Ethics refer to the moral codes of conduct or principles that instruct a person’s behavior. The purpose of this essay is to identify and explain an ethically questionable issue related to ICT as observed in the media. The situation chosen for analyzing the ethical issue is the data leak case involving Facebook. The news had taken the world by storm when it first came to the fore during March and April 2018. The essay will discuss the issue from three ethical perspectives – professional, philosophical and sociological (Tavani, 2011). The three perspectives will be explained at first and then associate the ethically questionable situation with it. While doing so, views from different scholars will be used.
Professional Ethics Perspectives
The professional ethics perspective is one of the three aspects of the applied ethics branch. Professional ethics identifies and analyzes issues of ethics for which computer professionals are accountable (Tavani, 2011). It is termed as cyber ethics and is considered the standard for computer professionals to follow. The perspective provides a solid ground from which ethical issues relating to ICT could be analyzed properly. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data leak scandal raised serious ethical questions. On March 17 2018, leading English daily The Guardian reported that around 50 million Facebook profiles were illicitly used for Cambridge Analytica, an elections consultancy based in London (Theguardian.com, 2018). Although Facebook CEO and creator, Mark Zuckerberg refused to accept the fault at first, he later confessed to the wrongdoings. In terms of following the standard that guides the ICT professionals, Zuckerberg and his Facebook lagged far behind. According to the professional guidelines, it is mandatory that the users are informed about any survey or experiment carried out by such IT companies.
Many studies and reports have found that the Facebook data leak scandal reflected the absence of strict ethical guidelines. The main ethical question the case brings forth is the privacy of individuals. According professional code of conduct, it is the responsibility of the service provider to respect and protect the privacy of its customers. With millions of users associated with it, Facebook should have protected their personal profiles being misused for election purpose. According to the professional code of conduct, professional relations at work and in service must be maintained. The relations generate norms such as fidelity, honesty, care and most importantly safety. When Facebook sold the personal data of its users without their knowledge or consent, it broke the norm of maintaining a transparent and strong relationship.
Accepting one’s failure to protect the privacy or confessing to wrongdoing also comes under professional ethics. Both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica failed to acknowledge either of the professional ethical norms. When the expose was made in March, the elections consultancy firm denied right away that none of the data used by Aleksandr Kogan in 2015 was used in any election campaign. Zuckerberg also initially denied any involvement but later on confessed to it. From the professional ethics perspective, the denials were completely against ethics.
The professional perspective of ethics comes under the normative principles of applied ethics that include personal benefit, social benefit, honesty, autonomy, justice and rights amongst others. Facebook data leak scandal raises another question of ethics in terms of professionalism and that is lawfulness and honesty. However, when cases like these appear, it shows how such companies go against ethical principles and deceive people.
Philosophical Ethics Perspectives
The philosophical perspective goes beyond professional boundaries to analyze an ethical dilemma or issue (Tavani, 2011). It takes into account, the moral principles and behavior of the persons or group involved. From this perspective, the Facebook data leak scandal is viewed as the faulty behavior of Aleksandr Kogan and Mark Zuckerberg. Both individuals were aware that using private data without users’ consent and knowledge was unethical and yet they went ahead with it.
The case of Facebook is a business ethics related issue. The users who blindly trust Facebook with their private data like messages also expect that the organization would also revert with honesty. Here social responsibilities of capitalist business practices, moral status of corporate entities, deceptive advertising, and insider trading and so on are under scrutiny. A look into Facebook’s history shows several cases of ethically questionable issues that went unnoticed owing to the economic status of the organization and its founder. Many scholars of philosophy have criticized Zuckerberg’s role in the entire episode, as he was responsible for ensuring the protection of his users’ privacy (Werner & Lim, 2016). Zuckerberg only accepted his company’s fault after the case was exposed. Kogan on other hand had been denying all the allegations stating that he has been made a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (Globalnews.ca, 2018). However, it is worth mentioning that in 2013, Kogan had used millions of personal data from Facebook for research purpose. According to The Guardian report, Kogan had intended to use the private data he had collected from Facebook for personal gains but failed to utilize it properly. The entire incident reflects Kogan’s unethical intention to take advantage of people’s personal data by asking them to take a personality test in an app that he developed.
