Dramatic events throw a nation into turmoil. A disaffected constituency rises up and, spurred on by communications technology, quickly organizes. External forces have the power to ensure that this enabling communications technology continues running – as well as the power to shut it down at will.
This is one way of describing the situation Twitter and NTT America found themselves in earlier this week when Iranian protestors – and their supporters in the US and elsewhere – demanded the company reschedule planned maintenance that would shut down the service at a critical time.
I don’t raise this point to draw comparisons between Iranian protesters and Hutu militias. For what it’s worth I’m on record as advocating that Twitter reschedule its maintenance.
On the contrary I draw this comparison to illustrate a point. The US did not jam radio broadcasts in Rwanda in 1994 out of concerns of violating international law and involving itself in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.
When Twitter and NTT America rearranged their plans they took sides in the internal affairs of Iran.
However much I may agree with the move, this raises ethical questions. Setting aside generally-accepted lobbying practices, should companies involve themselves in the politics of a sovereign nation? (And as you think about the question, remember how some US companies involved themselves in Latin American politics during the Cold War).
The questions become murkier when you consider the news that Twitter’s planned downtime was rescheduled, at least in part, as a result of a request by the US State Department. Whatever you views on this issue, requests made by the US government to technology companies have been the subject of recent controversy (to put it mildly). Should companies cooperate with the US government when cooperation forces them to – by definition – side with the political aims of a group of people in another country?
Let’s switch gears for a minute and think about Facebook. The recent murder of a security guard at the Holocaust museum in Washington DC prompted Michael Arrington to write, for a second time, about a Facebook policy that permits hate groups to be active on the site. Facebook employees responded to Arrington’s post by defending the policy on free speech grounds.
Whatever my personal feelings, I can see – and I hope most others can as well – that both sides have approached this issue thoughtfully and with the goal of taking what they perceive to be the right, moral course of action. And yet they are, of course, in opposition.
With our lives increasingly inextricable from the social Web; powered-by and transpiring within the cloud; with nations declaring that internet access is a civil right; as ‘vital as water and gas’; companies such as Twitter, Facebook and NTT America are going to face more and more of these impossible ethical quandaries – no-win scenarios that force them to choose between choices that are both right and wrong.
Dealing with these scenarios is fraught with risk and communicating the inevitably complex reasoning and good intentions that go into any ethical decision is incredibly difficult.
It is also – as should be clear in these recent cases, unavoidable.
What ethical responsibilities do these and other companies – and the cloud itself – have to end users? We need to start thinking through the scenarios and coming up with some answers.