Campus & Community

Mock Web site raises tough ethical issues about privacy

5 min read
Co-chair of the Internet conference Louise M. Ryan, professor of biostatistics at the School of Public Health and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Photo by Nick Lange.

There’s a lot going on in Gotham City.

Participants at the Third Biennial International Conference on Internet & Society (iS2k) at Harvard next week will get the opportunity to hear all about it.

A mock Web site displaying key environmental data and crime statistics has been created for the fictional city, explicitly demonstrating one of the most contentious issues fostered by the information superhighway – the conflict between the public’s right to know and the individual and corporate right to privacy.

Conference co-chair Louise M. Ryan, professor of biostatistics in the Faculty of Public Health and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, believes the mock Web site – and the varied reactions it generates – will be a telling indicator of the potential evolution of the Internet in the years to come.

“There’s a ton of information out there that people would like to have access to and are starting to get access to,” Ryan says. “I am particularly interested in environmental issues and community-based research, especially from the perspective of getting information to the community, so that people know what’s going on around them.”

Ryan, who specializes in the use of statistical methodologies to quantify environmental risks for cancer and other diseases, believes the Gotham City Web site will highlight the kinds of “ethical issues that come up in terms of allowing people easy access to what could be perceived as fairly controversial or frightening information.” Certainly much of the information has been available to diligent researchers in the past, but it’s never been so easily accessible in such abundance to so many people.

One of the conference panel discussions, titled “Right to know — how far does it go?,” and moderated by Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, will explore if and how scientific information should be available to the general public on line, and how the reliability of that information can be ensured.

“One idea behind the session is to explore the tensions between people’s desire to find out things related to their community, and a company’s right to privacy concerning how they’re going about their business,” Ryan says. “A lot of environmental activists believe that if the information is out there somewhere, then they have the right to put it on the Web. But there’s something about putting it on the Web that gives it more power than if it’s just information that is passively available.

“Having someone be able to click and find this information can automatically make it seem more provocative, and people are much more able to act on it, rather than when it’s just something that’s in a file drawer at the EPA.”

Another technique for exploring the thorny ethical dilemmas posed by the free flow of information over the Internet will be a mock Web “Crime Cam,” showing people going into and coming out of what’s supposed to be a crack house, or house of prostitution. Ryan believes the demonstration will exhibit how the intrusion into people’s personal lives must be weighed against the societal benefits of such a technology.

“The idea would be that this is good for the community because [the camera] is monitoring people who might be committing a crime,” Ryan says. “Of course you don’t know if there’s anyone actually committing a crime. All they’re doing is going in and out of a building, but it does bring up the conflict of a community’s right to information versus an individual’s right to privacy.”

Similar conflicts arise, Ryan believes, when authorities post the names and addresses of ex-convicts and parolees living in their neighborhood.

“Suppose I’m a convicted sex offender, and I’ve served my term. Do I have the right to privacy, or do citizens have the right to post my name and address on a Web site?” Ryan asks. “Some community members might say they need that information to protect their family. The flip side is that those convicted criminals also have rights to live their lives.”

Ryan is particularly intrigued by these questions as a result of her work as a public health scientist. “The amount of information you can access now [over the Internet] is staggering, and it’s having an impact, not only on professionals like myself, but also on citizens, who are also getting information to unprecedented degrees, and that affects the way they feel about their community.”

In some cases, the information is for sale online, posing yet another vexing dilemma. “It’s become clear to me that the Internet really poses an interesting dichotomy for society,” Ryan explains. “On one hand, it’s an unprecedented money-making machine, but on the other hand, it’s also a mechanism for doing good for society.” Ryan admits the challenge is to balance the two.

How best to deal with the instantaneous and potentially dangerous dissemination and sale of information over the Internet are among the many pressing concerns on the minds of researchers and academicians these days. Ryan believes this year’s iS2k conference at Harvard, and others like it, will begin providing some of the solutions.