posted Jun 21, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Fundamental Property: Only Humans Communicate. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

You remember where I first showed the communication model I'm building? See the people on each side of the connection? One must never forget that communication only occurs between people (and corporations in their capacity as people). This may sound like a strange thing for a computer scientist to say, but it is vital to not get distracted by the technology. Computers are null entities in ethical terms. Only how people use them matter.

This is critical because it is so easy to get sidetracked by the technology, but the tech just doesn't matter, except inasmuch as it allows and enables communication among humans. If a computer just randomly downloads something for no human reason (say, some weird transient bug due to a power spike) and it will never be seen by a human, it really doesn't matter. If someone downloads a music file from a fellow college dorm resident and immediately deletes it, it may be technically illegal (in the "against the law" sense), but ethically I'd say that's a null event. If anything occurs that never makes it back to a human being at some point, who really cares?

It is worth pointing out that by and large, current law sees things this way as well. One does not arrest a computer and charge it with a crime (exempting certain cases created in the War on Drugs, which is beside my point here).

The claim that computers can violate the copyright of software by loading into memory from the disk (necessitating a license that permits this act)? As stupid as it sounds. Who cares what a computer does? The only actions that matter are those performed by a human. Media are just tools, they have no ethical standing of their own. In fact, a human never experiences any copy of any communication located on a hard drive. The only copy that matters is the one the human is actually experiencing, which are the actual photons or air vibrations or whatever else used to "play" or "consume" the media.

Only people matter.

An example to illustrate the point: Suppose a hacker breaks into a computer and installs FTP server software on the computer, allowing it to serve illegally copied software and music. Suppose that four days later, the computer owner notices and takes immediate action to shut the FTP server down. During those four days, the computer may have served out thousands of copyright violations. Ethically, can we hold the computer, and by extension, the computer owner responsible? No! We should hold the hacker responsible, not the computer. Only humans communicate, and the computer owner was not even aware of the offending communication, and took no actions to enable it. His or her computer was being used in communication as a medium by completely different senders and receivers. Ethically, the owner was an innocent bystander to the software piracy.

Note this scenario happens daily, and to the best of my knowledge nobody has ever been prosecuted for being hacked and having an FTP server run on their machine. This could change at any time...

 

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