Computer Ethics, Fall 2023 online

Thursdays 4:15-6:45

Class 1 Readings

Read the first three sections of Baase chapter 1 and at least the first section of chapter 4, especially:
    Video sharing in §1.2.1
    Cellphone case-study in §1.2.2
    What is intellectual property?: §4.1.1

Before class 2, finish reading chapter 1 and read the first three sections of chapter 4.

The main course notes are in the Notes Organized by Topic section on the main web page. Reading assignments, comments on the class discussion and occasional special notices are in these week-by-week notes.


There will be three papers. For the first paper, you will be given an opportunity to rewrite it.

Plagiarism rules: be sure ALL quotations are marked as such, and also cited.

Use of ChatGPT is not strictly disallowed, but ChatGPT won't help you come up with your answer to the issues posed in the writing assignments.

When you write, be sure you organize your points clearly and address the question. Grammar and style count for MUCH less!

You will each participate in one or two "debates". I will publish a list of topics soon, and create a sign-up site. Topics will be in the form of declarative sentences; topics based on the examples above might be
  1. We need a strong DMCA takedown process to protect copyright holders
  2. Mass communications monitoring should be abolished; no government agency should be able to access even communications metadata without a finding of probable cause.
At the start of class on the designated day, you'll present either the for position or the against position. Your presentation should take 3 to 5 minutes. Someone else will then take the opposing position.

The catch is that you won't know which position you'll have until the actual start, so you'll have to think about both sides.

You may use notes. At the end of the debate the rest of the class will vote as to the winner; your goal should be to try to convince your classmates.

We will not have exams.

Example: is file-sharing stealing, if nobody lost anything?

Some topics for discussion

1. Filesharing: is it stealing?

If it is not, then what is it? If it is, why do people do it who would never steal anyone's physical possession?

Legally speaking, filesharing is copyright infringment. A few special cases:

News item (1/18/2022): Note how hard a line Big Content is taking here; they were arguing that an ad-blocker was copyright infringement.

2. The Apple App Store

To run an app on an iPhone, it pretty much has to be in the Apple App Store. Apple's stated reason for this is security, and they have indeed been extremely successful at keeping malware and spyware off of iPhones. But they charge 30% of an app's fees (special rules apply to continuing subscriptions, like Spotify, and no fee is charged to free apps that sell non-app merchandise, like Amazon).

Game vendor Epic, maker of Fortnite, got itself kicked off the App Store for changing their rules on in-app purchases. They sued Apple for antitrust violations; they mostly lost, although Apple may have to end up opening up their payment system to "others".

What do you think?

Google is facing big changes

Google is facing a huge antitrust trial about their lock on advertising. This includes search ads, and Google's near-monopoly on them.

Is Google's search wildly popular because it is just so good, with the Page rank algorithm (that's Page as in Larry, not Page as in web)? Or is it popular because Google pays lots of money to Apple and to Firefox to maintain itself as the default search? (Hint: Google search is not "just so good".)

Meta is facing big changes too

The EU has declared war on "behavioral" advertising, that is, advertising that tracks your online behavior to target your interests. See Google search ads are not in this category, but all Google's "display" ads (like banner ads on unrelated websites) are, and almost all of Meta (Facebook)'s ads are.

For a long time the deal was this: we will provide you with a free online service, provided we can collect some information about you that we will use only for targeting ads. But the targeting got out of hand. You can now buy location history from data brokers, and deanonymize it to figure out who was where. The "where" can be an abortion clinic, or a neighborhood with no economic activity aside from drug dealing, or a bathhouse, or an AA meeting, or whatever other location someone probably has a significant interest in keeping private.

Is this free-service-for-behavioral-advertising bargain really a bad thing?

The EU Digital Services Act went into effect Friday, August 25. It makes data collection about users strictly opt-in. Why would anyone opt in to data collection? Maybe to receive a more personalized set of advertisements. But it looks like there will be relatively few takers.

Meta tried a complicated argument justifying their continued collection of user data. As I understand it, the idea was that the origin of all their user data was people voluntarily posting it on Facebook -- to share it with their friends -- and Meta therefore had their consent to collect the data to use it for targeted advertising.  It got shot down.

The DSA also has Texas-style "you can't suppress our speech" rules.

Overview of some of the issues we will discuss this semester:


Michael Eisner's June 2000 statement to Congress (edited, from Halbert & Ingulli 2004).