In Times of Great Change: Reality, Morality and Ethics on the Internet
By Desiree L. DePriest, PhD, Purdue University Global
Figure 1. Representation of the Internet (open-source image)
The New Normal for Users
Reality is frequently debated these days but essentially, perhaps philosophically, no one person has a grasp of full reality. Each person perceives through their own lenses, or others who they choose to trust, from friends and family, the news media, to Supreme Court Justices. Lawyers, politicians, merchants and even IT companies skew reality to fit their own agendas. There used to be an expectation that scientific research was reality, since it is empirical, but then came artificial neural networks with weighting factors and vectors to receive output within the parameters of the programming agency. Discussions on social media are fired-up to the point where arguing the reality of most issues results in frustrated circular redundancy.
With reality being virtually undefinable on the Web, the opportunity arises to seek sub-components which may provide deeper thought to the current dilemmas users are facing from Internet companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook. Prior to recent times, most people believed there were norms, social practices, customs and rules from generation-to-generation that defined the overarching reality of our morality and ethics. Few considered morality and ethics as disconjunct but simply two ways to express a shared reality. When two people argued about some serious, divisive or contested moral issue, the tendency was to think that some fair and justified compromise could be reached. Until the rapid growth of social media with users hiding behind the computer, the hard moral judgement that one view was correct or better than the other was not the general norm (Beauchamp & Bowie, 2001). Today, the Internet companies’ initial contentions to tightly-couple morality and ethics are rapidly diminishing. Recent government oversight meetings, where the Internet companies espouse promises of self-regulation versus government regulation, while apologizing again and again, remind of Queen Gertrude’s statement in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks" (Shakespeare, 1600).
The Argument of the Internet Companies
As far back as 1996, in Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court determined full regulation of internet decency was in opposition to the free speech clause in the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court decision stated full regulation would infringe on the ability for small companies to grow if entangled with the expense of stronger security applications (ACLU, updated 2017). Perhaps the biggest omission of the SCOTUS, filled with aging digital immigrants, was the inability to imagine the future potentials, aspirations or moral ambiguity of these companies. Facebook knowingly allowed foreign countries to buy user information in an attempt to interfere in American politics, and then held that information for a year prior to disclosure. This suggests a corporate position that morality cannot be purely an ethical policy or code. User privacy issues were not considered but minimized by the ambition to maintain extreme economic power.
The Internet companies’ gift of an open-internet for all people to seek information has also been modified this year when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed regulations on net neutrality rules (Collins, 2018). The justification for this decision was that the rule impeded innovation even though net neutrality could open the door for service providers to censor content online or charge additional fees for better service. The repeal is something that could hurt the same small companies that were allegedly protected by the Reno v. ACLU decision (Collins, 2018). However, it is not only the activities of the FCC and Facebook blurring lines, morality was split from ethics when the alleged “Don’t Do Evil” promise of Google acclaim, reorganized in 2015 under a new parent company called Alphabet, assumed a slightly adjusted version of the motto. It is now, “Do the right thing” (Gizmodo, 2018).
Alphabet, paraphrased below, prefaces the change to a new Code of Ethics for Google, as follows:
…it’s also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably, and treating co-workers with courtesy and respect…that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct. (web.archive.org, 2018).
One of the most commonly applied “ethical business conduct” strategies of the post-Friedman’s era is that a company's only social responsibility is to increase profits for the owners (stockholders), as long as it doesn't engage in deception or fraud. This allows the self-interest and ethics of Internet companies to generally coincide with compliance to political policies. It makes evaluating morality difficult to define and confusing to measure deception if companies have no societal culpability. For example, Amazon is projected to finish at the $177 billion mark this year but pays its IT engineers less than 3% of the company’s profits. The question arises if adherence to corporate ethics and political policies is inherently deceptive and morally insensitive to any responsibility to people (payscale.com, n.d.).
Extending the question of reality, morality and ethics further, if users are not paying for the product, they are the product. Morality is compromised when the user’s internet experiences are commoditized without their knowledge. There is a reason why Facebook’s return filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) uses the acronym ARPU, as in average revenue per user (SEC, 2017). Selling user access to third-parties is not the secondary revenue for so-called free sites like Facebook, Google, and others, it is the very purpose of their existence. From an Internet business perspective, this makes the tactics of profiting from user’s personal information ethical, while simultaneously challenging morality (McAleer, 2003).