Some might argue that Facebook does have privacy policies and terms of services signed by users while singing up and hence, they are aware of their data being used for different purpose. It is but important to note that almost every user ignores these policy statements owing to the time it consumes and the difficult language it uses. Therefore, it is a question of ethics when companies like Facebook and others make use of people’ personal data. The data scandal also raised other philosophical questions as to who should be held responsible for the breach of trust of those millions of users. On one hand, Facebook accused Cambridge Analytica of violating the policies of its site while on the other; Kogan was accused of selling the data to the firm. Further, it is also questionable as to how Facebook allowed both the parties to use the data of its users without disclosure. The case hence brings forth clearly, the philosophical ethics perspective of the situation.
Sociological/Descriptive Ethics Perspectives
The popular notion is that ethics could only be viewed from the professional and philosophical perspective but not from the sociological perspective. The fact however is different. As Bakshtanovskii and Sogomonov (2007) correctly point out that sociological perspective is equally important because “social practices and strategies are not only imbued with ethical and moral, sociological imagination also are never divested of their moral origins”. According to renowned sociologist Emile Durkheim, the social and moral life have to be taken together in order to fulfill the requirements of the society. Durkheim stressed that people derive moral rules and ethics from the society itself and hence, the sociological perspective is essential in understanding an ethically questionable situation (Tavani, 2011)..
The case of Facebook data scandal has and will further have a visible impact on the society. At first, it has put a question mark on the researchers’ use of personal data whether legally and ethically extracted. The users have now become reluctant to provide their personal data even if it is taken with their consent. Second, the break in trust by Facebook has negatively influenced the users and aspirers of IT who might take wrong cues from the case. From this, they could take the hint that it is easy and acceptable to break ethical code of conduct to earn profit unless it harms anyone. Lastly, the issue has created an atmosphere of doubt and fear in the society as the people now fear that anything they text, share, like or comment, might be used for purposes unknown to them.
On the other hand, the use of research data to influence election results has raised doubts over the outcomes of elections as important as the presidential election. It has stained the transparency in society and people are now feeling betrayed. Moral rules are derived from society, as sociologists claim and a breach in these moral rules reflect the morality of that society. When Facebook illicitly let the firm use its users’ data for purposes that were illegal and immoral, it reflected the societal tendency of its owner and other employees. In addition, the situation demonstrated the weakness of the society represented by the organization. Further, it can also be said that Facebook tarnished its own reputation by indulging in such fraudulent activities.
Max Weber, another sociologist provided a view contrasting Durkheim’s views about ethical principles in terms of sociology. Weber was of the view that individuals and not the society as a whole are responsible for the breach of morality. According to him, “the onus of moral responsibility weighs heavily on the shoulders of the individual, who is required to choose between competing, irreconcilable values”. Weber is right in some regards as Zuckerberg and Kogan as individuals had the responsibility to weigh in the morality of their actions. They should have been, in their respective positions, completely transparent in their actions keeping aside their profit motive.
In the end, it needs to be stated that all the three perspectives of ethics are interrelated and effective in explaining the case in hand, the ethically questionable situation in the field of ICT. Facebook has taken certain steps about the situation but the damage is done. It now remains to be seen what further actions and changes the organization takes in order to ensure ethicality.
Bakshtanovskii, V. I., & Sogomonov, I. V. (2007). Professional ethics: Sociological perspectives. Sociological research, 46(1), 75-95.
Globalnews.ca. (2018). Facebook data scandal researcher Aleksandr Kogan says he’s just a ‘scapegoat’. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/4096170/aleksandr-kogan-facebook-data-scandal-scapegoat/
Tavani, H. T. (2011). Ethics and technology: Controversies, questions, and strategies for ethical computing. John Wiley & Sons.
Theguardian.com. (2018). The Cambridge Analytica saga is a scandal of Facebook’s own making | John Harris. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/21/cambridge-analytica-facebook-data-users-profit
Werner, A., & Lim, M. (2016). The ethics of the living wage: a review and research agenda. Journal of Business Ethics, 137(3), 433-447.