Are Internet Tools and Resources Ethical?

Thomas J. Froehlich


A technology is not morally neutral. It embodies a set of values, a framework and an ideology. Technologies include intellectual technologies, such as catalogs and indexes, and software technologies, such as search engines, metasearchers and subject directories or indexes on the Internet. Search engines have intrinsic properties that make them inherently and irredeemably flawed, because they attempt to infer intellectual properties, such as the meaningful content of a web site, from physical properties. Search engines rely primarily on query term location and query term frequency, sometimes boosted by other computable factors, such as link popularity. It is true that there may be some correlation between physical properties and intellectual properties. For example, the occurrence of a query term in the title of a document or web page often does mean that the document is about that term, at least in part or for the most part, and that the term is important; similarly, term frequency may be an indicator about the relative importance of that term in a particular web page and thereby about the relative importance of that web site with respect to that term as a query term. But this correlation is a weak one and certainly not directly causal: for example, any term in a title or URL of a web site does not mean the article is about that term. Consider the web site entitled and URLed as “web pages that suck” which is hardly about the value of breast feeding. The attempt to reduce intellectual properties to physical properties is just another version of a longstanding idiocy of making the problem fit the technology rather than the reverse: search engine software developers make the information-seeking problem fit the technology rather than making technology fit the problem, acknowledging the inherent weaknesses of the technology. This is because of the nature of computers: they can count and determine location (as long as the location is easily identifiable, e.g., a title field in an HTML tag), but they cannot determine meaningful connections, at least not at the moment and not in the foreseeable future. So too is it with metasearchers and subject directories.

What is problematic about these tools is that they are offered as if they were legitimate intellectual technologies: they rarely, if at all, explain their limitations, drawbacks, purview (what section of the Internet they cover), or means of ranking the output. Social responsibility insists that, like information professionals, they should promote, to the extent possible, informed consent. But economic motives mitigate against admissions of the flawed nature of each engine or subject directories or the possibility of informed consent. To the extent that search engines and subject directories pretend to be authoritative and have intellectual substance and do not promote informed consent, they can be regarded as unethical. Furthermore, they embrace, sustain and perpetuate an ideology: the domination culture by technology, which in turn is driven by the domination of economics in cultural, social and political life. This drive has led to attempts to make commodities of all intellectual work, to demean public interest and free access to information, and to turn the Internet into a giant shopping mall. Such an ideology has fostered a rampant consumerism, and deployed capitalism without conscience around the world as the new theology. Capitalism without conscience means that profits and jobs overshadow all other kinds of concerns: public interest, environmentalism, and other forms of social responsibility.