New Dilemmas, Same Principles:
Changing Landscape Requires IT Ethics to Go Mainstream
by George Lawton
As information technology accelerates the pace of modern life, organizations and individuals face a plethora of new ethical dilemmas. "IT is not just another "neutral" tool for good or for bad, but a pervading horizon of human self-understanding and interaction. And it is one of the most profound ethical challenges we, as humanity, were ever confronted with," noted professor Rafael Capurro at Hochschule der Medien (HdM), Germany, the founder and director of theInternational Center for Information Ethics. "It arises precisely at the same historical moment as other no-less-crucial global challenges such as the political, the economic, and the ecological crises."
As Chuck Cosson, senior policy counsel at Microsoft, noted, "The issues of free expression/privacy, environmental sustainability, and sound corporate governance are reasonably on the top of anyone's list."
Regarding the financial crisis, Capurro noted that many cases are addressing the moral responsibility of persons (bankers and managers) rather than the systemic issues about rules of behavior for individual and corporate actors. One challenge is that these systemic rules have enabled individuals or small groups to unwittingly create financial disaster, as evidenced by the Credit Suisse crises in France or the development and use of new instruments for trading debts in the US. Capurro noted, "I am not saying that this is an either-or (either the system or the banker/manager) situation. There is complicity on both sides that might even be legal and, in same cases, individually moral, i.e., not based on bad intentions. But ingenuity is a very difficult reason to take for defense when it comes to a disaster, isn't it?"
Capurro believes that the second issue concerns the Internet's impact on politics and the transformation of the "mediocracy" (or mass media democracy) into interactive democracy. The same technology opens up the potential for government surveillance and censorship such as China's Green Dam project, which is widely viewed as censorship software. Although Western media has raised an outcry against the project, a Chinese government directive says it's an effort to protect children from pornography and other negative effects of Western culture.
Surveillance is often associated with government oppression, but Capurro said it's important to understand the full impact of new technologies and create a policy around them. "We have enough examples in the past as well as in the present of undemocratic states as negative forms of (state) surveillance," he said. "But sometimes what is being used in a country to guarantee the safety and security of the citizens might be used in another country for oppression. This is particularly the case with IT systems, including surveillance systems in public spaces no less than censorship software to control the Internet—sometimes with good intentions, like the case of child pornography on the Internet."
The growth in the use of databases is raising a number of dilemmas on how to protect users, noted Kirk O. Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. "It seems to me," Hanson said, "that we are far into the era in which different databases are being compared and mined for the combined information you can get. A number of issues are raised if you can tie an individual's identification to their purchasing history or their social networking."
He believes the next big debate will be around healthcare information as the governments in the US and UK both launch initiatives to improve healthcare through better information. But the spread of this information is likely to raise issues about insurance company access and discrimination. Hanson noted, "Health information is the next big battleground in data mining."
Another aspect of data mining lies in the capability to track individuals. In the US, authorities are already turning to cell phone records to determine a suspect's movements or to disprove an alibi in a criminal case. Hanson said, "Ten years from now, we will talk about the latest data capabilities. Maybe it will be face recognition to monitor where you have been through cameras on the street."
Patrick Vinck, project director of the Initiative for Vulnerable Populations, said that IT advancements are changing the landscape for improving human rights, but challenges still remain. Vinck said the number one issue is how to make information secure. For example, he pointed to the recent news that the Dalai Lama's offices had been compromised by specially crafted spyware designed to monitor email and collect data from files. He said that a number of issues are being raised by the threats to organized networks, especially ones created for political dissent.
Another emerging issue lies in developing the skill to assess and make decisions based on information sent over the Internet. While the Internet has done a good job of enabling disenfranchised groups to speak up, it has also made it easier to spread false or doctored information. For example, pictures that were reported to be from Cyclone Nargis were recently revelaed to be from the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.
On the Internet, it's difficult to know who to trust. Traditional journalists go through a rather extensive vetting process, but no such mechanism exists for amateurs. Vinck said that it's easy for hearsay to become testimony. But he points out that it would be a mistake to dismiss all such information, because some very important information might emerge that would otherwise not beavailable through other sources. The way to advance this information through the decision process is to get multiple independent sources that confirm each other.
The flip side of this problem is learning how to deal with so much information that it desensitizes decision makers to human rights issues. Vinck said, "Because you have so many reports from so many places in the world, atrocities become acceptable. You hear about one million deaths in the Congo and 500,000 in Darfur, and you don't pay attention."
To help address these issues approximately 20 organizations and businesses including Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Google formed the Global Network Initiative (GNI) to create help IT organizations better address these issues in a systematic manner. Cynthia Wong, Plesser Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and a GNI member said, "As Internet companies have gone global, they have started entering markets where the legal and political aspects are complex. Governments have become more sophisticated in how to control information online and are savvier on how reform movements can control the flow of information."
This raises issues for companies that are stuck between governments and the reform groups. On the one hand, they might want to protect users. On the other hand, the government might attempt to arrest employees. Although the work behind the GNI had been going on for three years prior, the organization was officially launched in October 2008, shortly after the furor raised when a local Yahoo! affiliate gave information about two activists to the Chinese government.
GNI is also working with members in crafting a response to government requests for a service to restrict access or filter certain information. Wong noted that Microsoft and Google have been catching a lot of flack for blocking access to information in China. The issue of Internet censorship also crops up in the debate about how to best protect children from sexually explicit material.
As Wong noted, "The question of how to protect children is an open policy issue. One thing the CDT recommends is that parents should be responsible for protecting their children, rather than the state mandating one filter for everyone. It should be about educating and providing parents with the tools to protect kids."
The GNI is working on a procedure for companies to create a policy for addressing human rights and privacy issues before going into new countries. "We want companies to think these issues through," Wong said, "so they have a policy in place before a local government comes through to check their user's data."
For example, Wong said that Yahoo! went through this procedure before opening up in Vietnam. Yahoo! decided not to run any servers within Vietnam's borders because it felt the risk to user's privacy was too great. Similarly, she said, Google decided not to offer a localized version of gmail in China because they didn't want to open the possibility that user data could be compromised.
"One of the goals of GNI is to create principles on how to act ethical and set that as a standard for all companies," Wong said. "In the future, we are hoping these are the principles that people judge companies on. For example, socially responsible investors will be able to ask if a company adheres to the GNI principles, before making an investment."
Same Principles, Different Issues
The ethical issues raised by IT will only continue to grow as technology evolves and individuals find new ways to use it.
Hanson said, "Our continual technological advances will throw up a series of ethical dilemmas we will have to resolve in public policy and private ethical decisions for other kinds of organizations. The ethical principles are the same, but their applications to different technologies or situations are different. The same principles apply to new scenarios but have to be worked through. The best way to address these issues is to first make people aware of them."
Perhaps the ideas behind IT ethics need to be taught to a much broader audience. Capurro noted that information-ethics training has so far focused on ethical education for computer professionals. But he sees the challenges related not so much with the IT field as with the concerns of societyand different social systems in general. "In other words," he said, "information ethics is a kind of philosophic umbrella label for specific questions that should be addressed in the training of economists, political scientists, sociologists, natural scientists, and so forth—not just as questions of personal moral education but as concerning the very nature of their objects of study."
George Lawton is a freelance technology writer based in San Francisco. Contact him at email@example.com