The world is flat

Flat earth

22 September 2009

Due to the increasing significance of social networking around the world BCS brought together a group of academics and business professionals to consider all the factors and debate the pros and cons of this web 3.0 phenomena. Justin Richards reports.

BCS's Ethics forum's thought leadership debate on social networking kicked off with mention of Thomas Freidman's book 'The World is Flat', which looks at globalisation and business 3.0. In the book Freidman mentions individuals globalising, which he says 'is potentially as important as the invention of the printing press'. The first speaker of the event, Leon Benjiman from The Law Firm Group, went on to say that social networks represent an unintended emergence of human behaviour online.

Whether it is people interacting with or downloading from music sites or citing what they're doing on Twitter, social networking has come of age in a way none of us could have anticipated even five years ago. Social networking has become ubiquitous and an agent for change, both good and bad. Some critics have even speculated recently that facilities like Twitter are being manipulated by government agencies including the CIA.

Governments have certainly sought to control and monitor the growth of the masses of information that is rapidly accumulating online. In fact Sweden now has laws that allow its government to routinely spy and eavesdrop on regular communications within social networking sites.

However, the biggest risks of social networking are the consequences of human behaviour, for example, potential employers checking up on you on Facebook to see what sort of person you are before offering you an interview. This 'unintended behaviour' can have far-reaching implications for individuals.

The speaker then moved on to discuss open source software and its impact on businesses and within the social networking arena. He said: 'open source software has seen the emergence of an unprecedented level of self organisation between individuals to the extent that they are crushing Microsoft's domination. Five years ago the giant corporation asked 'what is open source?' but they recently published a paper stating the huge threat open source posed to their business.'

Leon finished off his presentation with revelations about the changing face of business in these unstable times. Benjiman said: 'the biggest untold story of the 21st century is the transition of control from commanders to the troops on the ground, reflecting changes which have occurred within the military on the battlefield, where lower-ranking soldiers are being encouraged to make decisions.'

IBM wrote a paper called 'The Cost of Mistrust' in which they tried to put a number on the amount we distrust one another. The results were huge figures based on legal red tape wrapped around agreements etc.

The question is how do you control the ethical risks without stifling the benefits of social networking? How interesting would Facebook or Twitter be if they were heavily regulated? The government should instead be laying down moral and ethical frameworks for people rather than trying to impose legislative frameworks.

Ken Jordan in 2002 produced a paper on just such an issue and posed the question 'can we get to the level as a society where we become more trustworthy and transparent?'

The debate's second speaker, Stuart Brocklehurst (Carbon Leadership LLP) said 'there are three key issues to bear in mind when considering ethics 3.0. The first is the legal versus ethical standpoint, the second, duty of care and finally "the sophisticated user".'

Legal versus ethical

Stuart proposed that if you are following the law there is surely nothing 'ethical' in that; however, going against the law is unethical. However, if an organisation or individual has a choice that isn’t guided by law, such as whether banks should have arms dealers as customers, then that is an ethical decision since the arms industry worldwide is supported by democratically elected governments.

Duty of care

We should always have a duty of care with those with whom we have a contract. Cars are now regulated on their pedestrian friendliness, which could be seen as strange for a business that, in many ways, have nothing to do with pedestrians.

Do ISPs therefore have a duty of care to prevent racism, libel and slander on their sites? Facebook too? Does Twitter only have a duty of care to its users?

Despite the benefits, perhaps social networks now need to recognise, police or regulate themselves against deviant uses of file sharing and downloads etc.

Sophisticated users

The duty of care question might be unclear and raises the issue of litigation which could hugely affect services. However, banks have to provide a very tight duty of care to their customers, particularly those that are termed as 'sophisticated investors', i.e. those with more than £50million. This concept could be carried over to the 'sophisticated user'. Should we treat someone who is, say, a BCS member with a vast knowledge of computing differently to some teenager who doesn't know how to behave better online? Or is duty of care only to be considered where there is a contract involved? Should unsophisticated users, who need more help and support to navigate the perils of social networking, be helped and treated differently?

