In the series: How the Internet Works Series
The Internet allows us to connect with each other in a multitude of ways; it is easier than ever to contact people. We can easily interact with others with no expectation of further interactions. Furthermore we can interact anonymously without consequence. This raises a number of ethical, social, and moral issues, which are the focus of this module. We will explore actual case studies to examine the implications of the social side of the Internet.
The objective of this module is for students to learn to think critically about ethics. Learning to recognize when power dynamics exist, to be mindful of them, and what options there are to restore balance when such power differentials cause injustice.
The discussions in this module build critical thinking skills, which are an asset for students to have, perhaps the most important tool they can possess. It allows them to think independently in all their educational pursuits, and more broadly, to navigate the world around them skillfully and with confidence.
Some Questions to Ask Yourself
- What online scams are you aware of?
- What resources do you have to make the Internet a safer place?
- How do you protect yourself and those you care about from online harm?
If you’d like to take things further than the activities outlined in this module, a basic exploration of DuckDuckGo, Tor, and VirusTotal are other options for computer activities.
How Does the Internet Work?
As explained in Part One, the Internet works through layers of transmissions, but as we’ll see in this module, it also works because of healthy and secure relationships between people.
The technology of the Internet allows us to interact in ways previously not possible. We can communicate with others from across the world in an instant. We can communicate with people we’ve never met before and will never meet again. Celebrities and politicians can send messages to millions or billions of people at the click of a digital button.
The Internet is a modern human right we take for granted in our lives, but do our cultures prepare us for the responsibilities that come with these new forms of communication? What do our communities and elders say about these online interactions? Do we maintain healthy relations on the Internet that would make our ancestors proud?
In this module we will explore the social side of the Internet. We will look at social problems that can arise, and how to protect against emotional, financial, and spiritual harm. We will explore technological and social solutions, while learning more about ethics, justice, politics, and security.
How do you learn?
My anaana (mother) played a string game with me when I was a very small child. I do not know its name, but I do know it’s meant to teach the beginnings of mimicry. When you and another play the breathing button game, you can both feel the rhythm of the toy, but you can also feel the rhythm of each other. You learn about ideas of flow and resonance.
In time, and with much mimicry, I learned to read the flow inherent in anything and everything that breathes, and for me this has become a foundation for my Inuit Way, and for my understanding of empathy. I would like to think Inuit are world-class mimickers, and maybe even empathizers as well. I take joy in this because understanding the perspective of another is the first step in maintaining a healthy relationship with them.
In any case, this is my way of learning. What’s yours?
We will be learning about ethics, justice, and politics, and such discussions are often tricky. It is like walking on ice over water: each step must be taken with great care. Why? Because we are in an educational situation. In writing this content, I am acting as a teacher, but when it comes to ideas of right and wrong who am I to tell you what’s best? It is not my place to tell you how to think or feel. It is not my place to interfere with your flow.
This does not mean we can’t discuss these topics. The most appropriate and practical solution is for me to help you learn to navigate through the landscape of social problems online. It is my intention to guide you in becoming aware of the issues—but without trying to influence your opinion in the matter. If I am given consent, I can assist, but ultimately it is up to you to discover and shape your own flow, your own inner way.
This is my way of teaching. What is yours?
Social Problems of the Internet
There are many topics we could discuss here; so many that we can’t get into great depth. Some topics are related, some are not. We will start with a few examples from the news. Following this, we will discuss why these things might matter to us personally.
- Government – Have you heard that Russia interfered in the USA 2016 elections? Or that a few years back the NSA collected phone records (daily) of millions of its US citizens without them knowing?
- Business – Have you gotten your DNA tested from one of the online testing companies? Maybe you learned more about your health? Or about your ancestry? Did you know that DNA companies resell this genetic information without consent?
- Gender – Gaming online can and should be fun for everyone. No one should endure harassment of any kind, for any reason, especially because of their gender.
- Diversity – No one likes to be excluded or mistreated because they’re different, it’s a terrible feeling. What’s more, being excluded can create missed opportunities: is it fair when a platform like Facebook excludes categories of people from its housing advertisements?
