Innocuous platform or spying machine?



A recent picture, amongst others, of Mark Zuckerberg doing the rounds in cyberspace was a source of some irritation to animal rights activists because it showed the Facebook founder dangling two chickens by their legs. The picture was seen as testimony to his boast that he only ate animals he killed himself.  Since the pictures had reportedly been published without Zuckerberg’s explicit permission, they gave rise to some debate on the ethics of publishing them. But regardless of the controversy surrounding Zuckerberg killing animals, his online creation has very often been at the centre stage of ongoing discussion on ethics surrounding new technology.

Hardly a day passes by without a news report appearing that some social networking site or IT giant has run into trouble over its privacy policy. Facebook, of course, is at the forefront of these allegations and from personal experience I can say these concerns are justified. For an organisation that has a multi-billion-dollar revenue, Facebook, in the manner it deals with its subscribers, is remarkably impersonal and dictatorial. The forum changes its settings without caring twopence about what users think. Surely, Facebook  would have done some research before taking these decisions, but users hardly, if ever, get to know the logic behind these changes. In any case, given Facebook’s status and size, they need not care, which goes to show only one major flaw in the way new technologies compromise their users’ interests.

It would not be inappropriate to share personal examples. There have been plenty of cases when I have had to personally bear the brunt of Facebook’s whims and fancies. Take, for example, ghost messages and friendship requests. I have received several of these and there have been occasions when friends have not shown up in my friends list even after acceptance of requests. Facebook maintains a complaints section with a pompous and seemingly apposite list of concerns that one could address, but in reality they are massively misleading. For one, Facebook makes it clear they cannot guarantee a response to all requests, which effectively means they set the rules of the game. Given their huge status, this may seem reasonable, but may not be when you realise that genuine concerns go unaddressed. Facebook also suggests friendship requests and contradicts its own suggestions by warning people not to send friendship requests to strangers. I have always found this aspect of Facebook very baffling, because I just do not get the definition of “stranger” and if there is no indecent overture, I  see nothing wrong in approaching a stranger with a friendship request. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, is it not? On the one hand, Facebook says unsolicited requests from unknown people may cause harassment to subscribers and then contradicts this position by the very nature of its functions, because there is no absolutely fool-proof system for determining the nature of intimacy between two individuals to ascertain the veracity of a friendship request.

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks has openly accused big companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo of being spy agencies that work at the behest of intelligence agencies to gather data on people. The essence of Assange’s worry is shared by many on very lucid and understandable grounds. Who dictates a social networking forum’s need for basic information for allowing users to register? The answer appears grey.

Speaking of new technology, I have to say that it is not only social networking fora like Facebook and Orkut and Google Friends that are the cause of worry and merit attention, there are many others. What exactly is new technology? I can safely posit that automatic answering machines in all their intricacies are now part of the new technology game. You dial a number of a Customer Service Centre expecting a person to say “hello” at the other end of the line and you end with a series of instructions that you must adhere to reach the intended individual. Sometimes these instructions are just downright ridiculous and border on the facetious. For example, just imagine an emergency number having an automated response in the world of new technology, “Hello, thank you for calling emergency services. If the thief is knocking at your door, press one, if he is inside your room and within firing distance press two and if he is holding a knife to your throat, dial three.” But you might as well be dead by the time you obey these instructions.

Ethics are not cast in stone. Social networking sites, big IT companies and intelligence agencies may be perfectly justified in doing what they do, and they have their reasons to defend themselves. But so do their users. If an individual’s personal details are being passed on to spy agencies without his/her permission, it is worrying indeed. If social networking sites are being mined for data to determine one’s suitability for a job or an interview, the same alarm bells ring. The recent debate about social networking sites being threatened to take off ostensibly offensive content in India is a very pertinent subject to ponder deeply because it well illustrates inherent contradictions and dichotomies of new technology.

It would be naïve to assume that new technology could never be misused and the British riots have been allegedly aided by people passing on messages via social networking sites. It would also be impractical and idealistic to expect these corporate giants not to exercise a degree or level of control over content posted and shared on their platforms. But even if all of the above points are granted, they do not take away very legitimate concerns on invasion of privacy and unethical and ad hoc policies that some of these firms appear to employ in collusion with governments and their cronies.

It has been stated eloquently very often that safeguards are needed to ensure responsible behaviour and, as with any other field of endeavour within a social framework, the ethics of new technology do necessitate some safeguards. But the overriding query that would remain is embedded in the words of the Roman poet Juvenal, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”(Who will guard the guards themselves?)


Shubhobroto Ghosh works in an NGO in New Delhi. He remains an ardent admirer of the power of new technology for enhancing democracy and is interested in media ethics.