In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: September 2009

Does new technology require a new ethics?

TMI conference posterOn September 10th and 11th, the Ethics Center hosted TMI: Social Justice in the Age of Facebook, cosponsored by Brandeis Library and Technology Services and the Brandeis Student Union, and open to the public. Featuring leading new technology and media thinkers, “TMI” was an exciting event.

Does new technology require a new ethics? This is an overarching consideration to keep in mind as conference participants discuss some of the most challenging and persistent questions about the role of technology in society. These include:
•    Can access to the Internet be considered a human right?
•    What should be free on the Internet? What should people pay for?
•    What are the central questions of journalistic excellence, regardless of medium?
•    Are social media and other “new media” separating us, or organizing and connecting us?
•    How have new technologies served as either tools for oppression or for democratization around the world, particularly in China and Iran?
•    How can technology connect individuals in developing countries?
•    Does increased access to technology such as low cost laptops increase equality among individuals and groups?
•    What controls and oversight should be in place for government actions online? For citizens’ actions online?

In this installment of “Ethical Inquiry” we kick off the conversation by grappling with some of these questions.

We invite you to send your questions and thoughts by emailing or by tweeting with the hashtag #tmiDeis – and follow the Ethics Center on Twitter: @EthicsBrandeis.

What should be free on the Internet? What should people pay for?

Copyright laws have come under scrutiny in the age of easy reproduction and distribution of intellectual and creative products. The Economist magazine hosted an online debate asking “Copyright Laws: More Harm than Good?” in May 2009. Professor William Fisher, Wilmer Hale Professor of Intellectual Property Law at Harvard Law School argued in that debate that the copyright system has several important functions, and Professor Justin Hughes, Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School, argued that intellectual property, like much public policy, is a matter of educated guesswork.

The nonprofit organization Creative Commons contends that copyright law is stifling innovation and expression. The organization is trying to establish a copyright license that will “work alongside copyright, so you can modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs,” seeking to Creative Commons icon“increase the amount of creativity (cultural, educational, and scientific content) in ‘the commons’ — the body of work that is available to the public for free and legal sharing, use, repurposing, and remixing.”

National Public Radio recently looked back at ten years of illegal sharing of copyrighted music, pointing to losers in the music industry, but also suggesting that there have been winners in this new environment.

TMI Conference speaker Charles Nesson, William F. Weld Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Founder and Faculty Co-Director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University, recently defended in court a Boston University graduate student, Joel Tenenbaum, who had downloaded and shared 30 songs, in a case brought by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). (Press coverage: The Wall Street Journal, "A Loss for Nesson: BU Student Hit With $675,000 Fine"; The New York Times, "Tilting at Internet Barrier, a Stalwart Is Upended".) He lost the case, and the student received a $675,000 judgement. For Nesson’s perspective on the case, see his blog. For the RIAA’s perspective in support of the judgement, see their blog.

TMI Conference speaker Tracy Mitrano, Director of IT Policy and Law at Cornell University addresses the issues of copyright and file sharing from a university perspective, arguing that “Higher education institutions should…stand as leaders in the development of global Internet policy that prizes free speech and open communications unimpeded by enforcement measures of for-profit private interests.”

What are the central questions of journalistic excellence, regardless of medium? Should “non-professionals” writing online be held to the same standards as professional journalists in terms of accuracy, fairness, or propriety?

At a recent conference on “The Future of Ethical Journalism” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “journalists and media scholars debated the prospects and the practice of new media journalism.” Panelist Peter Kafka, senior editor of AllThingsDigital, asserted that “Ethics don’t change as media and technology changes.”

Efforts to develop a code of blogging ethics have been controversial among bloggers themselves. (Link requires free login.) "I think it's unrealistic for the blogger to uphold journalistic standards," said one blogger. "Most of us aren't interested in being a journalist." Many do agree, however, that “transparency can lead to credibility.”

TMI Conference speaker Jeffrey Scheuer, an independent commentator on media and democracy, argues in a Dissent magazine article adapted from his 2007 book The Big Picture: Why Democracies Need Journalistic Excellence that “[t]he quality of news is only one side of the problem: the supply side. The demand side is more elusive: educating citizens who will demand great journalism and use it when they get it.”

For more:
Martin Kuhn, “Interactivity and Prioritizing the Human: A Code of Blogging Ethics,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 22(1) (2007): 18-36. (Subscription may be needed to access full text.)