- Identity – Have you ever been ransom-wared? Or form-jacked? Even if you get your files, data, or money back, how do you press charges against some unknown person who might be in another country? Do police even have jurisdiction?
A common thread in those news stories is they all involve examples of devaluing human rights. These are terrible things, but let’s be real: abstract discussions of human rights aren’t always motivating, so instead I will share from personal experience.
In my life I have found it easier to care about my own human rights than the rights of others. To be clear: I care about others, certainly in a general sense, but I am slower to empathize with someone I’ve never met. Sometimes I feel so busy keeping up with my own life, or other times I felt uncomfortable with a situation and was more concerned about my safety than that of another.
I recognize people can be apathetic about the rights of others when they have no immediate personal motivation, so when I introduce human rights examples in this module I will try to frame them in ways that are more personal to you. I will also ask that even if you don’t feel motivated, to try and feel these other perspectives anyway. It is a good habit to learn as it will help you connect with others. You will find it can even bring you new forms of happiness and joy.
Whether or not you choose to empathize with the rights of others is your choice. Human rights exist to guide us when our consensus efforts fail. They tell us how we all should be protected within society regardless of differing opinions. They are meant to help create an environment where we can all flourish, whether we agree or not.
When I say “politics” you might think of local politicians, or federal governments with their parliaments and elections. When I speak of politics here, I mean the idea of a person trying to influence another to get their way. You don’t have to be a politician to play politics: people often play politics with each other in small ways in their daily lives.
For me, I have always wanted to stay away from politics and people who play politics. Growing up in an Inuit Way, I was raised to care about unity, and individual politics always seemed divisive and dishonest. I still feel this way, but have also realized it’s important to learn about. I don’t learn about these things to be divisive or dishonest, I learn about them to protect myself and others from those with bad intentions. That is my reasoning.
I also learn about politics because it is related to ideas of justice and ethics. How? Sometimes people think they’re playing politics but they take it too far and create injustices. Or, sometimes people have been wronged in their lives and they try to use politics to achieve justice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, learning about politics and the tactics people use teaches me to recognize and think critically about justice, and about the ethics we should adhere to if we want to achieve justice in good ways.
One way to practice thinking critically is to suspend your disbelief; to put your own perspective aside, and simply listen to and learn from others. Hear their stories, and their problems. This sort of recognition requires empathy, and in practicing this you also begin to learn about the power dynamics that exist all around us.
Power dynamics shape the injustices we’re confronted with, as well as our ability to restore balance.
What complicates justice is that people have varying views about what is and isn’t justice. It’s unlikely we will agree on everything, but we can generally find enough common ground to agree (most of the time) that our societies and justice systems work reasonably well.
However, even if our justice systems work, unanticipated power dynamics add complications. We may agree to the same laws, but not everyone has the same access to the justice system, based on differing levels of political or other power. “Justice for all” doesn’t work as well as intended.
When one person has power over another, if can affect that person’s ability to claim justice. If a group of people have power over another group, it can affect that group’s ability to claim justice. This is why it is good to be mindful of power dynamics. If you want to live in a beneficial way and have positive relations with others, it’s important to be aware of things that can get in the way of restoring balance.
Ethics are similar to justice in that there’s no completely agreed upon understanding of it. Some people might disagree with me on this, but that itself might prove my point. For this module I offer a basic definition: ethics are moral codes that help us keep a balance between people in a society. Ethics also guide us in accessing and achieving justice when imbalances do occur.
As an example, within my people our elders have consulted with each other and our traditions, and have codified our people’s ethics into the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit:
- Respecting others, relationships, and caring for people.
- Fostering good spirit by being open, welcoming, and inclusive.
- Serving and providing for family and/or community.
- Decision making through discussion and consensus.
- Development of skills through observation, mentoring, practice, and effort.
- Working together for a common cause.
- Being innovative and resourceful.
- Respect and care for the land, animals, and the environment.
