Nothing makes me consider shouting praise to the skies like the situation I just experienced. I find myself in a hotel, away from home, waking up feeling sick, having to prepare for a two hour ethics lecture to young lawyers and knowing that writing a new Ethics Alarms post will either make me frantic or result in a product even more riddled with typos than usual. And there it is! A worthy Comment of the Day, allowing me to present high quality ethics content that I don’t have to write myself, giving me time to work, get back home and think. (Unless I die first, because boy, do I feel lousy.)
The perfectly-timed COTD in question is by the commenter formerly known as Penn, and involves a topic that I am speaking about this morning, e-mail. I don’t even mind that he doesn’t agree with the statements that sparked his comment: that police should be required under threat of dismissal to report racist -mails from colleagues, and that workplace e-mails have to be monitored by responsible supervisors. Here is SamePenn’s Comment of the Day on the post, “What’s Going On Here? Ten Ethics Observations On The Miami Beach Police Force Racist E-mails.”
And thank you, thank you, thank you!
This is Part Two of what turned out to be a double subject born indirectly of Observations #6 and #8 – dealing with people who should be fired for not reporting receiving the offensive emails, and who should have had their workplace email monitored in the first place. I see the ethical problems inherent in both but I don’t agree with the actions to be taken. It would be both futile and incendiary, and possibly the cause of lengthy litigation to fire employees for not reporting the person who sent them the flagrantly offensive material (this is what on-going training is necessary for and, in the larger picture, as noted, to make a change in the Blue cultural norms — and good luck with that). Or to invoke the detestable “nanny state” oversight of PC use in the workplace with its inevitable resentful or infantile reaction, and an easy getaround, upping profits for companies that sell those “hand-held devices” that text and send pictures and take you to your electronic In/Out boxes in seconds. I don’t have solutions to offer the clean-up crew in Miami Beach but I do believe there has to be a new approach to dealing with the problem at its (online) source.
There is an increase in open bias of all kinds on the Internet. People will say in emails — for many, it is the only Internet function they use — what they would never have put on paper, much less said in person even to close friends.
The really squeamy part approaches in progression: each email is addressed to one person at a time and arrives there, presumably in private. It’s very funny, and very … let’s say, unethical. To stop there and press Spam is one’s prerogative: that gets rid of both unacceptable message and sender both, permanently. Or to press Return, after adding a critical comment, of necessity implying that the sender was wrong, bad or stupid to have sent it to you and thus you are effectively breaking off communication with him. How likely are any of those actions to be when the email came from a friend, co-worker, superior or anyone else with whom future contact is necessary or desirable? Or when you don’t know where the message originated: it came to you under a — surprise! – false name that could in reality belong to any of the above. It is reportable — if you deem it so — just as an anonymous letter left on your desk would be, except that the letter would be from someONE to you (one), and not already out to dozens of people you know, or worse, don’t know. (you know that if you don’t recognize the sender – why would he send just to you? – or if you do and know that you’re a part of a Contact group. There is another twist to the “police culture” that would mean you too would be scooped up in the virtual paddywagon and you would be the immediate cause of — what actually happened — the public knowing what horrible protecters and peace-keepers they had.
The next choice is plausible and fairly common for people of conscience or taste or intelligence (if not JMethics): Press Delete. Grin or frown, and forget it. The Deleted email is treated like a letter torn up in the wastebasket or flushed down the toilet. But it isn’t gone – even Spam doesn’t instantly disappear, depending on your settings, and Trash can be retrievable for days (not to mention what a 9-year old hacker can do when fishing in a hard drive). Hey, but the email is really clever or provocative, and he wants to savor it when he has more time, so a few more clicks will tuck it away out of sight under the imaginary Folder named “last year’s time sheets” with other like material.
Up to this point, the email “stops here.” It is still considered by the recipient to be nobody else’s business, especially if the ideas or images it contains are known to be against the rules, and (maybe? ya think?) skirting the law. After all, someone else sent it to you. It’s already out there and thus approved by people you know, cooperate with, and perhaps obey. Then why not join the group (like going out for a beer after work) and Forward (aka the positive-sounding “share”) it to one of your Contacts. That’s a bit more likely: Type in a nickname or if you’re very organized, a group name of every Contact who likes the down-and-dirty. Then press Forward, and …
… something new happens that has not been taken into consideration: the email becomes a self-supporting chain letter, whether that was the intention or not. The mistaken idea is that once out of one’s hands, the message is still private as far as the Forwarder is concerned. If responsibility for the message is thought about at all, any real concern for content is believed to belong to the original Sender, whoever that was. (I may haf ways of findink out, but you don’t.) It’s not like re-mailing a letter you received in a sealed envelope, its objective the responsibility of the United States Postal Service (… still, if barely, functional); not as if it were picked up and published without your intent, permission, or knowledge, now becoming public property. (Now, THAT used to be known as unethical, if not the basis of a lawsuit; if it came back to haunt the original writer, it could be months, maybe centuries, later before it affected one’s reputation.) So what’s to care about? Whatever privacy you had – which wasn’t much – ended when you pressed Forward.
There remains so much naivety about the Internet, including the fact the email is just one function of it, thought taking up 91% of its use [that figure is halfway between the reported 88% for men and 94% for women], but it rarely occurs to people that the protection of privacy they have only applies to what stays off-line, that once it goes out as an email, it is as vulnerable to a third-party email provider , as well as to being passed along freely by any recipient. It is nothing short of insane that people who would not have considered for a moment sending nude photos of themselves, pulling frauds, telling actionable lies or disseminating viciously racist porn through the US mail will assume they have both privacy and permission to do so online. When the piercing-and-tattooing rage was on, it was recognized even by most of those who went under the needle that this was Not a Good Idea (NAGI in newspeak textish), even when the holes or ink were not visible to the public eye and the pricked one just knew she would always be young and have the same approving friends. That kind of recognition of NAGI seems to be lacking still. The fact is that the E in EMAIL means Everything that goes out there stays out there. Once it is passed along, it can be seen by others it wasn’t intended for, misinform, insult, enrage, hurt people desperately (including drive the emotionally vulnerable to suicide), create havoc and backlash, social and political polarities, AND come back atcha to whap you upside the head regardless of your security system (you don’t have Hillary’s). None of this is considered or cared about. People CAN believe two opposing ideas at once: Email is protected, private, doesn’t even have a “signature” to show it where it “legally” came from AND computers can be connected so that everything you do on it can be seen and your emails can be made simply traceable, unprotected, and not at all private.
Email is worst misunderstood and misused because most people think of it as a new form of “mail” rather than 1} a new, marvelously convenient form of communication with no rules (well, presumably you can’t make death threats or use certain traitorous or terrorist vocabulary that can be picked up by the Big One at Langley — and we know what happens when kids make jokes online that authorities will punish with imprisonment, as with the boy in Texas; but other than that….) Email is not an electronic arm of the USPS with all its privacy safeguards, federal regulations and powers (200+ of them). The technology is virtually uncontrollable, as the Chinese government has found out to its surprise and dismay. And 2} It also has minimal privacy: Umptillion bitty bytes are floating around noncorporeally, invisibly, insensibly, amorally and unethically, just waiting for the right key to be pressed, just like random Googling.
In other words, just about anything can be said or shown, yes. And just about everything shown — on any internet-connectible device — can be made visible to others and used for their purposes, virtually forever. Until both those possibilities merge in the minds of individuals as a single reality, no outside controls or sanctions or laws are going to be effective. If ever a concept of thought and behavior was needed to be joined with a school subject at the earliest possible age, Ethics should be integrated into the computer class at the same time the Internet is introduced.