Lachlan Smith



Ethics of Computerised Social Networking


January 01, 2015

Computerised social networking is using computers to socially connect and network. Currently the largest social networks are controlled by publicly traded companies. Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Tumbler, MySpace, etc... As publicly traded companies their moral compass is guided by shareholder expectations. Shareholders consist of the general public and other companies who make a financial investment in shares of a company for profit. There are laws that govern the buying and selling of shares in a publicly traded company which form the foundation of the moral compass of the share market. This prevents immoral acts such as insider trading but has little effect on the moral compass of the company's products. This is in an of itself not a problem, companies are free to operate how they please within the law, and if the public finds the actions of companies to not be in the public's interest, laws can be enacted to guide the company's direction. Examples of this are environmental restrictions.

The plethora of computerised communication methods available suggests that the technical challenges are secondary to the organisational challenges.

Problem 1 - Social Intersection is a Fundamental Human Need

Anyone who grew up throughout the 90s, witnessed a remarkable change in social interaction from the household telephone to computerised networks. A plethora of services have existed and evolved starting with Usenet and ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger and MSN messenger, through to E-mail and SMS, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, iMessage, and many other services. Originally Usenet access was provided free of charge as part of an internet access package, content was not monetised. We continue to innovate and invent new ways to communicate using computer networks, but they all fundamentally do roughly the same thing. There are three modes of communication, private communication, public discussion, and broadcasting.

Problem 2 - Altruism Only Extends so Far to Not Conflict with Our Needs

It requires considerable engineering effort to build and maintain a large internet services, especially one intended to be used by billions of people. Open Source provides the opportunity for people to altruistically provide engineering effort. This has it's own unique challenges from internal politics to the effort being inconsistent or unreliable. People move in and out of life stages, and work commitments that are the first and second priority, contributing to open source is always a third or later priority.

To combat this the engineers need to be competitively compensated for their time as they would be for a normal job like any public servant would expect to be. Many critical open source utilities that have recently be subject security exploits amid unreliable engineering effort. Two such projects were OpenSSL with the Heartbleed vulnerability, and more recently Bash with the Shellshock vulnerability. Projects that are able to employ fulltime engineers are able to more reliably respond to issues. Two such projects are Firefox through Mozilla and Mediawiki through the Wikimedia Foundation.

Altruism isn't as simple as people giving up their free time, companies such as Google and Facebook make extensive use of Open Source software and provide funding and engineering time to maintain these packages. Some of these packages are so widely used such as PHP and Python that the whole world benefits. On the flip side the engineers primary reporting lines are to their employers and contribute only so far as the benefit to their employer, and not necessarily all users. This is evident with the Linux kernel which is funded almost exclusively by companies that use Linux servers at the expenses of the Linux desktop experience.

Problem 3 - Those Who Are the Most Social Are the Least Able to Pay

As we get older our lives get busier and extended social interaction takes a back seat to family, work, and paying the bills. Our social circles change and become smaller and more fragmented. In order for a computerised social network to be successful, revenue needs to be extracted from the most able to pay. The needs of users who are able to pay and unable to pay do not overlap.

Problem 4 - Grow Fast at any Cost has Conditioned us to Expect Free Social Networking

Starting since the first dot com bubble, internet services were provided free in a race to a bottom. The grow fast at any cost and monetise later has resulted in dozens of internet services provided free of charge from e-mail to Social Networking.

Problem 5 - Security, Surveillance, and Censorship

If you have nothing to hide, when what have you got to be afraid of. The reality of the situation is we have plenty to hide for a variety of reasons. But as we store more of our personal information on the internet, governments are increasingly demanding of the ability to enact surveillance or censorship on that information. Much of these activities are sealed and unable to be made public. This makes operating a social network publicly and transparently with 100% open source code, virtually impossible.

Surveillance is administration heavy. Governments want lots of data, and make lots of requests for data. Many of these requests are sealed by a court of law. This requires a considerable administration effort to process these requests that an open source project simply would not have access to, or could hope to compensate someone for the human effort required. To go you an idea of the sheer volume of requests, it is not a single government agency or a single country that requests data, these requests come from all levels of government from all over the world resulting in Microsoft receiving 34 495 requests for data in the first half of 2014. This is administration heavy because due process needs to be follow and not all requests need be complied with.

The location of the data would need to be strategic, not only located in a jurisdiction providing data protections to reduce the administration effort from processing requests for data, but also to reduce ping and transit times for data, and lower data costs. This requires locating data close to the largest users which is why most of the social networking data is stored in the United States.

Problem 6 - Governance

Many open source projects start off as a benevolent dictator situation with one person calling all the shots. This works well as long as the person in charge acts in the interest of the project, and is able to continue to contribute their time reliably. What inevitably happens to most open source projects is that they migrate to a board method of governance. Some project such as Wikipedia even have elections. If a social network is to model that of a free society than the election model is that which would provide the best long term outcome.

Problem 7 - Data is More Expensive Than You Think

When you walk into a retail store you are able to buy 1 TB of data storage for less than $100. These external HDDs are designed as cold storage and doesn't paint the whole picture. If you then want that data to be accessible on the internet it needs to be hosted in warm storage that can be accessed in a fraction of a second. While the data for one user is still relatively inexpensive at first, the amount of data can accumulate rapidly for power users who post lots of multimedia content. Multiply this by millions of users and you have a really big data storage problem. Some companies solve this problem by providing a small quota for free and charging money for power users while others resort purely to advertising and data mining revenues. This is exacerbated by grow fast and any cost and has led to start-ups depending on virtual web services that can grow with the click of a button.


The problems outlined above have in many ways become too big for small organisations to tackle leaving the large organisations with large capital being best equipped to deal with the more challenging aspects. It is ultimately the users who will decide if the trade-offs are worth it. But as we have seen any model which is able to provide as many users with free access to social networking is most likely to succeed. In 2015 we will continue to see these challenges played out in the public discourse, but it is user engagement that will ultimately decide the winning strategy, regardless how good this is for users in the long run. We are likely to see more development in the non-English web than the established English speaking social networking, mostly with a focus on mobile. Interestingly the ethics of these non-English social networking scenes is likely to reflect the different culture and political environment present in these other countries. Early examples are VK (Russian) and Weibo (Chinese), but we are likely to see others emerge.

Tags: ethics networking social

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