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A Communication Model

On the one hand, you'd think we all understand what communication is well enough to talk about it meaningfully, since we all do it from a very young age. On the other hand, personal experience shows that people get very easily confused about the communication that occurs in the real world. Most people can't really answer ``What happens when you request a web page from a web server?'' If you can't even meaningfully answer questions about how things work or what happens, how can you expect to understand the ethics of such actions? And a complementary question, if one must have a post-grad degree in computer science to understand what is going on, how can we expect to hold anybody to whatever ethics may putatively exist?

Since nobody can adequately describe what's going on, the debates almost inevitably degenerate into a flurry of metaphors trying to convince you that whatever they are arguing about is the same as one of the existing domains, and should be treated the same way. The metaphors are all inadequate, though, because as shown earlier, there is a wide variety of activities that do not fit into the old models at all. As a result, the metaphor-based debates also tend to turn into arguments about whether something is more like television or more like a newspaper. There are sufficient differences between things like using a search engine and reading a newspaper to render any metaphor moot, so the answer to the question of which metaphor is appropriate is almost always ``Neither.''

Before we can meaningfully discuss ethics, we need to establish what we mean by communication, and create a model we can use to understand and discuss various situations with. We'll find that simply the act of clarifying the issues will immediately produce some useful results, before we even try to apply the model to anything, as so frequently happens when fuzzy conceptions are replaced by clear ones. After we're done, we will not have need to resort to metaphors to think and talk about communication ethics; we will deal with the ethical issues directly. As a final bonus, the resultant model is simple enough that anybody can use it without a PhD in computer network topology.

The Model

For this model, I take my cue from the Internet and the computer revolution itself, because it is a superset of almost everything else. Telecommunication engineers and other people who deal with the technical aspects of communication have created a very common model of communication that has six components, which are a sender, an encoder, a medium, a decoder, a receiver, and a message, as in figure 10.

Figure 10: Standard Communication Model

The parts of this model are as follows:

As a technical model this is fairly powerful and useful for thinking about networks and such. However, since the model is for technical people for technical purposes, it turns out that it's actually excessively complicated for our purposes of modeling communication for the purpose of ethics.

We can collapse the encoder and decoder into the medium, because we never care about the details of the encoder or decoder in particular; it is sufficient for our purposes to consider changes to the encoder or decoder to be essentially the same as changes to the medium.

That leaves us four basic components, as in figure 11.

Figure 11: Simplified Communication Model

The base unit of this model can be called a connection.

If there is an identifiable sender, receiver, and medium, they define a connection along which a message can flow. When the sender sends a message, the medium transmits it, and the receiver receive the message.
Note that until the message is sent and recieved the medium may not literally exist; for instance, your phone right now theoretically connects to every other phone on the public network in the world. However, until you dial a number or recieve a call, none of the connections are ``real''.

A connection is always unidirectional in this model. If communication flows in both directions, that should be represented as two connections, one for each direction.

To send a message across the connection, a connection is initiated by a sender, and the receiver must desire to receive it, excepting sound-based messages which due to a weakness in our physical design can be forced upon a reciever. Either can occur independently; a receiver may be willing to receive a message, but the sender may not send it until they are compensated to their satisfaction. A sender may wish to send a message, but no receiver may be interested in receiving it.

For a given message from a sender to receiver, the ``medium'' is the everything the message traverses, no matter what that is. If the phone system offloads to an Internet connection to transmit the message part of the way, and the Internet connection is then converted back to voice on the other end, the entire voice path is the medium. It may sometimes be useful to determine exactly where something occurred, but except for determining who is ``to blame'' for something, all that really matters are the characteristics of the medium as a whole.


Let me show you an example of this model applied to one of the most common Internet operations, a search engine query. Let's call the search engine S (for Search engine) and the person querying the engine P (for person). Let's assume P is already on the search engine's home page and is about to push ``submit search''.

  1. P (as sender) opens a connection to S (as receiver) via the Internet (the medium). P sends the search request (the message).
  2. S, which exists for the sole purpose of searching the Internet in response to such requests, accepts the connection, receives the request and begins processing it. In the past, the search engine has read a lot of web pages. It puts together the results and creates a new connection to P, who is now the receiver, using the Internet. It sends back the results.

    Technical people will note at this point that the same ``network connection'' is used, as TCP is both send and receive, so no new ``network connection'' is ever created. This is true on a technical level, but from this model's point of view, there is a new ``connection''; what constitutes a ``connection'' does not always match the obvious technical behaviors.