These are the ethics of my people, but I recognize that you may come from a different people with different understandings. Either way, the ethics you carry can help you figure out how best to interact with others in good ways and maintain healthy relationships with each other.
To look at this another way, and apply concepts from Part One: human rights are more like specifications, and ethics more like protocols.
Before we continue, let’s ask a provoking question: would it be easier if we all shared the same ethics? Easier perhaps, but would it be healthier? The world made us with differences and it’s important to honor this. Different people have different ethics and that’s okay, so long as we can all still find ways to cooperate and get along.
Both ethics and security can help guide us toward paths of preventative justice. This is to say, if you carry a solid ethical code, or maintain grounded security policies, you will prevent many injustices from happening in the first place. This is better than having negative things happen and having to make amends afterward, don’t you think?
The difference between ethics and security is that an ethical code is meant to help prevent you from causing harm to others, while a security policy is meant to help prevent others from causing harm to you. If we frame this in terms of power dynamics, security assumes the responsibility for “keeping the peace” is on you.
Compared to ethics, security may seem cynical. Ethics works on the principle: “don’t harm others,” while security instead privileges the principle: “don’t let them harm you.” Which is right and which is wrong? Neither, and both. It’s a matter of context, and situation which we will discuss.
Although security strategies aren’t the only options when it comes to justice online, it is a significant part of the landscape.
As with systems of justice or ethics, security suffers from complexity. There is no single best security model for all possible attacks. Because of this, security professionals create security models meant to define expected adversaries, their expected targets, and what exploits they will mostly likely try to achieve their goal.
In this thinking, if we choose an accurate security model we can remove or minimize our vulnerabilities. Keep in mind though, even security professionals can’t perfectly predict an attacker, so we also have to plan for what to do when an adversary is successful in their attack.
How does hacking work? The general idea is that hackers either gain access to a device or the transmissions made between them.
When attacking devices, hackers find ways to trick computers into running instructions they’re not suppose to. Computers read instructions from their memory, but they don’t know the intention behind those instructions; so a hacker will try to sneak malicious instructions into that memory. Computers don’t think for themselves, they just do, so when the attack is successful, the computer executes the code because it doesn’t know any better.
When attacking transmissions, one of the most general strategies is called a Man in the Middle Attack. The idea is that two devices communicating over the Internet have no way of knowing if they’re really talking to each other, so a “man in the middle” could spoof them, and intercept their messages to either eavesdrop or change the messages without the devices knowing.
Computers have many security features to prevent these sorts of exploits, but security is never perfect.
Additional things to consider about hacking: once a computer is compromised, an attacker can use the computer itself or information discovered on it to find new ways to hack others. Furthermore, many hacks may have little to do with the Internet directly, but if a device that connects to the Internet has been hacked, then you must also consider these devices Internet security problems.
Before we get started, I wanted to tie up some loose ends, so to speak.
Personal Reflections From an Inuk
I would like to share my own opinions about how I see the connections between ideas of justice, violence, spirituality, politics, and ethics.
Some people find topics like justice, politics, and ethics interesting, but truthfully I was never one of those people. I was never motivated by it. Why learn about it? I just want to learn about the Internet! What do ethics have to do with technology?
Ideas of responsibility and citizenship can seem boring and abstract, so I will first tell you a little about myself and my views. I am not asking you to agree with my views, but it might help to know where I’m coming from. Without going into detail, suffice to say that as an urban Inuk in southern Canada, I have experienced my fair share of violence and trauma. Partly by individuals who wronged me, and partly by differences in cultural expectations. There were (and still are) misunderstandings.
It has taken a long time to heal. Often, when someone goes through trauma, their identity is shattered and needs to be rebuilt. This was true for me, and I have spent much time learning about the differences in Canadian cultures, ideas of justice, politics, and ethics. I had to rebuild my identity, but I also had to make sure I had a better understanding of people so I would not be traumatized again.
I did this alone, as I do not have family down here. If you have experienced hardship it is important to reach out to people you can trust. It is important you share your feelings in safe and healthy ways to help you heal. I share this as I do not wish any pain or suffering for anyone.
