Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Category: Liberty (Page 2 of 2)

On ‘negotiating the balance between personal freedom and really cool free stuff’

Imagine you are watching your favourite TV show and its protagonist walks to the fridge and gets out a drink (or: gets into a car, answers their phone, walks past a billboard, pours breakfast cereal into a bowl – you get the picture). Unbeknownst to you, the actual drink that you see them take out of the fridge is dependent on factors about you, such as your geographic location: you see the character pull out a Diet Coke, for instance, while another person on the other side of the world watching the same episode of the same programme at the same time sees them take out a particular brand of iced tea.

You have (both) just been subject to a new type of advertising practice known as ‘digital insertion’ – a much more technologically-sophisticated, targeted version of product placement. 

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Mass incarceration

One thing that I learned as a PhD student at Oxford was that philosophically interesting questions and questions about existing injustice do not always overlap – some existing practices are so obviously wrong from a normative perspective, I was told, that there is no point in writing normative theories about them. This seems right for certain cases, but I still haven’t quite made up my mind about whether it is always true.

I remember this Oxford seminar while reading this utterly depressing piece about incarceration and its effect on black communities in the U.S. in this month’s issue of the Atlantic.

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The right to freedom of expression on facebook: Do we have a valid claim against censorship in social media?


Image by Giorgi Balakhadze, Wikimedia Commons (I have no rights to this image)

So, it happened. One of my facebook friends got “edited”. Without any further notice, one of his posts about the Gaza conflict vanished from his wall. The post itself was not really radical, it linked to an official article. In his next post he mentioned this. Three of his friends commented that it had happened to them as well. All posts were about Gaza. None of the users were notified by facebook. I think that this case of “silent editing” presents a fitting topic for “justice everywhere”. A rather familiar theme of justice rears its head here, namely the fundamental right of free speech. Do we have a right to express ourselves freely in social media? Should we? 
Facebook’s editing policies have been widely discussed, for instance in the case of a cancer-survivor put her post-mastectomy-picturesup. They were considered pornographic by facebook and consequently removed. Public outrage followed, in the wake of which facebook changed its policy, explicitly allowing post-mastectomy photos. Other incidents included the removal of posts by gay activists or of pictures of artwork or photographs of new-born with a severe birth defect. Most of these cases were not silent, however. Users got notified by facebook.
Facebook explicitly reserves the right to remove content referring to their “community standards” that everyone who joins facebook must agree to. They also state that they do not usually scan posts themselves, but react to complaints by other users that find certain content offensive. The reports are collected by an admin who reviews whether the content does in fact violate facebook’s standards. Thus, not everything that is reported will be removed. Yet, it is ultimately up to facebook to decide what stay’s up and what doesn’t.  (Interestingly, facebook has recently outsourced this work to the firm “oDesk”)
The tone of most of the articles I have quoted above displays a strong sense of entitlement: posters are often furious that their content is taken down. It seems that they feel curtailed in their right to express themselves via facebook. Are these claims justifiable? A powerful (mainly legal) counter-argument comes to mind: facebook is not a governmental organisation; it is a private company only bound by the general laws of the countries it operates in. Arguing on the level of political liberalism, a similar argument could be formulated by pointing out that nobody has to join facebook. People join willingly and knowing that facebook is a platform run by a private company. They need to agree to the latter’s terms and conditions (if they bother to read them), they do not need to post anything and they can terminate their account anytime. The latter is often much easier said than done, but still. Thus, users do not seem to possess the right to post whatever they want. If users do not like it, facebook might retort, they can use other platforms.
Regardless, I want to make a case on the basis of considerations of public justice that facebook needs to honour a right to free expression. The main reason is, in simple words, that facebook is just too big and influential to be excluded from further legal and ethical constraints – for example constraints on classic media or the monitoring that companies underlie which have a monopoly. Private persons, companies, newspapers, tv-channels, non-profit organisations etc. use it to spread information, to present themselves or get in contact with each other. Facebook should therefore be treated as the big media player that it is –  like google. The latter is already familiar with legal claims
      Based on this general assumption, I like to raise four legal-ethical points to argue why and how facebook should honour the right for free expression.
  1. Constitutional rights can be applied to non-governmental organisations, as the laws of some countries show. For instance, German and Austrian law describes the model of a so-called “thirdparty effect of constitutional rights”. The effect comes into play when the people involved have possess “very unequal economic and social power”, e.g. in the relationship between employers and employees. Analogously one could argue that the power gap between companies such as google or facebook and their users is large enough to warrant the consideration that users can evoke their constitutional rights
  2. Since facebook has an enormous bearing on the public debate of political and social issues, it should be subject to media laws and political scrutiny. In analogy to the google case, rights to privacy, to inform themselves freely or not to be harassed need to be respected. Some of them are already part of facebook’s “community standards”, but facebook is the only that monitors their enforcement. 
  3. Facebooks own standards formulate obligations to their users. Facebook promises to leave the rights to content in the user’s hand, whenever standards are not violated. If not, they promise to notify the user (s. point 4 below). It should be made sure that facebook adheres to its own standards.
  4. Transparency presents a prominent principle in procedural justice. People have a right to be informed about the matters that concern them, especially in public interaction and deliberation. If facebook is editing content silently, it clearly violates this right.
What my colleague experienced can, in my view, called “censorship” (a term that is usually reserved for government action) in a strong form. My point is thus that governmental institutions should have a way to interfere in this case. At least they should monitor processes more closely. This includes that facebook discloses it policies and operations. What do you think?

