At what point do we ask, “Is it ethical?” of the intersection of law and technology?

Technology, in shifting our society, has changed more than just the way we do things and the skills that are valued. It has also come up against our laws and had an impact on our morality and ethics. Things that matter today may have previously been a non-issue. Or maybe things that were issues have become even bigger issues because of what technology has made possible.

There are a whole lot of issues I deal with regularly that involve this. I am constantly trying to learn about copyright (especially Fair Dealing) because I need to know what I can and cannot use in courses. Sure, our courses are behind a login system. It can be tempting to ask, “Who’s going to know?” But is that the point? So I try to know what I legally can and cannot do so that I can behave ethically as a representative of the university. This includes grey areas like linking to illegally shared material. Just because you find it on YouTube or Vimeo doesn’t mean that it is there legally, even if it has been there for a really long time.

At the same time, there is another side. With digital interactions becoming more and more common, should more companies not attempt to make their work accessible in other formats? And not just accessible in potential but in actuality, meaning affordable, available to the public, etc? An example would be a video that an instructor has been using in his face-to-face courses for years. It is a documentary from both PBS and BBC. Both of them have educational versions and PBS has built an educational site with resources, etc. The video, however, is only available as a physical copy. That’s great for a traditional classroom but what about a digital one? Normally we seek streaming rights but there does not appear to be any option for that. Many companies have made it nearly impossible to seek educational use of their material in a digital age because they are still terrified of what it means. They worry that they will not make money.


flickr photo shared by FamZoo under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Because in lots of cases, that is what it comes down to. Business. Money. So much of the technology that we use has been built by for-profit companies. It is not neutral as technology. It is not even built for education. No, it is built to make money. The direction of education is HOW the companies make money. Get institutional licenses. Sell to schools. Think of Apple marketing to schools. They aren’t doing it solely because they believe that education is important (and that is assuming that that vision is still part of their mission which I find myself questioning). They want to make money. So you can use their products and they may have some software that is free for educators or reduced in price. But it still costs. And it also encourages schools to get access for their students. And students to learn Apple and then buy in because it is easier. Google isn’t making their Apps for Education for free or without additional motives either. It wasn’t designed by an educator for education, it was designed by a business. So when we think of ethics, we need to think also of who profits. Who makes money out of our decisions? What are they hoping to get out of it and is that a decision we should be making for our students?

Aaron Schwartz’s story is a great example of the ethical dilemmas that come from the shifts technology has introduced. Historically, published work from scholars was expensive, be it a book or a journal, but once a library bought it they had it and anyone could access it if they came to the library. Then came a push for digital versions. That should save money, right? Take up less space, be more accessible, require less paper. The “accessible” part of that was the issue. Digital files are so easy to share. Publishers have seen digital access as a danger to them and their way of business and so they did their best to make digital access incredibly expensive. It also makes access more limited. Aaron Schwartz was someone interested in those issues, interested in who profited from publishing research, who locked it away, who kept it from being publicly accessible to the people who could otherwise benefit from it (especially if it has been done by researchers at public institutions).

The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto: Aaron Schwartz, open access and the sharing imperative by Benjamin L. Hockenberry is a published version of a talk give by a librarian about the ethical and moral issues that influenced Aaron Schwartz to download the JSTOR archives. Hockenberry is clear that Schwartz did not make the archives public himself and may have been intending a research project similar to one he had previously undertaken. Others, however, did. Such an act could easily fit with Schwartz’s concerns about open access to information. I think it is important to be aware of the shift in information control that is happening and that students and teachers will inherit. Also the illegal (but ethical?) work to disrupt the situation. For further reference, in many cases when someone publishes an article in a traditional journal, the journal then owns the copyright of the article, not the author. The ethics for librarians and libraries (and those involved in information curation and dissemination) are huge when it comes to subscribing to digitally published materials. There are lots of ways we can translate this to any area where information is locked up (can your students take all their work and assessments with them? what about their data? are you using digital sources that require log-in where access ends at the end of the semester, year, term?).

This is research that is often accomplished because of public or governmental funding. Now think about all the other things that are being locked up behind copyright, behind paywalls, behind ownership. Is this really the point of copyright? Is copyright really to ensure that I can only have a song on a single device and if I want to listen to it in a different space I need to buy it all over again? Is it to ensure I cannot lend a book to someone else? Is it to make sure that artwork cannot be shared? (My husband is an Art History minor and I’ve learned just how often students and masters worked together, how often ideas were reworked historically. Remixing was normal in art but now we want to lock everything down.) Is it to ensure that the estate of someone who is dead or a company who took advantage can keep making money? Mickey Mouse is an example that is worth looking at. Things are easier and easier to share now but copyright is being locked down. And who is it really protecting to have things this locked down?

With that in mind, it’s all too easy to see how the ethics and moral decisions no longer seem to really match up with the law. This is how we end up in the world Larry Lessig talks about, where breaking the law seems ethical to so many people. So what do you think? Are we hitting the point at which technology has caused ethics/morality and law to diverge? Where does education fit into this?

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