The Ethical Challenges of the Online World Remain Deeply Unaddressed

When it came to light that entities connected to the Russian government had engaged in a series of digital actions, ranging from purchasing misleading ads on Facebook to hacking and distributing internal political campaign emails, designed to interfere in the 2016 United States presidential election, there was no shortage of press coverage. Both traditional and new media sources have devoted, and continue to devote, a great deal of coverage to the issue, and understandably so. One does not have to necessarily believe the wildest interpretation or implications stemming from the facts as they are currently known in order to be concerned. Setting aside the fact that, despite it going against notions of national sovereignty, countries have tried to interfere in each others’ elections through both covert and overt means since the beginnings of democratic republics, a number of novel and specific issues are created by Russia’s actions.

However, these may stem less from the fact of who was attempting to interfere with the United States’ democratic exercise than how they attempted to do so. Though the internet and related digital communications technologies were sold on a philosophical level with the promise of creating global understanding via connectivity, it has become increasingly clear that this is, at the very least, and incomplete picture. Though it is certainly true that the average citizen of a democratic nation has access to much more information about much more of the world thanks to the internet, there is a profound difference between access and practical use. As has been reported by the variety of sources, the major theme of information in the age of social media seems to be less an exchange of ideas from various perspectives and more an epistemic closure of opposing political camps. To some degree this is nothing new, confirmation bias having been a long-observed social phenomenon, but, the fact that digital platforms and algorithms seem designed to indulge, rather than inhibit, actions which contribute to an atmosphere of social mistrust and suspicion, does increase the likelihood of adverse outcomes stemming from them. The fact that an outside power would seek to use this combination of new technology and established social psychology is not altogether surprising, and it is not exactly clear how effective it was in influencing the election’s ultimate results, but, perhaps it will occasion reflection at the broader problem of informational ethics in the digital age. Indeed, policymakers do seem to be trending in this direction already, with questions being asked of tech companies such as Facebook about advertising practices and disclosure requirements. Though ethical questions surrounding the internet, including privacy, the balance between public and private interest online and many others, have been around since its inception, we are now, due to its widespread use and influence, reaching a critical point for how these questions will be answered. A large portion of the responsibility for answering those questions will rest with various levels of government, in terms of both the security of their own informational networks and in the regulation of internet-based companies, but a clear conception of the ethical stakes of online interactions must also take into individual user actions, along with extra-legal questions of responsibility on the part of online platform creators.

One of the original touted advantages of the internet was the ability to communicate with others anonymously, to a much greater degree than had ever been possible before. Part of the philosophical promise to this was both that it would allow for a freer, more uninhibited style of communication (which would, true to the thought of John Stuart Mill, ultimately lead to better social outcomes) and that it would allow individuals to explore aspects of their identities that they may be unwilling or unable, for various reasons, to do in an attributable fashion. Though it is more obvious in the current context to see the negative sides to anonymity, namely the often-grotesque personal insults and threats that are enabled by the screen of online unreality, it is important to note the positives are substantial. Dissidents in authoritarian regimes, groups dedicated to the exploration of differential sexual and gender identities and a wide variety of other socially-positive consequences would not be possible absent the anonymous aspects of online connectivity. Of course, it is true that more users are migrating to platforms which require the disclosure of at least some amount of personal information (e.g. Facebook), which raises questions of how the initially anonymous nature of the internet may be eroded over time by the particular choices of private companies wielding something close to monopoly power. Furthermore, in light of abusive online behaviour on a variety of platforms, some have called for making online content more directly attributable to the offline individual or group posting it, either by disallowing non-attributable posts or by forcing disclosure of identities for legal purposes (e.g. harassment claims). In some cases, this has gone further, with individuals being “doxed” (i.e. having personal information leaked onto the internet), with consequences ranging from job loss to death threats. From an ethical perspective, there are legitimate claims to be made that, in the case of extreme online speech, such a disclosure may be defensible or even necessary as a matter of public safety, but it has the potential to go badly awry. This can happen via the misidentification of targets or by misinterpretation of online content, with the general problem being a lack of identifiable procedures for determining in what circumstances such actions are appropriate, meaning that an effective vigilantism rapidly emerges. As “doxing” exists in something of legal grey area, though it can be considered harassment or threat in some instances, depending on context, such actions are likely to continue. Moreover, the demands for greater “real-life” accountability for speech done online must be balanced against both specific harms to individuals which could result from this and the more general harms to discourse and community formation that could be enacted from a lack of anonymity in a more widespread sense.

This leads to a larger issue related to the conundrum of what, exactly, online platforms are from an ownership and utility perspective. Though they are, of course, owned and operated by private companies with terms of service which users must agree to, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are increasingly functioning as something akin to a digital public square. As such, the notion that they have a public responsibility function beyond that of a typical private company, akin to a utility such as telecommunications or electricity. For this reason, as well the potential effects of the business practices of such companies on the wide society, some have called for greater transparency from the companies, and for stricter regulation of their practices. Though the intent behind these calls is legitimate, they do, however, create a number of tricky ethical questions. Certainly, mandating of greater disclosure in terms of use of user data by these companies and their practices of informational display would be beneficial and give consumers a more full picture on which to base their decision on what platforms they use. For one, given the fast pace of technological change, it is difficult to imagine that even the most well-crafted regulation would be able to fully address the potential adverse effects of such platforms. Further, the question of how they are to be regulated, in terms of questions related to issues such as the display of “fake news” and the like, is one which is immensely open to charges of political bias which are likely to further inflame existing social divisions. For example, if a government were to mandate that Facebook actively promote “objective” news sources on user’s news feeds, what criteria would be used to determine how “objective” a source was? No matter how this was done, it is unlikely that all users would be satisfied with the result and it would most likely lead to a seeking out of information confirming previously held views in any case. A more potentially fruitful solution to the problem of audience capture by a limited number of platforms would be the pursuit of anti-trust action by government in order to create greater practical diversity in the online space. In this way, users would be less dependent upon and vulnerable to the particular practices of individual companies.

Ultimately, however, the challenge of ethical engagement with online spaces is one which exists at multiple levels and, as such, demands a variety of responses. Government action and action taken by companies in response to public pressure have a place, but, so too do internet users have a responsibility to skeptically engage with what they observe online and to seek out perspectives outside of their own. Events such as the Russian election involvement have made more clear the stakes of what occurs online, but most of the problems highlighted by it vastly predate recent years. Hopefully, they can be resolved before further damage and social polarization occurs.


Carter Vance
MA Candidate in Political Economy at Carleton University
Graduate Student

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Comment by divya yadav on November 11, 2017 at 4:01am


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