Society is forced to address the problem of aggregating user’s personal internet information. This personal information is gathered and sold, includes a person’s demographics, political affiliations, and consumer habits which may or may not be real but persuaded, and then manipulated, by the inundation of third-party interests. Social media has become an organizing mechanism of divisions conceivably created through third-party, extremely wealthy affiliates, flooding users with outcome-oriented and/or nefarious agendas. Inconsistencies may exist at the deepest level of moral thinking within one individual creating relativity in their positions, which lead to confusion about what they ought to believe or do. Over time, the reality of healthy dialog gives in to prejudgments of other’s morality who may think or look differently. It may also trigger the perpetration of violence where the impact is regularly found on social media manifestos [unfortunately] after-the-act. The user is now the product for consumerism, political agendas, international interference and whatever else the third-party wants to achieve. Ethical policies among Internet companies support the subliminal overload deployed from the unknown decision-makers who bought, and own, the user’s personal information. These unidentified phantoms, bots and trolls set the reality for the user as a product for utility. Whether the ethics of the Internet companies are responsible for this dilemma versus the natural and ever-changing morality of users, it is not the topic of the current public debate. Perhaps it should be.
Beauchamp, T. L. and Bowie, N. E. (2001). Ethical theory and business. Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle Creek, NJ.
Collins, K. (June 11, 2018). Net Neutrality Has Officially Been Repealed. Here’s How That Could Affect You. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/11/technology/net-neutrality-repeal.html
Conger, K. (May 18, 2018). Google Removes 'Don't Be Evil' Clause From Its Code of Conduct. Retrieved from https://gizmodo.com/google-removes-nearly-all-mentions-of-dont-be-evil-from-1826153393.
Desjardins, J. (2017. How Amazon Makes Its Money. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/how-amazon-makes-money-2017-12
Google Code of Conduct. (April 21, 2018). Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20180421105327/https://abc.xyz/investor/other/google-code-of-conduct.html.
McAleer, S. (2003). Teaching Business Ethics 7: 437. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:TEBE.0000005711.70399.51
Payscale.com. (n.d.) Amazon.com Inc. Median Salary by Job. Retrieved from https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Employer=Amazon.com_Inc/Salary
Reno v. ACLU (Updated June 20, 2017). CHALLENGE TO CENSORSHIP PROVISIONS IN THE COMMUNICATIONS DECENCY ACT. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/cases/reno-v-aclu-challenge-censorship-provisions-communications-decency-act
Shakespeare, W. (1600). Hamlet. (Line-219 of Act-III, Scene-II) Lady Doth Protest too Much. Retrieved from https://literarydevices.net/lady-doth-protest-too-much/
United States Securities and Exchange Commission. Form 10-K. Facebook, Inc. (December 31, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1326801/000132680118000009/fb-12312017x10k.htm
About the Author
Desiree DePriest is an IT/AI business intelligence professor at Purdue University Global for 13 years. Desiree’s expertise is in business intelligent information systems and artificial intelligence in business environments. She holds a Ph.D., in Management & Organization with emphasis in Information Technology, along with two masters degrees (Telecom and IS respectively). Desiree has a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and certificate in ABA and I-O psychology which greatly assist in her work in the various areas of business intelligence, industrial and organizational motivation and attitudes.
She is the Vice-chair of the Institutional Review Board at Purdue Global and attended UMKC Law School. Desiree developed and directs the Purdue Global Internship Program – Technology (PGIP-T) which is an internship for IT and business students wanting real world experience prior to graduation. She also created the Graduate Information Technology Association (GITA) for active and alumni IT/Business students, and serves as Faculty Advisor. Desiree recently won the “Best Practices” award for her work in the internship from the American Association of Adult Continuing Education (AAACE).
Her publications include research in persuasive and predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and algorithms in decision support, and pattern recognition. Desiree’s recent interests have expanded to neural correlates of consciousness (NCC), cognitive coupling (CC) and quantum teaming (QT). Quantum Teaming is a quality management methodologies with particular focus on virtual team environments and is the intellectual property of Dr. DePriest. Desiree presents throughout the year at conferences in these areas.
|Previous page on path||Cover, page 11 of 22||Next page on path|