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Social Media Socially Irresponsible

Facebook, Google Engage in Unethical Actions

The social media sites Facebook and Google act as though the rules do not apply to them or it's too much for them to conform to expected standards of behavior. This past week we learned that Facebook engaged in a covert smear campaign against rival Google. Facebook paid a public relations firm to push well known journalists and bloggers to report that a new Google feature was putting users' personal data at risk and that Google was guilty of violating privacy rights. If this is true, Google should be labeled an unethical company because, according to Kantian Rights Theory, citizens have certain basic rights and privacy is one of them.

Google's "Social Circle" appears to do just that. It allows Google users who search for a topic like "restaurant in Boston" to see among the results items about that topic that were posted by their friends on services like Facebook, LinkedIn and Yelp. It works only for people who have chosen to link their Google accounts to their accounts on those services, and relies on information that those services make publicly available on the Internet. Furthermore, Google Social Search helps you discover relevant content from your social connections, a set of your online friends and contacts. Content from your friends and acquaintances is sometimes more relevant and meaningful to you than content from any random person. For example, an online movie review is useful, but a movie review from your best friend can be even better.

Google's actions seem to be motivated by an ends justifies the means approach to business decision making. However, the means to which a company achieves its goal is more important than the goal itself. It's wrong to jeopardize user privacy rights in the name of market share of enhanced revenue sources. Up until now, Google has enjoyed a relatively good reputation for honesty and integrity in its practices. Facebook has not. Facebook & Google Facebook acknowledged hiring public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to "focus attention" on privacy concerns with Social Circles. The PR firm contacted key journalists and bloggers, including University of Indiana researcher Chris Sogholan, encouraging them to write critically about Social Circles. To his credit, Soghalan asked for the identity of the firm that had hired Burson. A representative of the firm declined to say, so Soghalan posted that exchange on line. After confirmation of the story by Dan Lyons, a Daily Beast reporter, Burson released a statement saying that the PR campaign was "not at all standard operating procedure" and "should have been declined."

Why is it that companies like Google and Facebook can't or won't think of the consequences of their actions before doing something of questionable legality and definitely unethical? I suppose it's a form of hubris, and it seems that these organizations may have gone to the Bernie Madoff school of ethics. Act Utilitarian theory tells us to weigh the harms and benefits to the stakeholders -- those potentially affected by an action -- prior to making decisions. Clearly, Google didn't do it or, perhaps, it did but weighed their own interests and benefits to the company above those of all the stakeholders combined. That's why Rule Utilitarianism is a more valid approach to ethical reasoning. It posits that regardless of utilitarian benefits, certain rules should never be violated, and that would include not to invade one's privacy.

Facebook has been involved in other questionable actions. In May 2010 it was reported that Facebook violated its own policy against transmitting personal information of its users by allowing advertisers to see detailed personal information about some Facebook users. Apparently, there was a security flaw concerning referer URLs whereby Facebook revealed information to advertisers that could be used to personally identify visitors. The problem was made far worse by the changes Facebook made in the past few months by designating radically more user data as "publicly available information" and creating new tools for mining that data. 

I suppose the bottom line is companies like Facebook and Google lack the integrity to make decisions in a principled manner, instead placing expediency and greed above all else. Here's an excerpt from Google's code of ethics: "Don't be evil." ...Our practices should be "built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct... Our commitment to the highest standards helps us hire great people, who then build great products, which in turn attract loyal users. Trust and mutual respect among employees and users are the foundation of our success, and they are something we need to earn every day."

All too many companies like Google and Facebook fail to "walk the talk" of ethics. Ethics is all about how you act when no one is looking. Unfortunately, Google and Facebook failed to look over their shoulders before deciding to engage in unethical actions.

Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, May 16, 2011

Readers may be interested in my blog about Facebook Cozying Up to China by agreeing to  surrender information on request to the Chinese authorities so they can control dissenting comment.