P.S. I admit to being a frequent facebook user to gather information and keep in contact with people I do not see on a regular basis. Interestingly, my post linking to an article about Gideon Levy and his reports from Gaza is still up, while it disappeared from other walls. Not sure what that means.

Capping Working Hours

Recently, the scandalous decisions of some investment banks to treat their employees like human beings by suggesting they take Friday nights and Saturdays off has raised much debate amongst financial journalists and their ilk.
The issue of long working hours is not limited to investment banks; a survey in the US of 1000 professionals by Harvard Business School found that 94% worked fifty hours or more a week, and for almost half, working hours averaged over 65 hours a week. With the increase of automisation in production chains moving labour into customer facing service roles, more individuals will likely face this challenge in their daily lives.
There are good reasons to think that these hours are not useful at all. Economists have long known that as working hours increase, the marginal production of workers fall – mistakes increase and the quality of work produced falls.
More importantly than the impacts on productivity however, are morally relevant considerations that are related to cultures of long working hours:
Industries with long working hours are typically biased in favour of those who do not have other commitments which limit their available time – most notably child care and currently, in our society, this means women. Economist Claudia Goldin finds that gender gaps in wages are greatest in those industries which exhibit “non-linear pay structures” – essentially those in which individuals who can work extremely long hours are disproportionately rewarded. This describes most jobs in the corporate, financial and legal worlds.
There are important health implications of longer working hours with significant evidence that those who work longer than 48 hours a week on a regular basis are “likely to suffer an increased risk of heart disease,stress related illness, mental illness, diabetes and bowel problems.”
Finally there are various employment related issues worth considering – for example would unemployment be decreased if each 100 hour-per-week job were split into two of 50? Would such a policy help reduce the concentration of power in organisations as key managerial tasks would likely have to be increasingly shared?
While our society may gain significantly from moving away from working long hours, it will always be incredibly difficult for any firm to act unilaterally in this matter due to substantial co-ordination failures in this area.
The appropriate response, I believe, is for Government to intervene with a hard cap of 48 hours per week that applies across almost all industries, with no built in exceptions beyond those which are absolutely essential. The current EU working times directive which is supposed to provide a similar function, is farcical in its ability to constrain individuals from working, due to the amount of exceptions and opt out clauses built into it.
A hard cap of 48 hours would be hard to implement, would have some uncomfortable implications (for example – forcing individuals who enjoy their jobs to go home and stop working) and would likely have some negative consequences on the economy. However there would seem to be substantial positive gains to be made and I believe that these are large enough to justify developing such a cap.

*Update: Marxist economist, Chris Dillow, has an excellent post describing how problems like long working hours can naturally arise without actually benefiting anyone.

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