On most search engine pages with most browsers, you'll also repeat this step for each graphic on the results page, loading a graphic that's on the page. In this case, the person P is the sender for the first connection, the company running the search engine S is the receiver for the first connection, and the medium is everything in between, starting at P's computer and going all the way to the search engine itself.

This model does not just apply to the Internet and computer-based communication. It applies to all communication. When you buy a newspaper, the newspaper is the medium, and the sender is the publisher. When you watch television, the television is the medium, and the television program station is the sender. When you talk to somebody, the air is the medium and the speech is the message. This is a very general and powerful model for thinking about all forms of communication.

Elaborations on the Model

Chain of Responsibility

There are many elaborations on this basic model:

There are any number of ways to expand on those basic elaborations of intercepting the message or manipulating the medium. An exhaustive list of such things would take a long time, but fortunately there is a relatively straightforward way of characterizing all of them. Each possible elaboration consists of some other entity inserting themselves into the connection somehow and manipulating the message between receiver and sender. For every communication made, we can catalog these entities and form a chain of responsibility.

chain of responsibility
The listing of all entities responsible for manipulating a message in some form other then pure delivery.
Consider a newspaper story containing a quote from some source and some commentary by a reporter. By giving the quote to the reporter acting on behalf of the newspaper, the source is trying to communicate with the readers of the newspaper story. In the communication from the source to the reader, the newspaper intervenes, probably edits the quote, and adds the rest of the article around it. In this case, the newspaper is on the chain of responsibility for this communication. This matches our intuition, namely that the newspaper could potentially distort or destroy the message as it pleases, and it has responsibilities that we commonly refer to as ``journalistic ethics'', which among other things means that newspaper shouldn't distort the message.

Being ``responsible'' for a message means that you are able to affect the message somehow, and are thereby at least partially responsible for the final outcome of the communication. As I write this, millions of conversations are occurring on a telephone. I am not on the chain of responsibility for any of those communications because I have no (practical) ability to affect any of those communications. On the other hand, if someone calls my house and leaves a message with me for my wife, I can affect whether that message is transmitted accurately, or indeed at all. Alas, too frequently I forget to deliver it. Thus, I am on the chain of responsibility for that message, since I have demonstrated the capability of destroying the message before it got to the recipient.

Anybody who can affect the message is therefore on the chain of responsibility even if they have no technical presence on the medium. The biggest, and perhaps only, example of this is a government, which may choose to set rules about all messages that affect all message and thereby have a degree of responsibility for all messages. For instance, the government makes rules about ``libel'' and ``slander'', and the government has the ultimate responsibility of enforcing them. Since a government is capable of censoring a message, they are technically on every message's chain of responsibility as a result, though the impact is so diffuse that usually as a practical matter it's not worth worrying about.

The chain of responsibility should consist only of people, corporations in their capacity as people, and ``governments'' considered as people. Any time it seems like a machine or process is on the chain of responsibility, it is really the person responsible for that machine or process who is on the chain. The reason for this is that a machine or device can not be ``responsible'' in the ethical sense for anything, since they are not people. Sometimes it is not obvious who that person is, and once again it can be a judgement call exactly who is responsible.

For example, consider a browser cache, which stores content from web servers on behalf of the browser user, so they don't need to reload it every time they wish to view it. (If you are reading this online, the graphics used at the top of this page for navigating have most likely been cached by your browser; if you go to the next page you ought to immediately see those graphics, since your browser won't need to load it from my website.) Clearly ``the browser cache'' is on the chain of responsibility of a standard web page retrieval communication, because if it works incorrectly or has stale content, it can prevent the user from receiving the correct message. But since ``the browser cache'' is (part of) a program, and programs aren't allowed on the chain, who is responsible for the browser cache? The obvious answer is the browser manufacturer, but as long as the cache is implemented correctly, that is not necessarily the right answer. Consider a lawsuit against someone who took content from a web browser's cache and then illegally distributed it. Can the browser maker be said to be involved with this? One could make a case for it... perhaps the cache manufacturer should have encrypted the cached content better so the user couldn't just take it out of the cache. On the other hand, that's not necessarily a very convincing argument because clearly the person who is illegally distributing the content is responsible, and the fact that they got it from the cache merely incidental, as they could have just as easily gotten it directly from the website.

Presence on the chain is not a binary off/on thing, because there are different levels of responsibility. Sometimes it's not possible to strictly determine whether an entity is ``on'' or ``off'' the chain. As usual in the real world, there are grays, and thus there is room for legitimate disagreement about how responsible a given entity is in some situations. The most useful question to ask is ``How much influence can the person have on the message?'' Someone who can silently manipulate the message to say anything they please obviously has more responsibility then someone who can merely block one image from loading on a web page, and can't hide their responsibility. In the caching example, as long as the cache is correctly and honestly implemented, the browser manufacturer has no effective ability to control the messages I see.

