Book review

Controversies in digital ethics, edited by Amber Davisson and Paul Booth

Anne Kustritz

Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands

[0.1] Keywords—Gender; Participatory Culture; Privacy; Pseudonyms; Surveillance

Kustritz, Anne. 2018. Controversies in Digital Ethics, edited by Amber Davisson and Paul Booth [book review]. In "Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries," edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26.

Amber Davisson and Paul Booth. Controversies in Digital Ethics. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2016. $130.00 (392p) ISBN 978-1-50131-056-0.

[1] In his closing chapter of Controversies in Digital Ethics, edited by Amber Davisson and Paul Booth, Charles Ess notes that the changing media landscape increasingly makes journalists of citizens and media producers of audiences, while vastly magnifying the impact and distribution of daily media posts and interactions. As a result, he suggests that an increasing proportion of people are confronted with ethical quandaries that used to be restricted to specific professions. Therefore, he proposes that digital ethics and philosophy must become "ethics for the rest of us," as we must all reconsider our rights, responsibilities, and moral impact when navigating the opportunities afforded by digital media and social networking (316). Ess's argument explains the dual importance of this edited volume both for fans and fan studies scholars. First, in adapting to the internet, web 2.0, and other platform migrations, fan cultures have been faced with a long series of ethical challenges in translating practices and community norms first developed for print culture onto the new infrastructure of the web, and dealing with the increased scrutiny created by the searchability of web content. Although fan cultures have their own specific history, some of the challenges they face are mirrored by other communities, and thus both fans and fan scholars may find relatable discussions within this compendium of issues like privacy protections for women's sexual expression or concerns over monetization of user data. Yet, secondly, beyond our roles as fans or fan scholars, all of us who regularly use the internet may find Controversies in Digital Ethics useful in thinking through what it means to be a digital citizen and a member of digital communities, as these increasingly saturate our everyday lives.

[2] Lucy Bennett, Bertha Chin, and Bethan Jones coauthored the chapter most relevant to fans: "Between Ethics, Privacy, Fandom, and Social Media: New Trajectories that Challenge Media Producer/Fan Relations." There they tackle the thorny issues of how changes in online privacy norms have intersected with developments in media producers' commodification of and engagement with fandom. Beginning with the debacle wherein journalist Caitlin Moran asked Sherlock stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read slash fan fiction publicly, they tease apart the transformations in media and culture that led up to that moment. On the one hand, media corporations have recognized fans as valuable producers of revenue and free advertising, and consequently adopt strategies to legitimate and incorporate fans within official promotional activities. However, Bennett, Chin, and Jones note that this legitimacy has limits, as when slash fan fiction is held up as an object of ridicule. Likewise, many fans remain uninterested in the legitimacy promised by a closer embrace with corporations. Thus, many interactions between journalists or media producers and fans have the potential of becoming exploitative, as some fans have a considerable amount to lose from public exposure, and journalists and media producers have a monetary stake in reproducing and revealing fan works.

[3] As a result, Bennett, Chin, and Jones argue that journalists, actors, and other media professionals should recognize the ethical problems in suddenly bringing mainstream scrutiny onto fans and fan works that are not necessarily seeking the limelight, and who may be subject to public shaming. Their ethical intervention rests upon an analysis of the conflicting interpretations of public space within fan discussions of the internet. They argue that although fan communities' move to the internet placed their activities in increasingly public space, many fans still interpret fan communities as closed and private. In contemporary fandom, that privacy is usually no longer secured by passwords, but instead by obscurity. They argue that because fans count on their web presence drawing little if any notice beyond fan circles, journalists can do significant harm when they bring individual fans and fan works to the attention of the general public. Consequently, they point toward the codes of best practices developed by fan academics, including here at the TWC, as a model that journalists could adopt for ethically interacting with fans, and call for mutual respect as the guiding ethical virtue that should govern journalists' and media producers' interactions with fans. Respect, rather than mere legality, they argue, would entail consideration of fan communities' norms regarding issues like privacy.

[4] Other chapters that may particularly interest fans and fan studies scholars include chapter 1, "Little Brother: How Big Data Necessitates an Ethical Shift from Privacy to Power," by J. J. Sylvia IV, and chapter 3, by Amber Davisson, "Passing Around Women's Bodies Online: Identity, Privacy, and Free Speech on Reddit." Each presents a different perspective on the ethical and legal ramifications of digital privacy intrusions. As such, they deal with principles also discussed by Bennett, Chin, and Jones, ones central to many fans' and fan communities' concerns about how best to negotiate safety, sexual expression, and pseudonymity/anonymity in the online environment. Sylvia points out that existing privacy laws cannot adequately function in a big data era because it is impossible and/or meaningless to ask for informed consent to use data for purposes that have not been imagined when the data was collected, and because consent currently follows an all-or-nothing model wherein privacy must be abdicated to participate in modern life. Sylvia argues that because many secondary uses of data may benefit the public good, such as medical research, fraud prevention, and fire prevention, the costs involved in limiting secondary use of big data, that is, the rebundling and combining of data sets by third parties, would be too high. Sylvia therefore argues that instead of working to shore up privacy, we should instead think about big data as a matter of power, and work to equalize access to data in order to incentivize individuals to be "creative and productive" to "leverage data in ways that will improve the world or the lives of others" (27–28).

