The Challenges of the Values Advocate

When Ask.com launched AskEraser, a new service which promises to protect user privacy by, upon request, deleting users’ search activity from Ask.com servers, I applauded the effort, but also pointed out some of its shortcomings.

The privacy advocacy group EPIC, however, took a much more aggressive position, and sent a letter to Ask.com [pdf] urging them to change Ask Eraser, noting three key problems with their implementation of this feature: (1) using Ask Eraser requires an opt-out cookie, (2) the cookie creates a quasi-unique identifier that could be used to track users, and (3) Ask Eraser can be disabled without notice. EPIC (and others) felt so strongly about this concern, they sent a detail letter to the FTC [PDF] over the weekend demanding that, among other things that the FTC must:

– Order Ask.com to withdraw AskEraser from the marketplace.

– Order Ask.com to cease engaging in and unfair deceptive trade practices.

– Require Ask.com, as a condition of offering AskEraser in the future to:
a) Cease using the opt-out cookie
b) Cease creating a Persistent Identifier on customers
c) Provide meaningful notice if the service will be disabled…

– Order Ask.com to delete all previously retained information, before the implementation of AskEraser.

– Order Ask.com to inform all current users of AskEraser, by prominent notice displayed on the Ask.com Web site, that they should delete the Ask.com AskEraser cookie.

Now it seems that EPIC’s aggressiveness was partially misplaced. CNet reports that EPIC’s concern regarding the ability to track users due to the unique time-stamp of the opt-out cookie was no longer relevant as Ask changed how the cookies worked weeks before. Here is Ask.com’s response:

EPIC’s weekend filing regarding AskEraser is both flawed and unfortunate. It’s unfortunate in the sense that Ask.com tried to engage in a constructive dialogue with the group last week, and was rebuffed. Privacy is an issue that demands collaboration and partnership between online companies and advocates, for the benefit of all consumers. Ask.com’s relationship with the Center for Democracy & Technology is proof-positive of that.

EPIC’s filing is flawed in the sense that the document they filed is factually inaccurate, and simply shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the functionality of our product. In addition, many of the issues they raise are outdated, while others are completely misguided from the outset, and others deal with changes that Ask.com already made to AskEraser weeks ago, and were subsequently posted publicly on our website.

Due to EPIC’s aggressive stance, it seems an opportunity to constructively engage with Ask.com to design this feature in a value-conscious way might have been missed.

This case speaks directly to a paper I’ve been working on with Noëmi Manders-Huits, titled “Values and pragmatic action: The challenges of engagement with technical design communities,” discussing the pragmatic challenges of engaging in Value-Conscious Design within real-world technical design teams.

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The paper identifies three key challenges of engaging with technical design communities: (1) confronting competing values; (2) identifying the role of the values advocate; and (3) the justification of a particular value framework.

Challenge #2 — the role of the values advocate — is relevant to the EPIC vs. Ask situation described above, and is particularly difficult to successfully navigate. Along with concerns related to gaining the proper technical proficiency to be accepted within design communities (see Ask’s comment above that EPIC was technically mistaken in their analysis), we identify an array of roles that the values advocate can take within a particular design context: the authoritarian role, the supporting role or the leadership role.

In the first role, the values advocate is regarded as authoritative in the ethical and value considerations at hand, implementing value-conscious decisions using a top-down strategy. Such a role is often confrontational, where pressure is exerted (both internally and externally) to ensure proper attention to values. A second role, the supporting role, is a fairly passive accompaniment of the design process, raising awareness at moments where value choices are being made and pointing to possible alternatives without advocating the one or the other. An advocate in this role is often merely advisory, and might have little more than token input on design decisions. Finally, the leadership role enables the values advocate to be both supporting but also directing when it comes to value choices. By providing insight to the complexity and delicacy of value choices basing on theoretical knowledge as well as acquired practical expertise, the values advocate in her role as leader is able to educate the other members of the design team (and possibly other stakeholders) and to strongly promote certain choices over others where necessary.

We argue in the paper that the leadership role is the preferred positioning of the values advocate within a design team, taking into account shared responsibility for value choices (whereas the first example of an authoritative role might be too heavy-handed) and a proactive stance of the values advocate (whereas the example of a supporting role might be too passive).

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Recent efforts by advocacy groups concerned about Web search privacy help illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of these various roles. Privacy International, for example, took an authoritarian approach with its report “A Race to the Bottom” strongly criticizing the privacy practices of major Internet companies, especially Google. Industry experts criticized the aggressive stance of the report as poorly researched, non-comprehensive, and biased (see, for example, Danny Sullivan‘s reaction).

The EPIC case above is another textbook example of this authoritarian stance: by sending demands to a regulatory agency, and apparently rebuffing attempts to engage directly with the technology designer, EPIC’s aggressive and authoritarian role has jeopardized not only the ability to engage constructively in this particular case, but also in future instances where a values advocate will be necessary.

Alternatively, the Center for Democracy and Technology recently issued a report detailing how the largest Internet search companies have begun to aggressively compete with one another to offer stronger privacy protections to their customers. This study was written off, however, by those who criticized CDT for being financially supported by some of the very search engines in the report. CDT’s supporting role with the search engine companies has apparently diluted the effectiveness of their advocacy.

As we argue in the paper, a combination of these two approaches would provide for an assertive leadership role for the value advocates in working with Web search engine providers. From such a leadership position, the values advocate would be empowered, for example, to take the initiative to convene the leading search engine companies in a non-hostile environment to discuss, debate if necessary, and decide how to move forward to design future Web search products in value-conscious ways. (I have had the pleasure of being involved in early steps in just such a leadership role, and hope to blog about it soon.)

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The take-home lesson is that to foster the value-conscious design of technologies, we must engage pragmatically directly with technological design teams. While avoiding the poles of overly authoritarian or supporting positions, values advocates must take a position of assertive leadership to shape the “hearts and minds” of technologists and foster meaningful, long-term changes to design and policy.The challenge of the role of a values advocate can be pernicious.

In the case above, EPIC and its partners were too aggressive, and a chance to engage with Ask.com was missed. I generally respect and support the important role EPIC has had in protecting privacy and holding companies accountable, but moving forward, I hope we can overcome the tendency to be authoritarian when it comes to advocating for values, and focus instead on how we can be leaders in the value-conscious design technology.

UPDATE: Following up on the EPIC vs. Ask confrontation described above, EPIC’s Marc Rotenberg disputes Ask’s assertion that EPIC rebuffed the search engine’s attempts to engage in a dialog.  Wired’s Threat Level blog quotes Rotenberg: “[T]he short version is that Ask wrote to us and proposed to talk last Friday. We gave them two different times and they ended up canceling on us. What a joke. […]”

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