Ethical and Legal Considerations of reCAPTCHA: Part III (Ethics 1)

This is the third post in a series of blog posts of excerpts of my paper Ethical and Legal Considerations of reCAPTCHA to be presented at PST 2012. The paper’s primary purpose is to provoke thought and discussion. I’ve signed a document prohibiting me from publishing the final copy of the paper, but I am allowed to post the paper as originally submitted for consideration, so here it is…


Virtue ethics

Though Tom Sawyer/GWAP could still be considered ethical, the three differences outlined push current reCAPTCHA firmly into unethical territory. For starters, virtue ethics judges the ethicalness of actions based on the character of the action rather than the act itself; that is, unethical behaviours are ones that violate a virtue. Due to consent and freedom issues surrounding reCAPTCHA, it is in violation of the Aristotelian virtue liberality. By depriving people of their ability to choose rationally whether to solve a reCAPTCHA, one is also depriving them of their liberty. Further, one of the seven heavenly virtues is chastity which includes honesty as a chaste trait. The deception (through hiding the true nature of reCAPTCHA) runs contrary to this virtue. Thus, reCAPTCHA, under at least two different virtue systems, is considered unethical by virtue ethics.

Deontological ethical frameworks

Deontological ethics dictates that ethical actions are ones that are performed out of duty. Similar to virtue ethics, Immanual Kant posits that an action is only unethical if the motives behind it are not borne of ethical duty. In some sense, this principle is embodied in many legal frameworks through the dual concepts of mens rea (“guilty mind”) and acts reus (“guilty act”). In legal systems that use these terms, a person can only be found guilty of a crime if it is demonstrated that the person both committed the act of which they are accused and had the intention of doing so.
A basic tenet of deontological ethics is that people should be treated as people and not as means to an end. reCAPTCHA, however, treats humans as an inexpensive means of completing work. The nature of reCAPTCHA goes against the most fundamental duty of deontological ethics! Since people have actually solved reCAPTCHAs, motive and action are united to create the breach of de- ontological ethical duty. The added deception of hiding the purpose of reCAPTCHA from most users does nothing to improve the standing of the technology within this ethical framework.
But how does one judge reCAPTCHA if, in aggregate, the task being performed by human agents is greatly beneficial? Can the ends justify the means? If reCAPTCHA were being put to such use, John Stuart Mill would place such a consideration into the domain of consequentialist ethics since a strict deontological interpretation would outright dismiss this as unethical. In §Utilitarianism, the situation where reCAPTCHA solvers benefit will be discussed in depth.

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