Talking about ethics on the web, there are more than just a few cases to be aware of.
Glen Greenwald’s talk on privacy mentioned a theory on mass surveillance, where we are conscious of our every action which could be watched at any moment, restricts our behaviour due to our tendency to respond based on expectations. Privacy is something that we need. It is not simply because we have something to hide, we need the personal space for our freedom.
However, too much perceived freedom may cause drastic actions.
There was the Twitter abuse, after Caroline Criado-Perez successful campaign regarding having a female figure on a banknote, where freedom of speech went too far.
Then there was Justine Sacco’s tweet which caused her downfall.
Moving away from Twitter, there was also Leah Palmer’s identity theft.
Even with all these happening, internet access is still not readily available for everyone due to affordability in some countries.
Now, let us shift our focus from a user’s perspective to a service provider’s perspective.
In January 2012, Facebook conducted an A/B testing without informing its users. The question of whether it was ethical or not, came from the fact that the point of the research was related to manipulating the user’s emotions.
A/B testing is used for testing a user’s reaction for two versions of a webpage. It is something that can improve the webpage based on the desired results of user responses.
It seems to be something normal and understandable for Facebook to do. Though, the user’s response may not be how they truly feel, as they are conscious that their reactions can be seen by others.
Whether or not the research was fruitful, is not of much concern in this discussion. The question still remains to be, was the attempt to manipulate user emotion without their informed consent of this particular social contagion experiment, ethical?
Without a doubt, our emotions are important to us, playing a part in decision-making for most of us. On the web, there are many things at work that we do not take notice of since they are behind-the-scenes. A/B testing for things like “What is the best phrasing of the product description to induce impulse buying?” would be quite common.
Although Facebook’s experiment involved only slight changes, not informing the involved parties explicitly when they are directly and emotionally affected, did not seem to be reasonable to me.
Greenwald, G. (2014) Why privacy matters. Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/glenn_greenwald_why_privacy_matters#t-834564 (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
Editorial (2016) Twitter abuse: Easy on the messenger. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/24/twitter-abuse-abusive-tweets-editorial?CMP=twt_gu (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
Ronson, J. (2015) How One stupid Tweet blew up Justine Sacco’s life. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Magazine&action=keypress®ion=FixedLeft&pgtype=article&_r=2 (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
Kleinman, Z. (2015) Who’s that girl? The curious case of Leah Palmer. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31710738 (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
Kelion, L. (2013) UK jumps up internet scoreboard as digital divide grows. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-24426739 (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
Hattenstone, S. (2016) Caroline Criado-Perez: ‘Twitter has enabled people to behave in a way they wouldn’t face to face’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/aug/04/caroline-criado-perez-twitter-rape-threats (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
Arthur, C. and Swaine, J. (2016) Facebook faces criticism amid claims it breached ethical guidelines with study. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/30/facebook-internet (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
Hern, A. (2014) Facebook deliberately made people sad. This ought to be the final straw. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/30/facebook-sad-manipulating-emotions-socially-responsible-company (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
A/B testing – the complete guide (2016) Available at: https://vwo.com/ab-testing/ (Accessed: 11 November 2016).
Instapage (2016) A/B split testing tips to improve landing page conversions. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyoGU6wRsn4 (Accessed: 11 November 2016).