Another example: We typically believe that the phone companies or Internet search providers should not examine or modify the messages we use their equipment to send, but just accurately transmit them. In other words, we expect the ISPs and phone companies to stay off the chain of responsibility by refusing to affect the message, despite the fact that physically, our messages travel via their equipment and they could fiddle with it if they chose. This is also a good example of a time when literal physical reality doesn't perfectly match our conception of ethics: If the phone company simply relayed our message, we do not hold them ethically responsible for the contents of the message, event though in a technical sense they are. In existing law we refer to this as ``common carriers'', entities that simply carry communication and are not responsible for the message, contingent on their not affecting the message.


Only in the modern era, through live television and radio, telephones, and the Internet have we achieved effectively instantaneous communication over long distance. A lot of communication is still not instantaneous. Thus, a single ``connection'' may actually have a long life. When one reads the Code of Hammurabi ( (Hammurabi ruled in 1795-1750BC), one is reading a work across a connection spanning nearly four thousand years. It can be instructive to consider the chain of responsibility for the work: The original author, the transcriptionist, the carver, the archaeologist, the translator, the web site host... note that I am not on it, I'm just pointing at the work and have no control over it.

This is one of the reasons I define connections as a unidirectional flow, rather then the more intuitive (under some circumstances) bi-directional flow. ``Connections'', and more specifically, the ``messages'' quite frequently outlast their senders. Modelling that as bi-directional would be challenging, what with one end being dead and all.

Intention vs. Literal Speech

If you read ``Hlelo, how are you?'', you still understand what I mean despite the typo. (I'm sure you can find some more typos in this work elsewhere for more examples.) But sometimes it isn't so easy to tell what the original message was supposed to be, if the typo or corruption is bad enough. Or sometimes the communicator can't or doesn't say what they mean, or it may not be possible to directly say what they mean in a given medium.

It is always impossible for a receiver to be completely sure they truly understand what the sender was trying to communicate with their message. Rather then opening the topic of whether we can get the ``true content'' from the message itself, which itself has many large, heavily philosophical books written about it, we will dedicate ourselves to the much simpler task of just trying to make sure that the message itself, the sequence of bits over time, is adequately transmitted from sender to receiver, because that's all we can do.

We will see this come into play later, as we try to determine whether something ``really'' changed the content of a message or not.

Fundamental Property: Symmetry

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, 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 ( 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.

A Natural Balance

This symmetry has always been with us; as I mentioned in the Ethical Drift (section 2.3.3), we've forgotten after so many years of the current status quo. A nice side effect of re-recognizing the symmetry of communication, that all people have equal rights to communicate, is that it provides us a nice balancing point. This principle provides a natural way of examining the relationships between various entities and considering how ethical they are. Is one side elevating itself over the other? Is the other side justly compensated for this elevation? (Mere compensation is not enough; if you paid me a penny for forty hours of work, you are unjustly taking advantage of me, even though I am ``compensated''.) Is a larger entity using its size abusively? Just this one simple, nearly-forgotten principle has a lot of resolving power when the proper questions are asked.

Fundamental Property: Only Humans Communicate

You remember figure 11, 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...

The Key to Robustness: Follow The Effects

It turns out this fundamental property is the key to robustness (as defined in B.2). If we had to pay attention to the actions of every computer and router and device between the sender and the receiver, we'd never be able to sort out the situation with any degree of confidence. The modern Internet is quite complicated, and some innovative and complicated ways of communicating have been developed. As we try to apply older models to these issues, the complexity explodes and we are left unable to determine anything useful about the situation.

But we don't need to worry about the actions of every router and program between the receiver and the sender. All we need to worry about are the results, and who is on the chain of responsibility. The technology is unimportant.

For instance, recall the example in 2.3.4, where I talked about the Australia considering requiring licenses for streaming video over the Internet. A bit of thought revealed the complications inherent in the issue: What if I don't stream, but provide downloadable video? What if I send chunks that are assembled on the user's computer and claim I never actually sent any actual video, just some random chunks of numbers? What if I just want to stream video as a 1-to-1 teleconference? If you define the problem in terms of what the machines are doing, then any attempt at law-making is doomed to failure, because there's always another way around the letter of the law. Instead, this ethical principle says follow the effects. If it looks like television, where you are in any way making video appear to many hundreds or thousands of users reasonably simultaneously, then call it television and license it. I don't care if you're mailing thousands of people CDs filled with time-locked video streams, bouncing signals off the Moon, or using ESP. After all, Australia really only cares about effects; the tech is just a red herring. On the other hand, Grandma emailing a video, or 1-to-1 teleconferencing, is obviously not television. The television commission should then leave it alone.

