Facebook has just turned five and is already one of the most popular web sites in the UK and elsewhere. Social networking sites have brought huge benefits to their users, allowing them to stay in contact with friends, acquaintances and business partners around the world.
But, as the recent row over the ownership of files and entries in Facebook has reminded us, such advantages often come with a price attached. The ownership of material put up on these sites, and the acceptable use of it, is unclear.
There are plenty of stories of employers checking such sites for pre-employment screening. People are getting married and divorced because of Facebook activities, and there have been virtual and real murders caused by social networking activities. Five years ago we did not even consider the existence of Facebook; now it raises many important questions.
Facebook and other similar sites are by no means the only technologies that have become popular, but which raise ethical issues. Another example is the legal action surrounding the file-sharing site Pirate Bay. This site uses BitTorrent technology to facilitate the exchange of files. Its opponents argue that it provides the opportunity to infringe intellectual property; its advocates believe it to be an important tool for the exchange of information.
A final example is the string of security incidents in which the UK government has lost data on citizens, tax payers, convicts and others whose data it needs to run its business and provide services. These incidents have shed doubt on the government's commitment and ability to protect data, and raised concerns about possible misuse.
What these three examples have in common is that they show how new and emerging technologies, as well as novel applications of more established technologies, have the potential to raise considerable ethical and social questions. For many of these questions, we do not have particularly good answers. It is part of the nature of such problems that they need to be discussed broadly in society for a consensus to emerge on how best to address them.
However, one could argue that it would be desirable to take a more proactive stance towards the ethical and social implications of emerging technologies. The way we tend to deal with these questions is to wait for problems to develop before seeking solutions. But this precludes us from ensuring from the outset that new technologies are designed with a solution to ethical and social issues in mind. Ways of addressing these issues then tend to be bolted onto existing technologies, and rarely fit well.
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