[5] The essay is strongest when detailing the many methods of gathering and combining data for which consumers are under-informed by contemporary privacy practices, which often incorporate difficult-to-decipher notices in the Terms of Service agreement that all personal data, user generated content, and activities on the service may become proprietary, and may be collected, repackaged, and sold with no further notice. Awareness of these threats to personal privacy builds media literacy, and impacts all fans who use privately owned platforms to host their fan activities. However, the essay is least-developed in fully fleshing out what kind of alternate regulations would be inspired by the author's suggestion that power replace privacy in our approach to big data, and how these new regulatory models might mitigate harms and prevent misconduct. Sylvia repeatedly states that because there are so many potentially helpful uses of big data, secondary use should not be impinged on privacy grounds, as these regulations would be impractical and costly to implement, and could prevent future breakthroughs. However, this proposal does not consider whether a system that evaluates uses of big data might be implemented, whether major breakthroughs in the interest of the public good are worth any possible harm, and who specifically may be expected to bear these harms and reap the benefits. For instance, the institutional review board system that regulates research with human subjects and mandates fully informed consent is certainly costly, cumbersome, and prohibitive in some circumstances; yet this system is necessary to prevent the grievous harms that can be perpetrated in the name of research, often at the expense of already vulnerable populations. Surely there are similar harms caused by exploitation of big data grave enough to necessitate even a costly and cumbersome system of regulatory oversight—for example, mass discrimination and stalking. On this point, the essay by Bennett, Chin, and Jones seems to suggest that for fans the trade-off proposed by Sylvia would not be enough to mitigate harms: that is, even if fans were given equal access to their own public metadata, this would not be a satisfactory exchange for the harms such data might inflict as a result of their loss of privacy and anonymity.

[6] Additionally, although Sylvia develops an insightful Marxist model to understand the production of big data as a form of exploitative free labor, no similarly Marxist solution is offered. The ethical problems with big data are not only that these require individuals to exchange privacy for the greater good, opening themselves to potential harms, but also that in many cases collective big data is transformed into private profit. Even in the case of a public good like medical research, this can lead to problematic outcomes, as when the cancerous cells nonconsensually gathered from Henrietta Lacks led to lucrative advances for pharmaceutical companies without compensation for her survivors. The Marxist opening of Sylvia's essay suggests a solution like more collective ownership and distribution of the public goods produced by turning private data over to the public domain, as also posited in the works of scholars like Evgeny Morozov (2011). In some ways, fan communities model this communitarian ideal, as projects like the Archive of Our Own runs on an open-source basis, while traditionally the exchange of fan works follows a gift economy model rather than a capitalist model, as argued and documented by Alexis Lothian and Tisha Turk, among others (Lothian 2013, Turk 2013). As a result, studies of fan economies may offer the critical alternate economic models missing from Sylvia's analysis, providing a fruitful space in modern analysis of data ethics for fans and fan scholars to explore.

[7] In comparison, chapter 3 by Davisson fundamentally prioritizes the unequal harms created by loss of digital privacy as she examines ethical ramifications of three case studies wherein behaviors and images women considered private became public on Reddit. Specifically, she analyzes the life-cycle of the CreepShots subreddit, containing erotic photos illicitly taken of women in public; "the fappening," a mass posting of photos hacked from celebrity women's cloud accounts, and FacebookCleavage, a subreddit containing nonconsensual reposts of women's photos from Facebook to Reddit, intended as erotic material. She argues that a world in which women's bodies and sexual expressions are always considered public property shames and stifles women's sexuality. Consequentially, her analysis bears striking resonance with Bennett, Chin, and Jones's chapter on the stigma associated with drawing mainstream attention to female fans' erotic works. Both examine the damage inflicted by not only loss of privacy, but loss of anonymity. Davisson quotes Scott Stroud, who writes, "…victims are harmed precisely because they lose their anonymity—they are raised out of the anonymous masses and connected to specific nude pictures…" (53). This connects to the fear of many fans: not that their fan works and activities are or could become public, but that scrutiny could draw undue attention that would publicly link their real-life identity to their fan works.