Is it responsible for bloggers to post anonymously or using a pseudonym? Can it be beneficial?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation contends that  “Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse.” But the issue is far from settled. This blog entry from The New York Times summarizes and excerpts various responses to the “outing” of a blogger, John Blevins, who blogged using the pseudonym "Publius," with bloggers coming down on both sides of the issue of anonymity/pseudonymity.

New York Times
“Moral of the Story” columnist Randy Cohen believes anonymous posting should be limited to very specific circumstances. He takes on the issue in connection with a New York State Judge’s ruling that Google, Inc. must identify an anonymous blogger who insulted a fashion model on her blog. Cohen proposes the following guideline: “The effects of anonymous posting have become so baleful that it should be forsworn unless there is a reasonable fear of retribution. By posting openly, we support the conditions in which honest conversation can flourish.”

Are social media and other “new media” separating us, or organizing and connecting us?

Cass Sunstein, now heading the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget, contends that the Internet has a polarizing affect on society. Citing Sunstein’s research, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof expresses concern that the Internet has exacerbated our tendency to “insulate” ourselves “in our own hermetically sealed political chambers,” avoiding divergent networking

Yet, even while noting shortcomings, in the New York Times Magazine article “Revolution, Facebook-Style” Samantha M. Shapiro points to technology’s promise for organizing and connecting, in this case the use of Facebook as a forum for and facilitator of protests by Egyptians. In a similar vein, writing for Time, Deena Guzder details the use of Facebook and other social networking sites by various sides in the January 2009 conflict in Gaza, at times in very uncivil ways, in “Facebook Users Go to War over Gaza.”

The 2009 election protests in Iran brought a rash of commentary on the role, responsibility and reliability of new media, from YouTube to Twitter. See “Twitter on the Barricades: Six Lessons Learned”, “Web Pries Lid of Iranian Censorship”, “How the Media Wrestle With the Web” Utne Reader reviewed some of the concerns over the use of social media in Iran reporting.

The editor of the BBC News website explained why they are monitoring and linking to social media from Iran, while noting that they are not necessarily finding a representative sample, and acknowledging that with these sources “There's no filter or editorial process other than the capacity of those involved to correct or contradict each other” In a blog post, Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, includes links to a number of articles and blog posts that address questions including “Whether social media is enabling, causing or otherwise driving the protests in Iran; How Iranian users are managing to access the internet despite widespread filtering; The ethics (and practice) of distributed denial of service attacks as a form of information warfare; Whether such online activities are unprecedented."

What controls and oversight should be in place for government actions online?

Even within the United States government there are a range of viewpoints on this question, as evidenced by the Senate Intelligence Committee “demanding that the Obama administration supply it with the legal justifications it has produced for conducting government cybersecurity operations, or face losing funding for the projects,” as noted in Wired magazine.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation believe that the government needs more oversight and accountability. “What we need, says Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology & Liberty Program, is stronger regulation to ensure that such technology is used fairly – by governments and businesses alike.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is pushing for more government accountability: “National security and law enforcement demand some level of government secrecy,” they write, “but too much secrecy enables abuses of power. The Justice Department's cell phone tracking without probable cause, the NSA's [National Security Agency] illegal spying program, and other recent privacy-invasive initiatives make this clear.”

On the other hand, Lieutenant General Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency/Chief of the Central Security Service, who thus represents a federal agency charged with security that works intensively with online technology, argues that security and civil liberties are not at odds: “As you walk through cybersecurity you get the impression that it is civil liberties or security. I think we’ve got to endeavor to do both. Equally and balance them.” Congressional testimonies by representatives of the National Security Agency/Central Security Service also present the viewpoint of these government agencies.

Towards an Online Ethics

There is a field of study focused on computer/information ethics. “Our society is truly an information society,” wrote ethicist Richard O. Mason in 1986, “our time an information age. The question before us now is whether the kind of society being created is the one we want.” He argued then in “Four Ethical Issues of the Information Age” that four issues are worthy of particular focus: privacy, accuracy, property, and accessibility. These continue to be keystone issues of thinking about information technology. For additional starting points for exploring how computer/information ethics is being approached as a field, visit the “links” page of the Research Center on Computing & Society of Southern Connecticut State University.

We also encourage you to learn more about the conference speakers and their organizations:

Join the Conversation

We again invite you to explore TMI: Social Justice in the Age of Facebook, and to join the conversation by tweeting with the hashtag #tmiDeis, following the Ethics Center on Twitter: @EthicsBrandeis, or by emailing

Suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding new technology? Let us know.

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This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was produced with research support by Dara E. Yaffe '10.