because creating new tools creates questions about how they might be used for better or worse. However, while every invention has its unique uses, the questions we must ask of them are often the same. For example, the harnessing of water and steam in the Industrial Revolution raised the same concern as robotics in contemporary manufacturing for how mechanization affects the economic empowerment of the working class. Naturally, there are fewer underlying ethical problems than there are inventions that cluster around them, but here I wish to explore the possibility that the mass adoption of the internet has brought with it a new problem with which we are just starting to engage. Specifically, while the internet poses a series of difficult questions, I will consider the implications of certain characteristics of online communication for the self, society and politics. Continue reading

Humans are un-made by social media

‘Technology has made life different, but not necessarily more stressful’, says a recent article in the New York Times, summarising the findings of a study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. It is often thought that frequent internet and social media use increases stress. Digital unplugging, along with losing weight and quitting smoking, is seen as a healthy thing to do. But, said the article, we needn’t worry so much. Frequent internet and social media users don’t have higher stress levels than less frequent users, and indeed women who frequently use Twitter, email and photo-sharing apps (and who use these media for life-event sharing more than men – who tend to be less self-disclosing online) scored 21% lower on the stress scale than women who did not.

I suggest that, far from being reassuring, these results are very sinister indeed. They indicate that internet technology (or at least something that has happened to humans at the same time as internet technology has been happening to them) has effected a tectonic transformation in the human constitution. The outsourcing, digitalization and trivializing of our relationships should make us stressed. If it doesn’t, something seriously bad has happened. The stress response enables us to react appropriately to threats. Switch it off, and we’re in danger. Only a damaged immune response fails to kick off when there are bacteria around. A tiger confined in a tiny concrete pen has lost a lot of its tigerishness if it doesn’t pace frustratedly up and down, its cortisol levels through the roof. Continue reading

On Swearing (lecture by Rebecca Roache)

Last Thursday’s Special Ethics Seminar at St Cross College was booked out very quickly, and the audience’s high expectations were fully justified. Rebecca Roache returned from Royal Holloway to Oxford to give a fascinating lecture on the nature and ethics of swearing. Roache has two initial questions: ‘Is there anything wrong with this fucking question?’, and ‘Is this one any f***ing better?’. (Her answers turn out to be, essentially, ‘No’ to both.) Continue reading

Facebook’s new Terms of Service: Choosing between your privacy and your relationships

Facebook has changed its privacy settings this January. For Europeans, the changes have come into effect on January 30, 2015.

Apart from collecting data from your contacts, the information you provide, and from everything you see and do in Facebook, the new data policy enables the Facebook app to use your GPS, Bluetooth, and WiFi signals to track your location at all times. Facebook may also collect information about payments you make (including billing, shipping, and contact details). Finally, the social media giant collects data from third-party partners, other Facebook companies (like Instagram and Whatsapp), and from websites and apps that use their services (websites that offer “Like” buttons and use Facebook Log In).

The result? Facebook will now know where you live, work, and travel, what and where you shop, whom you are with, and roughly what your purchasing power is. It will have more information than anyone in your life about your habits, likes and dislikes, political inclinations, concerns, and, depending on the kind of use you make of the Internet, it might come to know about such sensitive issues as medical conditions and sexual preferences.

To Facebook’s credit, their new terms of services, although ambiguous, are clearer than most terms of services one finds on the Internet. Despite the intrusiveness of the privacy policy, one may look benevolently on Facebook: if their terms are comparatively explicit and clear, if users know about them and give their consent, and if in turn the company provides a valuable free service to more than a billion users, why should the new privacy policy be frowned upon? After all, if people don’t like the new terms, they are not forced to use Facebook: they are free not to sign up or they can delete their account if they are current users.

A closer look, however, might reveal the matter in a different light. Continue reading

Limiting the damage from cultures in collision

A Man in Black has a readable twitter essay about the role of chan culture in gamergate, and how the concepts of identity and debate inside a largish subculture can lead to an amazing uproar when they clash with outside cultures.

A brief recap: the Gamergate Controversy was/is a fierce culture war originating in the video gaming community in August 2014 but soon ensnaring feminists, journalists, webcomics, discussion sites, political pundits, Intel… – essentially anybody touching this tar-baby of controversy, regardless of whether they understood it or not. It has everything: media critique, feminism, sexism, racism, sealioning, cyberbullying, doxing, death threats, wrecked careers: you name it. From an outside perspective it has been a train wreck hard to look away from. Rarely have a debate flared up so quickly, involved so many, and generated so much vituperation. If this is the future of broad debates our civilization is doomed.

This post is not so much about the actual content of the controversy but the point made by A Man in Black: one contributing factor to the disaster has been that a fairly large online subculture has radically divergent standards of debate and identity, and when it got into contact with the larger world chaos erupted. How should we handle this? Continue reading

Twitter, Apps, and Depression

The Samaritans have launched a controversial new app that alerts Twitter users when someone they ‘follow’ on the site tweets something that may indicate suicidal thoughts.

To use the app, named ‘Samaritan Radar’, Twitter members must visit the Samaritans’ website, and choose to activate the app on their device. Having entered one’s twitter details on to the site to authorize the app, Samaritan Radar then scans the Twitter users that one ‘follows’, and uses an algorithm to identify phrases in tweets that suggest that the tweeter may be distressed. For example, the algorithm might identify tweets that involve phrases like “help me”, “I feel so alone” or “nobody cares about me”. If such a tweet is identified, an email will be sent to the user who signed up to Samaritan Radar asking whether the tweet should be a cause for concern; if so, the app will then offer advice on what to do next. Continue reading

Free the trolls

You do not have a right not to be offended,  insulted or verbally abused. You do not have that right because it might be right to offend, insult or verbally abuse you. You might believe stupid things, or even sensible things, and take offence at any and all critiques, rebuttals and refutations. You might be a pompous prig, a sanctimonious sop, an officious orifice. Even if you are not these things, there would be very little wrong in telling you you are. After all, you are not a six-year old child: you’re an adult. You can take it.

What of someone expressing their detestation of you, their hatred of you, wishing you ill, wishing you dead?

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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. Continue reading

Being ethically responsible to see ethical complexities: What Israel can teach us about ethics

As I write this, at least 1,474 people have died in the recent outburst of violence in Gaza. A vast majority (1,410) of those are Palestinians. Throughout the last weeks, those of us who are open-minded enough to consume different types of news will have read very, very different assessments of what is happening. Some express the in other contexts quite popular opinion that we don’t measure ethics by counting dead bodies. A group of medical doctors published an open letter in The Lancet denouncing the aggression in Gaza by Israel. Washington Post published an opinion piece with the title “Moral Clarity in Gaza” which proclaimed that the situation is very clear: it is Hamas’ fault, and Israel is only exercising its rights. The New York Times made an attempt at being impartial by letting three experts on each side publish their views of what goes on. A group of prominent International Law experts wrote a joint declaration calling the international community to, among other things, use its power to stop the violence, and encouraged the UN Security Council to exercise its responsibilities and refer the situation in Palestine to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. And so on. The disagreements run abysmally deep. Imprudent as it might feel to open ones mouth about a topic as infested as this, as someone working on ethics, I feel compelled to think about what ethics can do in this situation.
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When Cupid fires arrows double-blind: implicit informed agreement for online research?

A while ago Facebook got into the news for experimenting on its subscribers, leading to a fair bit of grumbling. Now the dating site OKCupid has proudly outed itself: We Experiment On Human Beings! Unethical or not?

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