Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Practical Ethics and the Internet

In a recent post about Facebook, I linked to RFC 1087: Ethics and the Internet. Although my point was clear that people were leaving Facebook on ethical grounds, I didn't go into more detail about RFC 1087.

Heres what RFC 1087 says.
The IAB strongly endorses the view of the Division Advisory Panel of the National Science Foundation Division of Network, Communications Research and Infrastructure which, in paraphrase, characterized as unethical and unacceptable any activity which purposely: ...(e) compromises the privacy of users.
EFF explained how Facebook compromised the privacy of its users.
Today, Facebook removed its users' ability to control who can see their own interests and personal information. Certain parts of users' profiles, "including your current city, hometown, education and work, and likes and interests" will now be transformed into "connections," meaning that they will be shared publicly. If you don't want these parts of your profile to be made public, your only option is to delete them.
So why should we care about the ethics of privacy? Why did the Internet Activities Board think this is important?

If you agree with Zuckerberg, privacy doesn't matter. If he's right, then we shouldn't mind if uninvited strangers read our email, right? For some people, Facebook's bait and switch may have allowed that.

A common option when you lose the password to your web email service is to either have a password reset link emailed to you or you can answer a security question that you have previously answered. For instance, one popular web email service presents "what was your favorite childhood book?" as a choice. Maybe you really loved "Winnie the Pooh." If you are using this particular web email service and chose that question and answer and you also listed the book in your Facebook interests, then it would be very easy for a stranger to gain access to your email (when he could not previously). You don't have anything in your email you would like to keep secret, right?

Update 7/15: Eben Moglen

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Sunday, July 11, 2010


To Kill a Mockingbird's 50th Anniversary

Maybe 20 years ago, a friend let me borrow a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. The 50th anniversary reminds me that I need to return it. It's no surprise that this book has come under criticism. It tells a kind of story that is not often heard.

It is when Jem is allowed to have a rifle that we learn the meaning of the title. Atticus says
I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.
In I Remember Atticus, Jim Perdue explains this reference.
Blue jays are viewed as the bullies of the bird world. They're loud, territorial, and aggressive.
These blue jays are not people but institutions and their functionaries. The social construction of reality is composed of stories these loud blue jays construct to legitimize their place in the world. The loud blue jay overwhelms any evidence that is contrary to its story.

In the Wall Street Journal, the loudest blue jay of them all, Allen Barra explains why we must shoot the Mockingbird.
In all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained.
From the blue jay's perspective, there's two types of stories: the story told by the blue jay or stories that are controversial. Any other stories, like To Kill a Mockingbird, are unacceptable.

Who was the Atticus Finch where I grew up? It was the head high school football coach, Oscar Cripps. Like Atticus, Oscar Cripps is the man we all wish we were. He inspired us to be better people. "There is no I in team." For all of us who have been blessed by his sacrifice and integrity, there is no controversy. I noticed this recent reference to an effort to honor him.
SBISD should defer to campus leadership when it comes to allowing schools to maintain and build on its traditions. When a school overwhelmingly wants to honor a former teacher with the naming of a new campus facility, it is absurdly bad management for SBISD to prevent that from happening. It is typical bureaucratic government thinking to substitute a bunch of top-down regulations and Board politics for the common sense of the people who know best about what is right for the school. When a school board overrules local desires, it creates separation from a community that wants to be supportive. No community affairs expert would ever have advised SBISD to oppose the tsunami of support for naming a stadium for a community legend like Oscar Cripps. But SBISD seems incapable of understanding, or even caring, about what locals want.
What is this about? From the same online publication, an earlier article explained what was going on.
Kellner said she understood from the dozens of e-mails and calls she and other trustees received supporting Cripps that he was an outstanding coach. But she said the district has a thick file on Cripps containing evidence that made it difficult for her to support the naming.

"We need to adhere to the highest standards, we need to avoid additional controversy," Kellner said.
Really? Thank you Spring Branch Independent School district for the living example of the relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird on its 50th anniversary.

Update: Somehow I overlooked this post with a number of comments earlier today. The comment by Bob King was particularly interesting and is a must read. Another comment is found here: "The beautiful thing is that Oscar Cripps doesn’t need this (the facility naming)," he said. "He couldn’t care less. There are thousands of people who would run through fire for this man."

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