The Anethics of Innovation and Disclosure

Whenever someone suggests that innovation is the sine qua non of anything in the world of technology, lock your doors, put one hand on your wallet, and send the kids inside. (Me, I also close the tab and delete the email.)

Consider your privacy. Consider whether a company whose sole business purpose is to sell targeted advertising by extracting, sharing, and mining personal information from millions of people. (Do I mean Google or Facebook?) A fan of free markets and free information might say "Whether any individual finds that objectionable, an informed citizen should have the right to decide whether to participate."

The assumption is that citizens should be able to know what information the business shares, with whom, and why. It's easy to understand why. Even though it's funny to laugh at a petty criminal caught by posting a stupid update which gives the authorities reasonable suspicion of a crime, it's unsettling to imagine an abused and estranged spouse who's dutifully followed the guidelines for not allowing personal information to escape a hand-vetted circle of trustworthy family and friends fall victim to an unannounced, opt-out rule change which allows the abuser to perpetuate the abuse.

The parallel to Perl is subtle, but important. If you want to improve your software, sometimes you have to make incompatible changes (or learn how to predict the future, or write software so trivial that you always get it right the first time), but changing the world out from under users is irresponsible and unethical.

The difference between managing your privacy and safety in a world where mass communication is cheap and easy and between having to change the use of a long deprecated feature is vast, but in both cases there's a simple ethical concern: retroactive and arbitrary and unannounced and forced changes are wrong.

That's why My Contrarian Stance on Facebook and Privacy is very, very wrong:

[Let's] not make privacy a third rail issue, pillorying any company that makes a mistake on the privacy front. If we do that, we'll never get the innovation we need to solve the thorny nest of issues around privacy and data ownership that are intrinsic to the network era.

Don't let the shiny of the Internet hero de jure fool you. The technical world needs less "innovation". (I'll take less of the kind of "innovation" which suggests that if I didn't want to share information publicly last month, I suddenly want to this month without you even asking.) The technical world needs more grownups who don't get distracted by multibillion market caps, the inherent sexiness of enterprise software, and whatever His Jobs announces next week. The technical world needs people who treat other people ethically. If that means pillorying entities which act unethically, then so be it.

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on May 24, 2010 12:35 PM.

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