My view is that things like justice, politics, ethics, violence, and spirituality are all related. How?
I think that that bullies use violence to get their way when they want something. Because of this, I have learned about the ways of bullies, not to become like them, but to better protect myself against them. Regarding politics, I feel that that people use politics to get their way when they want something. This is the same answer I give for violence, so what’s the difference? As communities and societies, we decide together what actions and tactics are considered acceptable. We accept politics, we do not accept violence.
Some people say they do not want to learn about politics because politics are dishonest and dishonorable. I was raised to be collectivist, so playing politics is considered selfish as well as harmful to unity. I agree with this value system, but it’s still worth learning how politics works: it’s not about being divisive or creating suspicious attitudes towards others. Most people have good intentions and want to live well with others, but some do not. Also, if someone has been disconnected for too long, sometimes they forget how to treat others well. If for no other reason, learning about politics helps to better protect yourself and those you care about from being taken advantage of.
I have also learned that some people view all the ways we interact as politics, whether or not those ways are divisive, neutral, or unifying. In this case we are using different terminology.
For me, spirituality (not to be confused with religion) is, in many ways, the opposite of politics. I think that in politics a person puts themself first, which is a divisive act; while spirituality is about connection and unity, and healing from violence when it happens. Spirituality assists in connecting with others and one’s identity. Justice corrects violence, and ethics help find the best way to restore balance.
Even if these topics and issues don’t matter to you right now, they may in the future. We are always learning; just keep an open mind and aim to be your best self.
When you study these things you find that a big part of it is deciding how much of the burden of justice you’re responsible for, and how much your community or your society is responsible for. If you feel the current balance is not as healthy as it could be or should be, what can you do to change your community or your society for the better?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, and you may not be in a position where you feel you can make changes right now, and that’s okay. It’s important to take care of others, but not at the expense of ourselves. Sometimes doing what’s right or good or helpful is just taking care of yourself or other people in the regular, everyday ways you already do. If you’re not sure, ask yourself: what role am I able to take? Or, what role do I want to take?
The Internet overwhelms us with information, and as we try to process it all, sometimes we forget to take a step back and see if we’re emotionally okay. In what follows, I introduce many known social problems of the Internet, using articles that go into greater detail.
The articles discuss humans treating each other poorly, and reading them could be emotionally draining. Check in with yourself, and take breaks. Switch it up by doing something that brings you joy, perhaps watching some cute cat videos or comedy. Exercise. Spend time with people you love. Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. When you take care of yourself you create a strong foundation from which you can take care of others.
I have struggled in deciding how much to explain about power dynamics in the examples that follow. My instinct as a teacher is to give detailed explanations to aid in your understanding. But at the same time, I feel it is not my place to tell you what you should or shouldn’t think about these issues.
As I am committed to an ethic of non-interference, I share the examples without explaining the dynamics. As you read the articles, ask yourself the following questions:
- What are the power dynamics of the situation?
- Do those involved have equal power?
- If not, who has more power, and who has less?
- If an injustice exists, whose responsibility is it to restore justice?
- Is it fair that it’s that party’s responsibility to restore justice?
Social Solutions for the Internet
Now that we have the basics down, let’s get into more detail about the problems of the Internet, including possible solutions.
Democratic governments create many laws to prevent political leaders from having too much control over the freedoms of citizens. In contrast, authoritarian governments tend to restrict the freedoms of citizens in harmful ways, and use surveillance to achieve this control. This is why privacy is an ethical concern in these situations.
The Internet is not intended as a surveillance infrastructure, but has become the backbone of many such technologies:
- CCTV cameras and facial recognition
- Oversharing personal information
- Cell phones and physical tracking
- Citizen data and privacy
It also offers new avenues for traditional espionage, opinion manipulation, and undermining citizen trust:
Authoritarian governments thrive when there is a lack of accountability and transparency, and when there are strong surveillance capabilities. There are technologies and social strategies to counter each of these.
