HHI Ethics Seminar
February 6, 2020
USCB Hospitality Center
Presenter: Paul Weismantel Moderator: Dave Mortimer
Dave Mortimer, moderator and coordinator, introduced speaker Paul Weismantel, an experienced product manager for multinational companies with expertise in communication and information. Since retiring to the S.C. Lowcountry, he has provided his expertise to local businesses and served as guest speaker in various forums.
Paul first cited a bit of communication history, mentioning as forerunners to our current age of information and disinformation the following: the town crier, the newspaper, radio and TV. Until the internet, the FCC regulated the use of air waves for broadcast. The public’s early internet browsing frequently began with AOL in the early 1990s. In 1996 Congress passed the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act, a well-meant act that has turned out to fit the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Paul asked, “Are we now in the ‘hell’ of that action?”
In the early 2000s Google began serving the public, claiming it would “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible,” later adding that it should “do no evil.”
Facebook followed, promising to “make the world more open and connected.” Later, its mission statement became, “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Twitter’s promise was to give “everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.”
These platforms have come to offer great information and communication tools, but are “dangerous places,” Paul said. They started with lofty ideas, then learned they must have revenue and ultimately profit in order to survive and grow and so brought in advertising. Advertisers prefer targets, of course, so the platforms provided the personal data obtained free of charge from those who used their products for their personal searches and communications. The processes are continually refined as Google, Facebook, Twitter and other businesses track all their users do to give advertisers – and others – highly specific information to refine the targeting tools they offer to advertisers – and others. Facebook tallies all “likes” and “shares,” for example, helping to build profiles very valuable to their partners and advertisers who want their targets’ attention.
Users typically have a “naive view” of how their behavior online is being recorded, he said.
Other problem platforms from the point of view of the speaker are Tinder, a dating service which has enabled stalking and abuse; Spinner, which has enabled brainwashing; Tik Tok, which enables users to create false identities for devious purposes.
Worldwide, almost 4,000 companies, including Experian and CoreLogic, serve as data brokers, businesses that gather information from both social media and open sources (voter registration rolls, driver’s licenses, etc.) and sell the profiles they develop.
The Federal Communications Commission in 2015 came up with a pending policy of “net neutrality,” meaning users would have from all internet service providers, equal access to whatever is online. In 2018 the FCC withdrew that policy, in theory allowing service providers to control what their customers can find online to serve their own business interests.
As for the issues with the platforms, the Federal Trade Commission, Paul said, is fighting a “gorilla with a toothpick” as is it tries to enforce whatever standards might apply. For example, Facebook owes a record fine of $5 billion, which it stated would not affect its quarterly profits, but the fine still is not paid.
And, he added, “self-regulation” has recently yielded “chaos.” Twitter has banned political ads. Google has eliminated targeting from political ads. He said, however, that Facebook has done nothing to correct the misinformation it offers, and has eliminated tools to fact-check the posts coming from its users (candidates and others).
A search engine will reveal information sufficient to debunk conspiracy theories, he said, if users are willing to spend the time it takes.
In answer to a question as to whether libel laws might be used against false posts, he said they are difficult to use to protect people from online damage for many reasons, including the fact that the subjects become “public persons.”
Ethical dilemmas include these:
Our sincere thanks to Paul Weismantel for a most informative and rather sobering presentation on this ongoing dilemma. Thanks also to Dave Mortimer for moderating, Marion Conlin for recruiting Paul, and to Fran Bollin for her usual excellent summary.