Search Engines, SEO and Ethics: The Need For Disclosure- Part 4

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Disclosive Ethics

Disclosive computer ethics is “concerned with the moral deciphering of embedded values and norms in computer systems, applications, and practices” (Brey). It can be argued that this is a two-stage process (theoretical level and application level) that morally evaluates four key values: justice, autonomy, democracy, and privacy (Brey). Similarly, James H. Moor suggests computer ethics has two parts: “(i) the analysis of the nature and social impact of computer technology and (ii) the corresponding formulation and justification of policies for the ethical use of such technology” (1998 p. 41).

As Brey suggests, “disclosive computer ethics constitutes a much needed approach in computer ethics that deviates from traditional approaches in applied ethics, which usually focus on morally controversial practices and neglect embedded normativity in technological systems and practices, and still often concentrate on formulating and applying moral theory” (p. 16).

In line with Brey, but in a different manner, Lucas Introna proposes disclosive ethics as a means to approach the problem of closure and technological transparency  Disclosive ethics is concerned with the operation of hegemonisation where as “decisions (and technologies) need to be made and programs (and technologies) need to be implemented.

Without closure technology (politics) cannot be effective as a program of action or ordering. If the interests of many are included – in the enclosure as it were – then we might say it is a ‘good’ politics (such as democracy). If the interests of only a few are included we might say it is a ‘bad’ politics (such as totalitarianism or authoritarianism)” (p. 15).

 Disclosive ethics is concerned with the interests of many vs. few and the inclusion or exclusion of people and/or groups in the development of new technologies. For this article series, I are concerned with disclosive ethics of the practices of search engines and SEO firms and its effect on people’s information seeking practices using search engines.

Brey suggests, “Information technology is mostly not evident, obvious, transparent, or open to inspection by the ordinary everyday person affected by it” (p. 13). Since this technology is not visible it becomes a lot more difficult to scrutinize (especially search engine algorithms and SEO techniques in this context).

The main concern here is the way in which people become excluded through the operation of closure “as an implicit and essential part of the design of information technology and its operation in social-technical networks” (Introna 2005 p. 78).

Overall, disclosive ethics takes as its moral imperative the disclosure of nondisclosure – “the presumption that politics can operate without regard to ethics  – as well as the disclosure of all attempts at closing or enclosing that are implicitly part of the design and use of information technology in the pursuit of social order” (Introna 2005 p. 78).

Therefore, it is very important for internet users to understand the technology they are using to find information. By possessing information about the technological methods used by search engines and SEO practitioners, people will have a better understanding of how and why the information they retrieve appears on search engine result pages.

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