The traditional approach to countering the problem of surveillance is anonymity. The Internet extends this approach first and foremost through the use of https. There are also tools for personal use: to search online without being tracked there is the Duckduckgo search engine. To browse online without your ISP (or anyone who can collect their information) knowing which sites you’ve visited there is the Tor routing network.
As for transparency, recent approaches include posting legal documents on GitHub for editing; or creating repositories for open data sets such as the government of Canada’s Open Data Portal.
In terms of accountability, there are fewer technological solutions. People have been experimenting with Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks as forms of social protest. Otherwise, solutions relate more to law making, journalism, watchdogs, voting, and activism. Discussing these are beyond the scope of this module, but you can get involved locally in your community to learn more. There are also many academics, journalists, writers, and activists on platforms like Twitter. You can learn quite a lot by following their accounts.
Businesses create an economic foundation for societies, and often provide supplementary support for infrastructure such as highways, communications networks, and general construction.
The ultimate motive for many businesses is profit, and although businesses are generally positive for society, history has shown that they do not always act in the best interests of their customers:
Businesses can often be held accountable through government, the market, or customer vigilance.
Did you know the electromagnetic spectrum we use for wireless internet is divvied up by government using what’s called a spectrum auction? Governments have the ability to create and enforce regulations for businesses. Ultimately, customers are also citizens, and as citizens we have the ability to elect people who will make better laws for us to improve online business relations.
Businesses respond to the market, which is also known as customer demand. This demand can be used to improve relations by convincing a given business that it’s bad for their profits if they don’t change their behaviours for the better. Consumers sometimes take this approach individually with awareness campaigns, but there are also non-profit organizations like the Better Business Bureau (BBB) that extend this approach by shaping business reputation with transparency reports.
Finally, customer vigilance is another place where critical thinking comes into play. It can help you recognize if a business is playing unfairly or doing unethical things. To that end, I will ask you to remember two sayings which might help:
- “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
- “If it’s “smart,” it’s vulnerable.” (Hypponen’s law)
As a man, I am not neutral when I write about gender, and of all the ethical issues I’ve learned about, gender was one of the most difficult for me. The hardest part was recognizing I was living in a bubble. The Internet is a safe space for men, so when we interact online we take a lot for granted. I admit, in my ignorance I was unaware of how unsafe and unequal the Internet is for other genders.
Issues of gender inequality have existed long before the Internet, but this new form of communication has magnified certain issues and has created new ones:
Societies don’t always support gender equality as well as they should. To make things right, we can start by improving our laws to better protect the rights of all genders. The unfortunate reality however, is that laws aren’t always easy to enforce, which means even when we make new laws or improve existing ones they might not have the full effect we intend. Because of this, we also need to change the culture.
The main tools for changing a culture are education and awareness. A good place to start when it comes to gender and interactions online is respect, including boundaries and consent. Furthermore, a common, recent trend in the tech industry is to introduce and enforce Codes of Conduct (CoC) which outline expectations of acceptable behaviour. Codes of Conduct are becoming common at in-person conferences or online coder communities with the intention of preventing harassment, toxic masculinity, and lack of gender representation.
In any society there will always be many forms of diversity: culture, religion, age, ability, etc.
Discrimination and exclusion are two big issues when it comes to diversity, and the Internet has the ability to magnify this:
- Political bubbles
- Nation state firewalls
- Biased algorithms
- Words that matter
Social solutions to exclusion and discrimination are similar to solutions already mentioned: when we recognize an ethical issue exists, we can change existing laws or make new laws. We can also change the culture and the language we use. We can redesign the social constructs that shape the way we think and interact to be healthier and more just.
At the same time, part of critical thinking, especially when it comes to diversity, is realizing that people do things differently and hold different values, and that’s okay. As long as we act with good intentions and try to cooperate. If we don’t understand the ways of another, it’s better to be critical of ourselves, our beliefs and attitudes, before we’re critical of them.
The social problems introduced so far involve groups of people, but conflict exists between people on an individual level as well.
