Computer Ethics, Sum 2023

Mondays and Wednesdays 6:00-7:30+

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.

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. (For some topics, eg those where opinions are well entrenched, this is very difficult.)

We will not have exams.

Big news last week from the Supreme Court

1. Nawras Alassaf was killed by members of Islamic State in 2017. His family sued Twitter for "aiding and abetting" the terrorists by, basically, allowing them to use Twitter. It is against the law for US companies (and individuals) to aid and abet terrorists, under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The case is Twitter v Taamneh.

The Supreme Court ruled that allowing terrorists to use your services, on the same footing as everyone else, did not constitute "aiding and abetting". Justice Thomas wrote, in a unanimous opinion, that Twitter's actions were "insufficient to establish that these defendants aided and abetted ISIS in carrying out the relevant attack".

There is a separate law, §230 of the Communications Decency Act, that says Twitter is not liable for the content posted by users. §230 is sometimes controversial, but the Supreme Court never even got to considering whether there were any §230 issues to review.

One point was that it appears Twitter's recommendation algorithms might have recommended some ISIS content. But Justice Thomas argued that there was no special recommendation of ISIS; Twitter simply recommends content that is similar to what one has already viewed.

The recommendation issue was stronger in the Google case, Gonzalez v Google, but the Supreme Court sent that back to a lower court for further review in light of the Twitter decision. The Google case will almost certainly then be dismissed.

2. In 1981, Andy Warhol took a black-and-white photograph of Prince taken by Lynn Goldsmith and made a new image out of it. See them all at Much later, Goldsmith sued (she sued the Andy Warhol Foundation). The foundation claimed use of the image was Fair Use. By a 7-2 decision the Supreme Court ruled it was not. Justice Kagan wrote the dissenting opinion, bringing in quite a bit of the history of borrowing in art.

AWF had argued that Warhol's use was "transformative". But the Supreme Court felt that the underlying purpose was the same: to illustrate Prince. " As portraits of Prince used to depict Prince in magazine stories about Prince, the original photograph and AWF’s copying use of it share substantially the same purpose."

The pictures are similar, but wait until we get to Cariou v Prince (a different Prince!).

The case is AWF v Goldsmith.

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?

3. Last fall, Apple proposed scanning iPhone photos that are uploaded to iCloud for child pornography. Specifically, they will compare a special hash of the photo with hashes of a database of known child pornography from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

4. Texas passed HB 20, making it illegal for big social-media companies to discriminate based on "viewpoint". A federal district court judge promptly blocked the law. The Fifth Circuit recently unblocked it. There are two issues here:

  1. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act explicitly gives websites the power to moderate content on their site, without liability
  2. Websites have a First Amendment right to moderate what they publish

The Fifth Circuit dropped the block in part for procedural reasons, but it's still weird.

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


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