Thinking Ethics was a project launched in Geneva to foster the debate about ethics. A few friends, fed up with only reading about abuses in the media, decided to hold a forward-looking seminar on five subjects: ethics and performance, ethics and knowledge, ethics and consciousness, ethics and disobedience and ethics in real time. If moral has to do with right and wrong, then ethics is its application in society. We believe that people need to talk about the subject to determine the level of ethics they want. The book Thinking Ethics, a result of the seminar, is to start the discussion. This blog is a contribution to the conversation. :
Reporters Without Borders has released The Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents. Funded partially by the French government, it aims to protect bloggers from recrimination and sensors. Also gives tips for tricky countries like China. Downloadable at www.rsf.org.
Looking for some information/opinions on blogger ethics I found several interesting and different approaches. CyberJounalist.net (written and published by Jonathan Dube) created a model Bloggers' Code of Ethics by modifying the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics.
For those of you who want the in-depth approach, the full report in pdf (96 pages) of the Harvard University conference on Blogging, Journalism and Credibility, has been written and compiled by Rebecca MacKinnon. The conference was sponsored by The Berkman Center for Internet & Society (Harvard Law School), The Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy (Harvard Kennedy School of Government); and the Office of Information Technology Policy (American Library Association).
An editorial observer piece by Adam Cohen in todays NY Times calls for bloggers to reform. Entitled "The latest rumblings in the blogosphere: questions about ethics", he pleads for bloggers to hold themselves to the same standards as other journalists, i.e. ethical guidelines, post correction policies and verification. I wish a blogger would send in his op-ed piece on the subject - this article offers nothing but a wish to see conventional rules transposed into the blogosphere. Maybe Tim Aldrich of altfunction could get interested....
Emily pointed out this very current piece in today's New York Times about business school students following instructions on how to hack into business schools admission procedures (in this case it was Harvard) to see the status of their application. The schools have excluded the students on grounds of lacking ethics, and some of the students still don't get it...
It's studded with the kind of unsupported assertions that structure geek thought too: "Open, transparent environments are more secure and more stable than closed, opaque ones" and "The Internet empowers people to communicate and collaborate across borders and belief systems" for instance. These nostra are motherhood and apple-pie for tech thought leaders – assumptions that the Internet generation takes for granted but which badly need some supporting evidence. Still, I'm being unnecessarily cynical: they're better than the top-down alternative, better than blunderbuss diplomacy and better than indefinite house arrest.
As an add on to Steve Bowbrick's post of February 24, on Digital Disobedience: Intellectual Property, I would like to point out that MIT has made several of their courses available for free on the web under the title MIT Opencourseware. One of their courses is called Ethics and law on the Electronic Frontier, and considers the interaction between law, policy and technology as they relate to the evolving controversies over control of the internet. More on http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Electrical-Engineering-and-Computer-Science/6-805JEthics-and-Law-on-the-Electronic-FrontierSpring2002/CourseHome/index.htm
The Internet has no legislative function and no Government. The nearest thing the net has to a lawmaking body is a loose alliance of geeks and technocrats called The Internet Engineering Taskforce (of course, there's a tapestry of other institutions and committees plus the National Governments and wannabes like the ITU – don't get me started...). The IETF devises and distributes Internet standards but its 'laws' are hardly laws at all – even once they're enacted and in use everywhere they're still, impishly, called Requests for Comment (RFCs). The net is a place where real-world imponderables like law and order are remarkably fluid and provisional.
So it's paradoxical that the geeks who run the place day-to-day are so fixated on standards. Standards are the tech world's laws – agreed codes and protocols, some hard, internationally recognised (even with ISO numbers), others informal, even ephemeral. Geeks fetishise compliance with standards. Standards, for these guys, are unarguable – an unchallenged orthodoxy with a substantial moral component. Standards, however, have a downside. They inevitably suppress diversity and innovation. In fact, a world in perfect compliance with standards is, necessarily, a monoculture. The geeks would, no doubt, argue that standards support diversity and drive innovation by permitting communication and reducing the cost of interconnection to almost zero – but this is lazy thinking. Standards support diversity but only at the relatively insubstantial level of expression (up at the top of the Seven Layer Model).
Diversity, if it is to have meaning, must take root at lower levels but this kind of thinking is anathema to the geeks. The idea of running multiple protocols and then arranging for some kind of translation makes them queasy. It screams inefficiency! Disorder! Overhead!. But I imagine a world in which different Internets (for instance) coexist, each a complex expression of some kind of worldview. An explosion of diversity. A rainforest of forms – different in more ways than we can imagine.
This is going to need a big change in philosophy – and we'll need to invest a lot less in compliance and a lot more in translation: we mustn't rebuild Babel on the ruins of the geeks' Jerusalem. Of course, this could all be an infantile fantasy, although I doubt it. I think the unitary, ultra-compliant net of the geeks is a much more pernicious and reductive fantasy than mine...