Of course there would be details to nail down about how exactly one defines ``television'' (remember all those margin notes in the communication history section?), but that's what government bureaucracies are for, right? Going back to section 2.2.7, ``scale of people reached'' is a natural dimension to consider in this problem. I'm not claiming this provides one unique answer, but actively remembering the principle that only humans communicate provides a lot of very important guidance in handling these touchy issues, and makes it at least possible to create useful guidelines.

In fact, I submit that no ethical system for communication can fail to include this as a fundamental property. Not only is it nonsensical to discuss the actions of computers in some sort of ethical context, I think it would be impossible to create a system that would ever actually say anything (see ``Usefulness'' as a criterion in section B.5), due to huge number of distinct technological methods for obtaining the same effects. Consider just as one example the incredibly wide variety of ways to post a small snippet of text that can be viewed by arbitrary numbers of people: Any number of web bulletin board systems, a large number of bulletin board systems over Telnet, Usenet, email mailing lists with web gateways, literally hundreds of technological ways of producing the same basic effect. Yet despite the near-identical effect produced by those technologies, if we insist on closely examining the technology, each of those has slightly different implications for who is hosting the content, where the content ``came from'', who is on the chain of responsibility of a given post, etc. Are we going to legislate on a case by case basis, which even in this small domain is hundreds of distinct technologies? The complexity of communication systems is already staggering, and it's not getting any easier. On the whole, we must accept this principle, or effectively admit defeat.

Fundamental Property: Everything Is Digital

Everything is digital. There is no analog to speak of; analog is an artifact of technology, with little to no discernable advantages over digital, except for generally requiring somewhat less sophisticated technology to create and use.

Why is this true? Because digital subsumes analog into itself: Everything analog can become digital, with all the copying and distribution benefits thereof. The Internet even provides us with a way to digitize things that might seem like too much effort to digitize by allowing people to easily distribute the workload. Even the daunting task of digitizing centuries of books has been undertaken, and by now, any book that is old enough to be out of copyright, and is famous enough for you to think of off the top of your head, has been digitized and is available at Project Gutenburg5. Other examples:

And that's the hard stuff, like text content. Audio content is so easy to digitize, with such high quality, as such low prices, it's actually shaking up the music industry as it becomes possible for garage bands to suck their sound into the digital realm and manipulate it like the professionals do. Some domains are still tough, like sculpture and 3D art, but certainly not impossible; for instance, every major special-effects laden movie now uses motion capture, which digitizes motion, frequently in conjunction with machines that scan the actual contours of someone's face, so an actor's face can be used on the computer model. Someday we'll be able to do this in our garages, too, because all that is theoretically needed is a camera, enough processing power, and some clever algorithms; the elaborate setups and dot-laden costumes used by the professionals currently are merely expressions of our technological limitations. It seems to be an unofficial goal of the next generation of gaming consoles (PS3 as of this writing) to have some primitive versions of this capability; one implementation already exists in the form of the EyeToy for the PlayStation 2.

There is a tempation to try to partition communication ethics into ``Analog'' ethics and ``Digital'' ethics, but it is hopeless because in the end, there is no real fundamental difference between the two. ``Analog'' is just a special case of ``Digital'' where the limitations of technology happen to make it unusually difficult to copy reliably, but that property is not fundamental to the underlying message. There is no point in trying to distinguish between ``analog'' and ``digital'' ethically. Talking about the ``analog hole'' is meaningless; it's just a glorified way of saying that people's ability to copy your content is a problem, with the word ``analog'' just muddying the discussion.

Actually, I'm bending the truth here for simplicity's sake; ethically, the representation is simply meaningless until it's converted at some point into something a human can experience. So it's not that ``everything's digital'', it's that for our purposes there's simply no such thing as ``digital'' vs. ``analog''. Whether a song is stored as pits on a plastic platter or as magnetic variations on a metallic tape, the medium doesn't matter to the message. But given the way most people currently think of the word ``digital'', saying ``everything is digital'' is more likely to be correctly understood.


To review:

Now that we have examined the history of communication, laid down our goals in building an ethical system, and created a model we can use to model actions in the real world and communicate about their effects, we are finally ready to begin applying what we've built to real-world situations.

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Next: Censorship and Free Speech Up: The Ethics of Modern Previous: The Conventional View Of   Contents