The ethics of Web 2.0 – Management reserves the right to ban you without providing justifications

6 April, 2011 at 22:40 | Posted in Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Moral Compass

Importing social moral norms from the "real world" to the cyberspace is not trivial. Image by psd via Flickr

When I was a teenager, I went occasionally with a friend of mine to a commercial center on the other side of our hometown. There was a video arcade there next to some cheap restaurants and a cinema. On the wall of the video arcade there was a sign “This place is a family entertainment center. Therefore, the management reserves the right to deny entrance to any person without providing justifications”. When I first saw this sign I smiled, because I knew exactly to what kind of people the management of the place wanted to deny entrance. These were groups of youths who found entertainment not in the video games, but rather in picking on people, making noise and sometimes even worse than that. It was not easy to set criteria for defining these youths, and even if the management had found out that these unpleasant youths usually belong to a certain ethnic or religious group, or come from a certain neighborhood, it would have been improper and illegal to ban this entire group. And yet, is it legal or moral to tell someone to keep away from the video arcade without providing justifications? The answer is undoubtedly no, as I came to learn several years later. It is definitely illegal, and even in the absence of a law against discrimination, this policy is highly unethical.

The idea that any person deserves respect and being treated fairly and reasonably, especially when dealing with authorities or power holders, sounds obvious to many these days, which proves that humanity has gone a long way in the right direction. But there is a new scene where these rules of ethics are not so obvious, namely the cyberspace. At the early days of the Internet, the question of how people should be treated in the cyberspace was not too relevant. First of all, this new technology was used by a small number of people, and secondly, the interaction in the cyberspace was limited. It would have been silly to ban certain people from browsing one’s website. The question was raised occasionally in chatrooms, but most people didn’t even know they existed.

Today we are deep in the age of Web 2.0. Simply put, it means that the Internet technology has developed and now enables wide spectrum of interactions among people, as well as collaborative work in the cyberspace. This gave rise to wonderful ideas and projects, like Wikipedia, which I mention because I know it well from various angles. Wikipedia vows to let anyone edit its articles and to assume good faith even when the contribution seems inadequate. In practice, Wikipedia today acts rather like that video arcade – you can certainly try to edit articles, but the management, namely one of the more veteran editors that were granted special privileges, reserve the right to ban you without providing serious justifications. The banning is usually irreversible.

The problem is not unique to Wikipedia, however, in Wikipedia the dissonance between the welcoming statements and reality makes it a prominent example. It should also be noted that Wikipedia managed to adhere to its declared principle for a long time before things started to go wrong. Personally, I think this development is very natural and expected, but this, of course, is by no mean an excuse for taking it lightly.

The ethics of Web 2.0 are still in their infancy, and importing social moral norms from the “real world” to the cyberspace is not trivial. And yet it is high time this issue be addressed, and especially in those projects that waved the flag of universal participation. These projects have to realize that banning a participant is the equivalent of denying her or his entrance to a public building, maybe even like denying her or him of the right to vote.

importing social moral norms from the “real world” to the cyberspace is not trivial.

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