Friday, 12 November 2010

The ethics of persuasive technologies

Only a few days ago I was blogging about the areas where science religion and technology can benefit from an inner dialogue and today I became even more aware of the need to promote this type of dialogue. The Church and Society Council presented a paper addressing ethical questions on internet advertising practices during an event at the Scottish Parliament sponsored by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce . Why would the Kirk be invited to speak on the ethics of online advertisement?

The internet is allowing everyone to have increased access to educational opportunities, online services, shopping and entertainment. We do not even need a computer anymore; smart mobile phones allow you to access a world of consumer choice and online services. However, online selling and advertising have entered totally new grounds in their adoption of persuasive technologies. In the case of e-commerce these technologies allow online retailers to gather information about your likes and dislikes when you shop online, and present you with ever more tempting offers based on what you have looked at on the internet. Your past viewing and online shopping activities allow online retailers to present you with newer and better tailored personalised offers in the hope of getting you to part (yet again…) with your money. Many advocate that shopping is the way out of the recession. However, I wonder if this is the economic model that we should follow. Everything we buy carries a carbon footprint therefore, we might be encouraging our economy through shopping but we are also contributing to the demise of our planet.

There is also privacy issue; who has given the right to online retailers to access the information of what I have viewed on a search engine? Who owns the information of thousands of internet users, happily using keywords on search engines? Do online retailers and search engines have the right to commercialise with this information? Is it ethical to use targeted consumer behavioural information upon an unsuspecting public? Is this a case of Big Brother watching you, or simply, the birth of an ever better online retail therapy experience? These are some of the questions that the Kirk has been grappling with in the context of the use of persuasive technologies for e-commerce.

I often wonder whether Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the world-wide-web, fully realized the impact that his work at Cern in Switzerland would have on society.

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