posted Jun 19, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Fundamental Property: Symmetry. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal... Declaration of Independence

Probably the most important and perhaps surprising result of this analysis is a re-affirmation of something that we all should have understood all along: There is no intrinsic ethical asymmetry in the communication relationship. There is no intrinsic value in being the sender over being the receiver, or being the receiver over being the sender. Indeed, every person and legal fiction (corporation, government, etc.) that ever communicates in any fashion does so as both a sender and a receiver at some point.

I mention this to explicitly contradict the subtle, almost subconscious insinuations by large content owners that they have some sort of ethically advantageous position over consumers that should translate to various special privileges. It can be the case that the sender has something the receiver wants, which puts the sender du jour in a position of power over the receiver, but this is an economic position of power, not an ethical one. It is these relationships that drive the so-called "intellectual property" industries. At any moment the receiver may simply decide not to desire the sender's message, whatever it may be (music, movies, newspapers, etc.), and the economic power the sender has is gone. To the extent this remains a purely monetary concern, the symmetry property is maintained, because after all, the sender desires the receiver's money, too. Capitalism is negotiating the level of desires in such a way that business occurs and money and goods flow.

An example of such a "special privilege": Levies on blank media based on the assumption that the some of the media will be used to illegally copy content, which are paid to the certain large companies who own content. The right to charge what is in every sense a tax is granted to these companies simply because they own content, regardless of whether a given purchaser will actually use if for illegal copying. We consumers don't even subsequently receive the right to place whatever we want on this media based on the fact that we have quite literally already paid for it (at least in the US), which might do something to restore the symmetry; we can still be prosecuted for "piracy". So media companies receive these fees not because it is part of a mutually beneficial bargain, not because it is part of some general mechanism available to all senders, but because they enjoy special, asymmetrical privileges not available to the rest of us.

It is ethically dangerous to promote one person or entities interests over another, for much the same reason that the authors of the Declaration saw fit to put "all Men are created Equal" right at the top. Once stipulated that one entity is superior to another, history shows us time and time again that the leverage is used to gather just a bit more power, and a bit more, and a bit more, and so on and so forth until the inequity is so great the inferior entity rebels in some manner. The authors of the Declaration of Independence were quite familiar with history, and they found this so clear they called it self-evident. If you don't agree that this is bad, I really don't know how to convince you; this is axiomatic.

But beyond the basic argument from "self-evidence" that I just gave you, there is a deeper reason this property must hold: Because any entity is both a sender and a receiver, any "special" treatment accorded to one side must paradoxically be accorded to the other to be at all consistent. This can be hard to grasp, but perhaps the best example is the Berman-Coble bill (see Freedom to Tinker's coverage), which would grant a copyright holder special power in enforcing their copyright. The music industry desires this power, yet when faced by the actual bill, it occurred to them and many others that the bill could equally well be used against them by other copyright holders ("Hacking the Law"). And suddenly, the bill looks much less attractive... You can not grant special concessions to either side of the communication relationship, because those same privileges will turn around and bite back in the next minute as roles reverse. Only an entity which only consumes or only produces can afford this sort of thing, and it is really hard to imagine such an entity; even the mythical "pure consumer" expects that at least in theory, if they choose to communicate they will have free speech, copyright protection, and all of the other reasonable things one expects to protect one's communication.

A couple of other examples: Software companies trading demographic information about their customers like baseball cards yet trying to block the consumer equivalents, such as performance benchmarks of the software (see the UCITA provisions). I acknowledge as one of the counterexamples to this symmetry principle the government's occasional need to keep information classified, but we have the Freedom of Information Act too, showing the balance is merely tipped, not broken.

In some situations, one may voluntarily agree to forgo the symmetry and agree to some set of constraints imposed in a contract by another entity. This exchange of rights is what lies behind our contract law. However, it is unethical to require someone to forgo this symmetry without compensation. Due compensation is a big part of contract law, and I remind you I use "law" here in the sense of "applied ethics"; in theory, a contract is not valid unless both sides receive something of value. It is a judgement call exactly where the line is drawn. You will probably be unsurprised that I consider the actions of music companies unethical at this point, increasingly requiring that the user commit to not performing actions acceptable in the past (such as making personal copies), and yet charging the same amount or even more as was charged historically for the same goods.

Sorry to beat on the music industry, but they have been the most aggressively honest about their intentions regarding these issues. They aren't the only group I disagree with, they just provide the most vivid illustrations.

 

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