Scams are a big problem when it comes to individuals online:
In addition to scams, there are some unexpected sociological consequences of the Internet:
Finally, there are also health considerations when it comes to the Internet. Most social networks design their sites to keep you online as long as possible to increase their profits. Even without addictive sites, the Internet is a useful tool, and users can easily spend hours at a time on it. This can be hard on our bodies in many ways:
Security is the best approach to solving many of these individual-level problems.
Security is just as much about protecting others as it is about protecting yourself. Think of it like this: in the field of medicine when looking at epidemics and their prevention, there is a phenomenon called herd immunity, where if most people in the group are immune, the chance of infection for those that aren’t immune decreases.
Applying this idea to internet connected devices: if someone’s computer is hacked, it is like an infection. An ‘infected’ computer can be used by a hacker as a platform to hack other computers as well. The infection spreads. Keeping your technology secure helps keep your friends’ and family’s technology secure as well.
There are many individual security solutions and practices:
- Keep up with operating system security updates and patches.
- Learn how to backup your data.
- Be careful how much personal data you share online, and who you share it with.
- Learn data wiping habits, for example, before deleting a social network account, change your “about me” info such as your birthday to a random date. Database breaches have shown that even when a company says it deletes your data after you close your account, it often leaves the info on its servers.
- Learn how encryption works and how to use it. Get in the habit of checking if the connection you’ve made is HTTPS. If not, don’t send confidential or private info such as passwords.
- Learn how password managers work and use them.
- Don’t click links in emails, they could lead you to a site that injects malicious code onto your computer.
- If you’re concerned about a file or a URL test it out on VirusTotal, a security website that lets you run virus and malware checks for free.
As for health solutions:
- Ergonomic keyboards help prevent repetitive strain injury.
- Get up and exercise or move frequently.
- For eye strain, there are red shifting apps which reduce blue light emissions from your screen.
There is a legal side to personal security. Part One of this module series gives a basic understanding of how the technical side of the Internet works. When you start combining strategies for security with knowledge of how the internet works, there are additional ethical considerations which the law takes more seriously.
For example, an advanced security best practice is the idea of anomaly detection. You observe your own devices and build patterns of what’s normal usage behaviour. Then, by keeping an eye on these devices, you can tell if or when they behave in ways outside of what’s expected. Such anomalies could indicate an infection or an intrusion.
Applying this to the Internet and relating it back to Part One, security professionals will observe IP packets to detect anomalies. Inspecting packets is called packet sniffing. This is a clear privacy concern, and governments generally consider this practice as a form of wiretapping for which there are strong laws and serious consequences. Some governments create exceptions if you’re only inspecting your own packets for personal security, but it’s best to know in advance how the law regards these things before you attempt them.
Many ideas have been introduced in how we can maintain healthy relationships with each other online, but how do they all these ideas relate?
The list of best practices for individual security raises an answer: are individuals really expected to know and do all those things to ensure their own safety online? This puts the burden for security and for justice on individuals. Is that fair?
In society in general, the responsibility for justice is intended to be split between everyone. How much of that weight are individuals expected to carry? How much should our institutions carry? Is justice only for those with power and wealth? Is it only for those who can play politics or afford the education needed for security best practices? These aren’t easy questions to answer. We all have to decide together, and no single person can decide for everyone.
Thinking critically about power dynamics is a useful skill when deciding your own answers to ethical issues. The ability to listen and learn the stories of others helps you to better recognize power dynamics, and helps you make better ethical decisions when interacting with others. When we’re educated about the power dynamics and injustices that can occur between us, we can be proactive in preventing issues from arising in the first place.
In the strategies for good relations, we focused entirely on relations between humans online. What about our other interactions? For example, how does the Internet change our communications and interactions with our animals?
With all of these difficult, serious questions, and the discomfort that may arise, don’t lose sight of what matters! For all the issues highlighted here, the Internet largely works without problem for most people, most of the time. This is in part due to very smart technical engineering, but it is also because people do maintain good relations, and take care of each other.
Twitter is an excellent place to find content about ethics. I have learned a lot from the following people, who they follow, and many others: