Chapter 1: Unwrapping the Gift

Crowd funding

Artists, designers, and other creative people have raised money for small ($100) and large (multimillion dollar) projects via Kickstarter, a crowd-funding site. The prospect (perhaps already achieved) that Kickstarter will generate more funding than the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal agency, disturbs some people.

Group 1: Describe ways in which Kickstarter (or sites like it) is a better way to raise funds for creative projects than is the NEA.
Group 2: Describe ways in which the NEA is a better way to raise funds for creative projects than are nongovernmental crowd-funding sites.
Group 3: Some worry that the success of Kickstarter could result in reduced funding for nonprofit organizations and might lead to arguments to abolish government funding of the arts. Are these results likely? Describe positive and negative impacts. Overall, would such results be good or bad? 

Selling on the Web

The state senate of one state passed a law prohibiting Tesla Motors from selling its electric luxury cars online.

Group 1: You represent a car dealers association that lobbied for this law. Give your arguments.
Group 2: You represent Tesla Motors. Give arguments against the law.
Group 3: Evaluate the arguments of both sides. What other, unstated, reasons might be behind the positions of the two sides? If you were in the state senate, how would you have voted? Why?

Chapter 2: Privacy

Detecting emotion on smartphones.

Researchers are developing a system to detect a person's emotions while they are talking on a smartphone or other device.
Group 1: You are the researchers. Describe all the wonderful potential applications for your project.
Group 2: You are social scientists and privacy watchdogs. Describe potential annoying, manipulative, or abusive uses.
Group 3: You are a team of technical experts and ethicists. Propose guidelines for the use of such technology.

Evaluating social network features.

Describe a relatively recent new feature on Facebook or another social network system. Describe its benefits and potential problems. What are its default settings? Are they well chosen?

FBI use of cell phone location data

After several jewelry store robberies, the FBI arrested two men. Cell phone records, obtained from the phone companies, showed that the men were near the stores at the times of the robberies. They also showed the men moving along the route where the police chased the robbers after one robbery but did not catch them.
Group 1: Based on the information above, how likely do you think it is that the men arrested were the robbers? Why?
Group 2: Suppose the FBI found the data linking these specific men to the robberies by searching and analyzing all cell phone records for the areas and times of the robberies. Give arguments on both sides of the question: Is that an appropriate use of such data?
Group 3: Suppose the FBI had some reason to suspect the men and then obtained the records for their cell phones (without a search warrant). Give arguments on both sides of the question: Is that an appropriate use of such data?

A right to be forgotten?

A Spanish newspaper reported, 20 years ago, about a malpractice suit filed against a surgeon in Spain. The surgeon later won the lawsuit. Currently a Google search on the surgeon's name brings up a link to the original article, which does not mention the result of the lawsuit. The surgeon asked a court in Spain to require that Google remove the link from its search results.
Group 1: Argue for the surgeon.
Group 2: Argue for Google's decision not to remove the link.
Group 3: Whether or not you would grant this particular removal request, argue in favor of a process by which people could require that search engines remove links to some kinds of material on the Web from search results for searches on the person's name.
Group 4: Argue against establishing a legal requirement for search engines to do so.
This discussion assignment is based on an actual case that Google won in 2013. In 2014, the EU high court ruled in a similar case that search engines may be required to remove links when people request it.

Is Facebook public?

A high school senior put a photo of herself in a bikini on Facebook. A district school system used the photo and the student's name in a community seminar urging people to be careful about what they post. The student sued the school district claiming that it violated her privacy. She said she believed that only friends and friends of friends could see the photo.
Group 1: Argue the case for the student.
Group 2: Argue the case for the school district.
Group 3: Assume you are writing an article on impacts of social media and have chosen to comment on this case. What will you say?

Strong encryption for communications and data

Several tech companies (e.g., Apple and Google) are adding strong encryption for some user communications and stored data that can prevent (or make extremely difficult) access by phone thieves and the government. The companies themselves cannot access the data when requested by law enforcement agencies.
Group 1: Argue that people should be free to use (and companies free to provide) the best available tools to protect privacy. Address the problems of investigating serious crimes.
Group 2: Argue that a law should require that the technology allow law enforcement access to communication and stored data. Address concerns raised by the release of documents describing vast government surveillance programs.
Group 3: Assume there is no law restricting use of tools that prevent government access (or make it extremely difficult). You are a committee of high-level executives of a major tech company debating whether to implement such technology in your operating system for cell phones and other products. Mention several relevant issues and discuss them.

Chapter 3: Freedom of Speech

Free speech or consumer protection?

A licensed veterinarian in Texas with 30 years experience gave advice over the Internet to pet owners, some in remote parts of the world, about pet health issues. The Texas government ordered him to shut his site because it is illegal in Texas for a veterinarian to give advice over the Internet without examining the animal.
Group 1: Argue against the law as it applies in this situation.
Group 2: Argue in favor of the law.