[8] Both in the case of fans and women's images, the authors acknowledge that these cases require weighing one party's right to privacy against another party's right to free speech. Yet in each case, the authors argue that some populations become more vulnerable to digital privacy incursions, and ethical analysis ought to consider the way in which identity and privacy interact. Davisson writes, "The ability to express sexuality and develop a sexual identity is a key example of the way the right to privacy can enable the right to free speech. Violations of privacy in this area create a hostile environment for girls and women attempting to express free speech" (53). According to Davisson, free speech and privacy were historically symbiotic, protecting each other from government intrusion. Increased citizen surveillance afforded by digital media changes this calculus, as the most prominent threat to both privacy and free speech does not necessarily come from the government, but from fellow citizens, against whom, in the absence of clear law, moral arguments must prevail. Thus, Davisson's article is a useful reminder that most examples of threats to fans' privacy and free speech also do not come from the government, but rather from journalists, scholars, internet service providers, trolls, and fellow fans; consequently, fans share common cause with other communities struggling to create cultural norms and community protocols to both enjoy the freedom of expression fostered by digital space, and yet also construct some form of protection for their members.

[9] Although other chapters of the volume do not offer such direct significance for fans and fan scholars, they may nonetheless be of interest for any digital citizen interested in thinking through the unique rights and responsibilities created by the modern internet. Section 1 focuses on privacy, including ethical complications of using surveillance and leaks in journalism. Section 2 highlights ethical transformations caused by the growth of participatory culture, discussing the varying ethical stances taken by hacktivists, ethical structures of gaming systems, ethical problems with the rules of advertising contests, and codes of conduct that citizen journalists could cultivate to maintain credibility. Section 3 weighs codes for communication among professional advertisers, digital political strategists, nonprofit news agencies, journalists interviewing transgender people, and video game designers. Section 4 features identity issues, including the morality of interacting with intelligent machines, the potential of digital space to foster diverse representations, ethics of using digital vigilantism, contradictions between feminist goals and capitalist corporate values on for-profit blogs, and the representation of mothers in video game advertising.

[10] Overall, Controversies in Digital Ethics meets editors Davisson and Booth's stated goal of illuminating "the issues that arise from our increased capacity to create, distribute, store, and process media," and equipping media producers and users with "tools to make moral decisions" and foster media literacy skills (1, 3). As such, they provide fans and fan scholars with conversations that may be useful in navigating the role of fan within convergence culture, and the role of digital citizen. The volume does have some important blind spots, as few essays consider the intertwining of privacy and property in as much detail as Davisson, nor do many chapters evaluate the conflictual meanings of ethical behavior in different spheres with the delicacy shown by Ryan Gillespie. One of the volume's great strengths is its wide range of topics and disciplinary approaches; yet this diversity also sometimes works against comprehensibility and cross-disciplinary conversation, as authors sometimes do not define or consider the specific history of their terms, and rarely evaluate their subject from multiple ethical paradigms.

[11] Finally, it must be noted that the volume suffers from the same rapid cultural and technological shifts that it documents. Although the volume was published in 2016, it was likely written some time earlier, and some of the conversations already seem antiquated. As a result, as further allegations surface regarding the scope of Russian misinformation operations, magnified by citizen journalists and participatory culture "sharing," some conversations seem quaintly naïve, such as Shane Tilton arguing that citizen journalists must remain ethical to prevent the spread of false information as socially damaging as the greatly exaggerated reports of Steve Jobs's death (152). Similarly, other warnings about dire future consequences of participatory digital media and big data's unethical uses are not so much a dystopian future as modern reality. For instance, Sylvia quotes Mark Andrejevic, who almost seems to predict the damage to the public sphere wrought by reliance on Cambridge Analytica's big data insights by the campaign of now President Donald Trump:

[12] "At its most dystopian… This asymmetry would free up politicians to engage in 'infoglut' strategies in the discursive register (promulgating reports that contradict themselves endlessly, pitting 'expert' analysts against one another in an indeterminate struggle that does little more than fill air time, or perhaps reinforce preconceptions) while simultaneously developing new strategies for influence in the affective register. Fact-checkers would continue to struggle to hold politicians accountable based on detailed investigations of their claims, arguments, and evidence, while politicians would use data-mining algorithms to develop impulse- or anxiety-triggering messages with defined probabilities of success" (25–26).

[13] Because the pace of technological and social change has so greatly accelerated in the digital era, these gaps suggest important areas of future research that the essays in this volume may contribute to, and the open conversations that must be continued by all digital citizens, both in fandom and beyond, in the years to come.


Lothian, Alexis. 2013. "Archival Anarchies: Online Fandom, Subcultural Conservation, and the Transformative Work of Digital Ephemera." International Journal of Cultural Studies 16 (6): 541–56.

Morozov, Evgeny. 2011. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: Public Affairs.

Turk, Tisha. 2013. "Fan Work: Labor, Worth, and Participation in Fandom's Gift Economy." In "Fandom and/as Labor," edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no 15.