Adam Bosworth has just posted an excellent piece on Trust, Morality and Software Services, which cites some of the borderline ethical practices of (and potential threats posed by) leading internet and media companies - mentioning Friendster, Google, Microsoft, Sony, TiVo and Yahoo, among others.
In some cases, the threats come from ill-considered invasions of user rights by the company itself. In other cases, the threats may come simply from the accumulation of new forms of information, which become subject to official and unofficial snooping.
Some threats are pretty unambiguous, to the extent that we can identify their sources as hostile and malicious, bent on outcomes that are clearly criminal or worse. But it is the ambiguous threats (sometimes from companies that can afford to spend millions on legal fees and political lobbying) that may be more difficult to manage.
If a hacker tries to syphon a few dollars from my bank account this is clearly a criminal act. But if the bank itself syphons a few dollars from my account it is probably going to be hard for me to get this classified as a criminal act. (The bank can usually cite some vague service charge somewhere in the small print.) But the effect on my bank balance is much the same.
We often end up with a kind of shallow commodity trust. We accept the products and services of big companies because they are hard to avoid. But we have to remain wary of them.
Adam argues that "the only way to restore or create trust is by over time and repetition creating a pattern of ethical decisions". Yes, and this pattern must be clear and visible. Deep trust requires transparency and unambiguity. The ethical challenge for large companies is to maintain a strong trustworthy position across a diverse and complex marketplace.
See previous posts: Intrusion and Immersion and Unambiguous Threat.
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