The final introductory speaker to the debate, Anne Rogerson, an education consultant, felt that although the opportunities for learning and expanding an individual's horizons online are amazing, there needs to be more caution taken, particularly by young people, when networking via the internet. Adolescents are very open to suggestion, hence are a very vulnerable target group.

She went on to say that a recent study of 755 year nine pupils found that all of them went online at some point, 20 per cent had been asked to meet up with strangers and two per cent actually went without telling anyone they were going.

The problems connected with social networking can be great, especially in schools where teachers don't have the time and resources to keep an eye on all the pupils all of the time. The responsibility of teaching best practice in social networking should be given a higher priority in schools, considering the level of threat online for the unwary.

There are huge amounts of cyber bullying, for example. Out of 6,000 pupils asked in another study, over a third had been bullied in a chat-room. On school premises bullying is hard enough to deal with, but cyber bullying is 24/7, 365 days of the year, in a child's own bedroom. A few of the more extreme cases have led to suicide. There are secondary victims to bullying - the perpetrators themselves, who have to live with the consequences of their actions. There is also the increasing problem of malicious allegations against teachers by disruptive pupils.

Another thought Anne wanted the delegates to consider was whether 'youngsters become too dependant on social network sites? There is always the worry that they will lose the ability, or fail to even develop the ability, to socialise offline later on in life.'

Legislation isn't necessarily the way forward. But schools must have a duty of care to help educate young people on the dangers of social networking, although many parents are at a disadvantage as they don't know as much about the technological side as their children, who are generally more 'social network savvy'.

Anne felt the government has a role to play. For example, the Child Protection Agency (CPA) does do some good work in educating young people about the pitfalls of social networking.  The key is not more policing, but to make it socially unacceptable to misuse the powerful tool that is the internet.

Following the speaker's brief presentations a number of key questions were put to the other attendees and the debate began in earnest. What follows are statements and points arising off the back of the round table debates and the final summing up session.

The benefits of social networking

Social networking can help companies, individuals, governments and society in general to raise social consciousness. It can help participants, particularly young people, to socialise.

Social networking is now ubiquitous and is here to stay. People can use social networks within organisations to help those same organisations to succeed; can help individuals within an organisation to make decisions and do well for themselves.

Elements of social networking provide opportunities for people to try out new ideas in a lower risk environment.

For governments social networking can be an agent for global change and help break down divides between nations and states and help assist globalisation.

Some delegates felt that we tend to assume things on the web are correct even when they’re not. However, the web could theoretically be more accurate than the printed word because potentially millions of eyes are scrutinising the information.

The risks of social networking

Social networking is frequently used for nefarious purposes including child pornography and pirate downloads. There are also major issues within social networking regarding privacy and the misuse of people's data. Twitter can spread good and bad information very quickly and ruin reputations overnight. Like most tools social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook should be viewed as double-edged swords, having equal capacity for both good and bad  

Individuals have to remain accountable for their profiles and realise that there must be a separation between their social and private lives. There is the risk of unwittingly making mistakes public which remain permanently on the record.

One delegate mentioned that organisations in unelected positions (e.g. Google, Yahoo) can make global decisions, which can lead to frightening developments, for example, their attitude to social networking and data sharing.

There are also unintended consequences of government behaviour including routine wholesale spying on citizens (e.g. Echelon, RIP) and the use of the Terrorism Act by local government.

The way in which people treat different genders is exaggerated online too. Females, for example, are treated very differently to men. Is it unethical to pretend to be something we're not online or is it just like a senior manager getting his/her PA to respond on their behalf? The issue of gender and ethnicity can't apply in the same way online because users don't have to prove their identity. The big question perhaps is therefore when we should intervene on perceived misuse of online personas?

When the risks outweigh the benefits

Industry and society are ultimately just collections of individuals, all of whom have their own set of morals and ethics. The key question here is what do ethics mean in the space of social networks? Do one set of ethics or business practices in one place mean something different in another?

Are real world ethics applicable online or perhaps only those which impact on the real world?

Social networking has the capacity for changing the meaning of honesty - is this a price we are prepared to pay?