Chapter 4: Intellectual Property

Smartphone patents

Commenting on the common practice of companies seeking injunctions to prevent other companies from selling their products while a patent suit is in progress, federal judge Richard Posner said, "An injunction that imposes greater costs on the defendant than it confers benefits on the plaintiff reduces net social welfare." Is this a good principle to consider in patent cases? Should a provision similar to the fourth fair use guideline apply to patents? (Posner's statement was part of a decision dismissing a case in which Motorola and Apple sued each other over smartphone patents. June, 2012)

Chapter 5: Crime and Security

Single Device Linked to Identity

Many people have expressed the opinion that within about 10 years, we will use one technology, or device, to identify ourselves for all applications where we need to do so, for example: when logging into our computer, unlocking our house, and buying things using our credit accounts.
Discuss pros and cons of such a system.


Chapter 6: Work

Firing employees for what they "like"

While a county sheriff was running for re-election, several employees of the sheriff's department "liked" the sheriff's opponent's Facebook page. The employees were fired. Suppose the employees are appealing the firing. Assume the employment contract does not cover this situation.
Group 1: Represent the employees; argue that they should not be fired. Give several reasons.
Group 2: Represent the sheriff's department. Argue for the right of the department to make the decision. Respond to the arguments of the employees' representative.

Social media and employment discrimination

Age discrimination in hiring is illegal. Suppose an older person has filed a complaint with the federal government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming that a company that uses social media as its main tool to recruit new employees is illegally discriminating against older people, who are less likely to use social media.
Group 1: Argue for the older person's claim and propose appropriate regulations.
Group 2: Argue against the claim.

Robotics and employment

A paper described a category of "physical tasks that cannot be well described in rules because they require optical recognition and fine muscle control that have proven difficult to program. Examples include safely driving a truck, cleaning a building, and setting gems in engagement rings. ... [C]omputerization should have little effect on the percentage of the workforce engaged in these tasks." (Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work,
Group 1: Argue that the conclusion is substantially correct.
Group 2: Argue that the conclusion is substantially incorrect.

Chapter 7: Evaluating and Controlling Technology

Ethics of false tweets in emergencies

During Hurricane Sandy, a man sent several tweets containing false statements about electric power and transportation conditions (for example, that a major highway was completely flooded). Some journalists retweeted the false statements.
Group 1: Discuss the ethics of the person who sent the tweets.
Group 2: Discuss the professional ethics of the journalists.
Group 3: Devise professional guidelines for journalists in such situations.

A digital divide in online education

A study by the University of Pennsylvania found that the (roughly 35,000) students who enroll in its massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a somewhat special group. For example, among students in the U.S., 80% already have a college degree. Among students from some countries outside the U.S., 80% were in the wealthiest 6% of the population.
Group 1: Argue that MOOCs have failed as a way to bring education to people who have traditionally had less access to it.
Group 2: Present counterarguments to the view that MOOCs have failed.
Group 3: You are the board of directors of an organization that provides MOOCs. How would you respond to the study? What changes, if any, would you make in your business plan, marketing, etc.?

3D printers

3D "printers" create three-dimensional structures, layer by layer, using various materials (e.g., glues and resins) under direction of a computer file. People have found a very wide variety of uses for them, including creating toys, 3D models of body parts from MRIs to help prepare for surgeries, architectural models, models of proteins and the topography of Mars, prototypes of designs for new products ranging from shoes to parts for new aircraft. Using human tissue rather than plastics, scientists are experimenting with "printing" body parts to replace damaged ones. 3D printers can also make plastic guns that are not detected by standard metal detectors at security screening stations. Someone posted the design information for making such guns on the Internet.
Group 1: Discuss the ethics of posting the design for the plastic gun.
Group 2: Critique 3D printers from the perspective of the Luddites (see Section 7.3).
Group 3: Respond to the Luddite criticisms. Give your own overall evaluation of the social impact of 3D printers.

Chapter 8: Errors, Failures and Risks

Dependency on Electric Power

We do not need any special technology or power source (except daylight) to read information from printed books, magazines, and so on. Access to all the vast amount of digitized information depends on electricity, batteries, and sophisticated software.

Group 1: Describe various scenarios in which digitized information would not be accessible to a large number of people for a short or long time and in which the consequences would be serious.
Group 2: Should we be concerned about the trend toward more books and other forms of information appearing only in digital form? Is this a potentially serious social problem?
Group 3: What actions or policies can individuals, businesses, organizations, and governments take to reduce the potential negative consequences of loss of access to digital information? Evaluate your proposals; tell which you consider reasonable and which you do not.

Human Error or Poor Design?

Some drivers of Toyota Camry cars involved in accidents have blamed the accidents on unintended acceleration caused by problems in the electronic throttle system. A NASA study found no fault with the electronic throttle system. In some cases, the car's event recorder indicates that the driver stepped on the accelerator when intending to step on the brake. Some accidents resulted from pedals caught on floor mats. A very high percentage of drivers in accidents involving unintended acceleration were 65 years old or older. A group of software experts who examined Toyota's source code for the electronic throttle made many criticisms of the code and said problems with the code could cause unintended acceleration in some circumstances. With this varied information as background, discuss what level of cause-and-effect proof should be necessary to win a lawsuit against Toyota for a crash where the driver blames the electronic throttle for unintended acceleration. What information should be considered in particular cases? What implications do your responses have for other products that include large, complex software systems?

Chapter 9: Professional Ethics and Responsibilities

Pending . . . . .