Ethics @ work: Sober evaluation

More smart-phone providers should add 'abetting dangerous conduct' to their content restrictions

April 17, 2011 21:37
3 minute read.
Benjamin Netanyahu

Bibi netanyahu. (photo credit: JPost Staff)


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Law enforcement works mainly by deterrent. Even a small chance of getting caught and punished is enough to deter most potential wrongdoers, so giving stiff penalties to those few who are caught can have a large effect in decreasing illegal activity.

In particular, a 2002 meta-study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that consistent use of random “sobriety checkpoints” to check drivers for excessive alcohol levels reduces alcohol-related crashes by about 20 percent. Since about a third of traffic fatalities overall are attributed to alcohol use, the overall decline in fatalities is quite significant.

But avoiding these checkpoints has recently become much easier, as mobile-phone apps exist to alert drivers to the exact location of speed traps and sobriety checkpoints. In addition, there are Facebook and Twitter groups that exist to alert group members to these locations.

Is it an ethical problem for smartphone content distributors to allow these apps? Research in Motion, the maker of the Blackberry device, decided that it is; the company recently agreed to a request by US lawmakers to remove these apps from their online stores. Apple and Google, by contrast, don’t yet see sufficient justification for this step.

The nine categories of apps currently forbidden for Google Android are: Violence and bullying; impersonation or deceptive behavior; publicizing personal or confidential information; violating intellectual property rights; engaging in unlawful behavior; gambling; and malicious products “that may harm user devices or personal data.” Since it is not illegal to tell someone where a checkpoint is, these alert apps don’t violate any of the guidelines.

Adding to the list “abetting the avoidance of law enforcement” could be effective but ethically quite problematic.

Various kinds of civil disobedience are also against the law, but we are careful about chilling these activities.

The reason is that civil disobedience is an essential bulwark against tyrannical laws. Recently millions around the world are cheering exactly the power social networks give to enable citizens of oppressed regimes to evade law enforcement for protests and even activities that border on insurrection. And in general we should be wary of making excessive restrictions on network content. For this reason a law against such apps could also be an undesirable precedent.

But there is no reason to go so far. It is possible to relate directly to the ethical issue, rather than the legal one.

Online gambling is not everywhere illegal, and the Android restriction forbids not only engaging in but also facilitating online gambling. Evidently Google sees gambling as an ethical pitfall that they would like to keep off their network. It would be easy, and very appropriate, to add a “tenth commandment” prohibiting apps that facilitate conduct that endangers others.

The question remains if these apps do indeed facilitate dangerous conduct.

One provider of such alerts told the New York Times that they are “a convenience to law-abiding citizens who do not want to be delayed by a checkpoint.” This is a valid consideration for a private citizen who calls up a sober friend to tell him to avoid a particular intersection, but not for a commercial application which is likely to be particularly in demand among people who have something to fear from these checkpoints.

While great care needs to be taken in restriction on-line content, private providers already take an interest in making sure that content on their networks is not anti-social, and that includes enabling people to avoid effective law enforcement activities including sobriety checkpoints.

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