The potential risks of social networking need more work and active intervention to allow all the potential benefits of virtual networking to come to fruition. We shouldn't just accept that the current situation is a 'fait accompli' (done deal) and complain from the sidelines.

Controlling social networking's ethical risks without stifling the benefits

Education and communication are of key importance. It's really a case of needing to mange social networks - it is near impossible to control them.

Web designers need to be taught ethical parameters. The public can't always rely on sites being self-organised. Early forums, in the early stages of the web, did self-organise and had community rules and people were chucked out if they abused the privilege. Today the internet is much too big to self police. We also don't want governments to feel that because they can't control something they have to shut it down.

Therefore there needs to be more education in schools and in the home about the dangers of social networking to young people. The general awareness of the risks inherent in social networking online need to be raised and the government should take the lead with this. However, the government seems unable or unwilling to help regulate social networks or to even advise, and is moving slower than technology and society in general.

BCS itself could provide guidelines for social networking sites and for ethically suitable procedures that people should adopt.

Commercially businesses are there to make money and can bend the truth online. Old business models are changing as a consequence. However, commercial interests don't have to conflict with ethical behaviour.

There are parallels between how people communicate on and off line. Social networking needs to mirror more closely how we would behave in 'real life' as at the moment it's too easy to misbehave online, whether as an individual or as part of an organisation.

There is also often a conflict between web design and ethics; many don't think ethically when they are designing new social networking sites. So perhaps more should be done about managing the risks rather than trying to control them.

Organisations like Google and Second Life haven't really properly considered who owns the data and users certainly haven't. When was the last time you read an agreement for a social networking site before you started using it? Sadly, the first duty of commercial enterprises is always to protect the brand, then children etc.

Managing the risk of organisations misusing people's data

Problems arise because this is not just a national problem, but a global issue and some countries may chose not to opt into using prescribed guidelines agreed by other countries.

People have to understand what's happening to their data; once again it’s all about education in the end. Governments should have a duty of care to educate people regarding data protection issues.

Government could regulate, if it had expertise. In the UK, for example, child pornography sites have been stopped, but in some countries they are legal, hence nothing can be done.

The state should offer a degree of regulation in the form of an ethical and legal framework that companies have to conform to. The younger generation have a looser attitude to data sharing and are possibly more likely to self-regulate themselves in future.

Perhaps in future we will need trusted third parties to hold our digital assets. We haven't even thought about what happens to digital assets when we die.

Ultimately, there needs to be training in place for those creating websites and social networking sites.

BCS could in future set up an ethical forum group to help advise government on how to better police the social networking sites online. However, commercial imperative and ethical sensibilities have to work together.

An agreement between the user and network provider should insist on following a code of conduct for people using a social networking site. Facebook, for example, could insist its users will not bully and so on.

Perhaps lessons can be learned from the early pioneers of online social networking when enthusiasts had only basic email, with no spam, and managed, not controlled their cyber environments ensuring a safe environment to correspond and interact with one another.

The only way forward is for there to be pressure from the masses on individuals to be more ethical in their use of social networking sites. An idea of 'virtual oaths', as a form of self regulation, could help - these wouldn't eliminate all the risks, but would help in some circumstances to at least provide some clarity of intention.

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  • 1
    Robert McCord wrote on 15th Oct 2009

    I disagree that "sophisticated" users such as BCS members should be treated differently from so called naive users. Since most of the social networking misdemeanors are very similar to what might be called crimes in society, in society one law applies to everyone similarly. If they mean that these users have the technical capacity to perform even greater abuse this is true but the government at least in the UK has at great expense passed legislation such as the computer misuse act in order to prevent such misuse, and this law as is the principle in this country at least applies equally to everyone. So given the existence of existing law there is no need for different treatment for any class of user of a social networking site.

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  • 2
    Anon wrote on 9th May 2010

    I strongly disagree with the use of social networking, Often people simply get to reliant on networks and would rather skip school of classes to chat online. Social networking is a very dangerous predicament that should be dealt with by experts on phycological behavior of teens. School is a major factor when dealing with the social networking issue. Cyberbullying often affects the average life and reputation of a normal teen. In the worst cases it can even lead to suicide... Ban Facebook!!!!!!!!!!!!

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