Sunday, August 30, 2015

technology embedding ethics

Having tried to confront ethics in internet experiments at a conference a couple of weeks ago, I'm trying to think about the way technologies like the internet embed ethics and how this challenges us both in every day life and as researchers into communications, but also for developers creating new technologies.

One obvious place where this shows up repeatedly is in the tension between free speech and hate crimes, as well as between privacy and accountability. but it also shows up in the power imbalance between large organisations and the individual. Taking these in the reverse order, then:

1/ The cloud is run by a small number of very big trans-national companies, for profit - original technical reasons for centralising resources (compared with the world wide web of the 1990s, or even early 2000s) was economic - scale gets price/performance advantages for servers, as management and control are run in one place for a lot of people. prevention of various attacks (e.g. denial of service on small sites) goes away as a problem, since few bad guys have the resource to launch a big attack on today's giant data centres (outside a couple of government agencies:)

However, once all that information is concentrated in one place, it affords opportunities which didn't make sense when it was decentralised. A for profit company has no choice: It has to maximise the shareholder value. This isn't mission creep, its just capitalism.

Of course, putting all your eggs in one basket does have a downside when there is a successful hack (viz the ever increasing list of Cablegates, Sony's, Ashley Maddison's)

2/ Privacy is not assured in a network. when you communicate, at least one other party now knows what you said. In a computer network, your privacy is now in their hands, since everything you "send" to them is a copy. They now have a copy. It can be copied again. While the parties to your original communication may be accounted for (you think/hope), further copies are not accounted for. This is a consequence also of the near-zero cost of copying. In days of illuminated manuscripts, only people with a monastery full of monks could copy stuff again. Nowadays, as downloaders know, anyone can re-upload. As YouTube demonstrated, you can even legitimise file sharing if you have enough power (see 1/:)

However, privacy is not dead. There are social norms which prevent us repeating all secrets to all and sundry. There are also legal situations where confidentiality is required (patient/doctor or client/lawyer, or just gf/bf but only if at least one of them is a celeb:)

What isn't clear because of the way technology has made copying easy, is when you are trespassing on those social norms - the technology could be less neutral - it is fairly easy now to provide tools that look (locally, on your device) at the information you have and make suggestions about reasonable use of it (delete now for ever, do not copy, etc) - in organisations that care about security (defense agencies) classification provides rules about where data can go - we could help every day people by building better support for remembering what you should and should not do.

3/ Many systems provide platforms for public utterances - blogs, have-your-say, comment-is-free, etc etc - but also just being able to get a throw away e-mail account at the drop of a hat.

Many are geared to ease of use, so don't need accountable sign-on, and don't check what is said or who it is said to.

Such systems allow trolling and other offence.

The problem is that the policing of what people can say, to whom, and where is generally regarded as a form of censorship, and in some countries, strongly opposed.
This conflates two things
a) anonymity (which has its place for whistleblowers, or people in countries where free speech is anathema anyhow)
b) free speech.

In general, if you think you have a right to say something, you should be able to stand by what you say, hence being anonymous is not only not a requirement, it is actually a really weird thing to require. Experiments on requiring true names, or at least accountable identities, on some sites have resulted in visible reduction in abuse.

So what I'm trying to say here is that we have built an internet, web, cloud, which to a large degree is not fit for human purpose.

  • It is good for corporations to make money at your expense
  • It is excellent for us to live in a panopticon
  • It is a fine public space for people to shout abuse at others while wearing a mask.
Time to fix this.

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misery me, there is a floccipaucinihilipilification (*) of chronsynclastic infundibuli in these parts and I must therefore refer you to frank zappa instead, and go home