In my previous post, I examined ethics in a data-driven world with an example of how Facebook experiments on its users. Acknowledging the conundrum facing users of free services like Facebook, Phil Simon commented that “users and customers aren’t the same thing. Maybe users are there to be, you know... used.”
What about when a free service allows its users to reach local customers and direct them to their business location? That's the case with Google Maps. Interestingly, some of these users go a step further and try to use the free service to pull customers away from their competitors.
As Kevin Poulsen blogged, “Google Maps is, at its heart, a massive crowdsourcing project, a shared conception of the world that skilled practitioners can bend and reshape in small ways using tools like Google’s Mapmaker or Google Places for Business. Beneath its slick interface and crystal clear GPS-enabled vision of the world, Google Maps roils with local rivalries, score-settling, and deception. Maps are dotted with thousands of spam business listings for nonexistent locksmiths and plumbers. Legitimate businesses sometimes see their listings hijacked by competitors or cloned into a duplicate with a different phone number or website. In January, someone bulk-modified the Google Maps presence of thousands of hotels around the country, changing the website URLs to a commercial third-party booking site (which siphons off the commissions).”
These are the ethical dilemmas of cartography in the era of big data. Today, the maps we draw of our data-driven world depend on both geographical information and data points. However, these data points now come from a wide variety of sources, not all of which are interested in pointing you in the right direction.
“Google seeds its business listings,” Poulsen explained, “from generally reliable commercial mailing list databases, including infoUSA and Acxiom. Once it’s in Google’s index, a business owner can claim a listing through Google and begin curating it for free, adding photos, hours of operation, a website address. Once your have that relationship with Google, the company will upsell you on paid advertising, which, after all, is Google’s financial lifeblood. But if you ignore your Google Maps listing, you’re inviting trouble. Ordinary users can submit community edits to your listing with details like operating hours.”
Poulsen’s article featured a pending lawsuit against Google filed by a restaurant in Virginia that blames its closing on misinformation provided by Google Maps, which falsely showed the restaurant was closed on weekends. The restaurant’s lawyer claims a competing restaurant sabotaged the listing and argues Google turns a blind eye to such shenanigans. As Poulsen concluded, the lawsuit is probably doomed since, under United States federal law, Internet service providers have broad immunity from claims stemming from user-contributed content.
In the previous Facebook example, the free service provider acted with questionable ethics. On the other hand, in this Google Maps example, the users of the free service acted with questionable ethics. What do you think? Do free service providers have a responsibility to monitor or curb this “questionable” activity? How do you see the ethical landscape changing for these free services? Share your comments below.