I’m attending a seminar on Internet Ethics
on Friday 30/04/10. Before the seminar all the attendees are sharing position papers. This is mine.
“American Cemetery TtV Triptych” by dumbledad on flickr
“History is written by the victors” (attributed to Winston Churchill)
The history of the Spanish Civil War shows us that Churchill’s quote above was wrong, that in fact history is written by the best writers. The internet changes the way we are brought together to reflect on who we are and what we are doing; and thus our perception of ethics and our ethical actions themselves. I would like to take one specific ethical concern, and use that to explore my research position on ethics and the internet.
I am a computer scientist (or perhaps more honestly a software engineer) and much of my research life has been focussed on social software, that is on technologies that help bring people together. I have worked on online virtual worlds, co-located groupware, mobile media sharing, and home communication applications, amongst other topics. The social software movement has been hugely successful, setting the agenda for Web 2.0 and the wealth of social networking and social, community, or communications services online.
Case Study: work with the Internet Watch Foundation
Alongside the benefits brought by these applications – allowing friendships to be maintained made, or cemented online, social software also allows baddies to contact goodies, or baddies to form self-normalising cliques where their behaviour may feel OK. I have used the tongue-in-cheek term baddies but to be more concrete, example concerns have been raised about such echo chambers where anorexics gather to swap tips, or where paedophiles gather to swap images.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) was formed to tackle this latter issue, more specifically they have a remit to provide the UK internet Hotline for the public to report criminal online content in a secure and confidential way.
“Ring” by Pete Ashton on flickr
The goal of the IWF is summed up neatly in their vision: to combat child sexual abuse images online. At the heart of their process is the reporting system and the hotline staff. Anyone who stumbles upon online content they are worried may be illegal can report it to the IWF through their website, and then the IWF hotline team check the severity of the content, and if it is illegal report it to the relevant law enforcement agency, here or abroad. For UK hosted content they also alert the ISP, who remove the content. More recently the IWF’s list of illegal content has been used by UK ISPs to filter their customers’ page requests.
Once we have made applications that bring people together, for good, we also have a moral obligation to explore techniques to curb those same applications use for evil. For me that is exactly what the IWF work represents: an honest attempt to make it harder for paedophiles to share content online.
My involvement in the work of the IWF has been only small, but represents how I think we should engage these ethical debates: by building things. I have helped the IWF with one of the tools their hotline team use, a bulk image viewer for quickly scanning, selecting, and reporting images form highlighted nntp groups. I have also given technical advice on the implementation and audit of their blocking service.
This is just one ethical concern, and does not really address Yorick Wilk’s call in the seminar proposal “to consider the moral dynamics and implications of the Internet upon the whole human being”. But I believe that while commenting, philosophising, and influencing government and society are useful aspects of the process Yorick appeals for, it is only really by getting our hands dirty, by joining in and by building that we gain fully rounded insights.
“Wittgenstein’s Grave” by billt on flickr
As Yorick’s proposal for this workshop suggests, we are at an exciting moment in the study of ethics and the internet, and I wanted to reflect briefly on the role different disciplines play in that study.
One problem I perceive is that social scientists and philosophers are rightly weary of technological determinism. They should also be weary of social determinism. I want to urge people in those disciplines not to shy away from working directly with technologists to experiment and to effect change. Such collaborations provide needed apparatus to support pragmatic philosophical investigation.
There are also issues around the language and style of different disciplines that I hope we get a chance to explore in the seminar. For example I worry that in an effort to provide concrete evidence the balance between qualitative and quantitative methods in the social sciences can favour the quantitative too much.
In conclusion, I would like to see the study of ethics and the internet not as descriptive (studying the interplay between people’s ethical behaviour, their ethical stance, and their internet use) but also experimental. Experimental in the sense that researchers test their ideas by building new stuff (or by changing the way old stuff works).
The internet, as a medium, is malleable.
“Phidgets board and breadboard” by tristanf on flickr
References and Links
Yorrick’s description of this Internet Ethics Seminar is at http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/events/?id=375 and another attendee, Aleks Krotoski, has posted her position paper on her blog.
The Internet Watch Foundation’s website and Wikipedia article are at
I mentioned my work about online virtual worlds, co-located groupware, mobile media sharing, and home communication applications. Example papers on these are:
· “Experiments in inhabited TV”, Benford, Greenhalgh, Brown, Walker, Regan, Morphett, Wyver, & Rea. CHI 98 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/286498.286768
· “Media center buddies: instant messaging around a media center”, Regan & Todd NordiCHI04 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1028014.1028036
· “Trafficking: design for the viral exchange of TV content on mobile phones”, Harper, Regan, Izadi, Al Mosawi, Rouncefield, & Rubens. MobileHCI07 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1377999.1378015
· “HomeNote: supporting situated messaging in the home”, Sellen, Harper, Eardley, Izadi, Regan, Taylor, & Wood CSCW06 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1180875.1180933
The pictures used to illustrate this piece are all from flickr, where they have a creative commons licence:
· “American Cemetery TtV Triptych” by dumbledad http://www.flickr.com/photos/dumbledad/307356616/
· “Ring” by Pete Ashton http://www.flickr.com/photos/peteashton/290688099/
· “Wittgenstein’s Grave” by billt http://www.flickr.com/photos/visualfield/3029481764/
· “Phidgets board and breadboard” by tristanf http://www.flickr.com/photos/tristanf/509646319/