Virtual values

Virtual values

By Clay Hamilton

"Isolated" by Ipshita Thakur, at The Lasalie Show '11 Exhibition. Photograph by vwkoh via Flickr, under a Creative Commons license
What are our virtual values relating to rights, fairness, and the balancing of harms and benefits, as those notions play out on the internet? The Markkula Center's Views from Silicon Valley blog looks for an answer.

In a new video series, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has asked Silicon Valley pioneers and thought leaders to weigh in on what they consider to be the key issues in Internet ethics today. Are we assessing the ethical challenges represented by the Web and taking action, or are we taking a pass? The series, called “Views from Silicon Valley,” includes luminaries from companies like Apple, Adobe, and Symantec offering their opinions on a range of topics: from the benefits and dangers of “big data” to the impact of social networking on society or the role of anonymity online.

“Given some of the ‘Wild West’ aspects of the Web, some have claimed that ‘Internet ethics’ is an oxymoron. But the online world is not a separate realm distinct from the ‘real’ world,” says the Center’s Internet Ethics Program Manager Irina Raicu. She goes on to describe how the Center hopes to spark in-depth conversation between Silicon Valley tech leaders, academics, students, and others who are interested—and concerned—about the ethical implications and dilemmas created by our growing reliance on the Internet.

Below is a re-post of co-founder Owen Tripp discussing the pitfalls of letting ourselves become open books online. Find more videos and responses, posted weekly, on the Views from Silicon Valley blog. And read more stories on ethics from Santa Clara Magazine.

The Right to be Forgotten

“Total interconnectedness,” very cheap data storage, and powerful search technologies come together to create a new set of ethical questions. Do we have a right to access and correct the data in our profiles? Do we have a right to be “forgotten” by the Internet? In the brief video above, co-founder Owen Tripp asks us to consider the impact of the Internet's long memory on those among us who are most vulnerable. Below, Evan Selinger—Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology—responds to Tripp’s comments:

“Owen Tripp is moved by the ideas driving the ‘right to be forgotten’ movements. For the reasons he gives, we all should be, too. In the age of big data, the permanent record threat we’re confronted with as kids takes on a new and more ominous meaning. Our digital dossiers expand all the time, in both obvious and unclear ways, and through processes that are transparent as well as surreptitious. Now that unprecedented amounts of information are readily available about what we’ve done and what makes us tick, lamentable incidents and statements can follow us everywhere with the crushing weight of Jacob Marley’s chains. With the past always present, time—as Shakespeare’s Hamlet exclaimed—is out of joint.

“When citizens become open books, it becomes awfully tempting to manage heightened publicity with overly cautious and risk-adverse behavior. With enough fear, we’ll lose out on more than opportunity. Our character can be diminished, perhaps timorousness shifting from vice to virtue. As David Hoffman, Director of Security Policy and Global Privacy Officer at Intel Corporation, contends, society thus needs solutions that safeguard a limited ‘right to fail’ without encouraging reckless or anti-social behavior, or the problems that come from historical amnesia or revisionism. At stake is nothing less than securing adequate space for social experimentation, the ‘breathing room’ (to borrow a phrase from privacy scholar Julie Cohen) that enables people to learn and grow.

“While the right to be forgotten appears to be gaining traction in Europe, there are numerous challenges ahead, not least because the road from privacy interest to privacy right can be long and winding. In the United States, concern has been expressed over how legal enforcement of a robust right for individuals to control personal information could run afoul of First Amendment speech protections and squash innovation by subjecting companies like Google and Facebook to bureaucratic procedures that, practically speaking, are unworkable, and further burdened by the prospect of overly punitive sanctions. Furthermore, as numerous scholars suggest, the notion of so-called ‘personal information’ is hard to pin down in an age of networked citizens where lots of data involves or affects other people, implicating what law professor Sonja West aptly calls the ‘story of us.’ Finally, while the market can indeed provide helpful services, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that when privacy protection is commodified, greater burden is placed on lower income people. Freedom and peace of mind become purchasing power privilege.”

 Evan Selinger—Twitter: @evanselinger

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