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Ethics and Policy Issues in Computing Spring 2013
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Ethics and Policy Issues in Computing

08-200 / 19-211

Description | Schedule | Requirements | Project | Research and Communication Skills

Spring 2013: Wean Hall 6423 Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:30-11:50

Class web site: 

Class mailing list: via blackboard

Professor: James Herbsleb

Teaching Assistant: Laurie Jones

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

-- Albert Einstein

“Men have become the tools of their tools.”

-- Henry David Thoreau

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

-- Arthur C. Clarke

We've arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology.” 

-- Carl Sagan 

Course Description

In this course, students will study the social impacts of computing technology and systems. The course will provide a brief introduction to ethics and to the history of computing and the Internet. It will focus on a number of areas in which computers and information technology are having an impact on society including privacy, freedom of speech, intellectual property, safety, and distribution of wealth. Current issues that will be discussed include ownership and remix of ideas, privacy in social networks and government surveillance, and controls on autonomous robots. In addition, we will have several guest lecturers who will bring special expertise and a fresh point of view.  

This course is intended for freshmen and sophomore students from across the university. There are no pre-requisites.


There is no required text.  Readings will be assigned from papers available online or handed out in class.

Course Schedule

Note, this is subject to change. The class web site will have the most up-to-date version of this calendar.  Readings preceded by * are optional.  Red highlighting indicates no class.  Yellow highlighting indicates guest lecture.  


Core readings


January 15


No readings.

 Overview of the course and class requirements.  Why do technologies bring new and difficult questions?

January 17


No required readings.

*Example we will use in class: wikileaks, Bradley Manning, and the infamous “collateral murder” video

*Wikipedia on

*Comparison of theories

What do we mean by ethics? Are policies always just based on what people prefer?  What are the primary ways people have devised to think about what one ought to do?  

January 22

Class Canceled

January 24


1-pager debate advice

*debate resources

Anatomy of a debate.  

Selecting a research topic

January 29


Constitutional basis of intellectual property protection: Article 1 section 8 of US Constitution.

Copyright basics (read first 3.5 pages, skim the rest).

RIAA's explanation of copyright law

*Which musicians actually rely on copyright for income?

Intellectual property: Accessing knowledge 1.

CMU plagiarism policy.

Why does copyright exist?  How do we know if it is serving its purpose?  

January 31


Fair use

L. Lessig, For the Love of Culture.  

Times story on Aaron Swartz

Intellectual property: Accessing knowledge 2.

What is the point of the “fair use” doctrine?  Did it make sense when copying was all on paper?  Does digital technology change anything fundamental?  If so, how?

Blog entry due 9:00 AM.

February 05

Current copyright law creates appropriate protections and incentives for artists and musicians.  

Debate 1.

Blog comments due 9:00 AM.

February 07


Do copyright laws stifle creativity? (Lessig, segments 5-13)

Economist essay on copyright

*The Case Against Patents

Remix 1.

February 12


Limitations and possible solutions:

Expand fair use and

compulsory licensing (don’t let the page count scare you, the pages are mostly footnotes and you don’t need to read those. Focus on sections 3-6, pp.280-318.)

*de minimis standard

Remix 2.

Blog entry due 9:00 AM.

February 14

Debate topic: remix

Debate 2.  

Blog comments due 9:00 AM.

February 19

Why do you need privacy if you have nothing to hide?  Section II is required, the rest is optional.

Privacy in social networks 1.

Due today: one-paragraph description of selected topic for your project

February 21

ABC News Article on a recent Facebook advertising feature 

(Under)mining Privacy in Social Networks

How To Break Anonymity of the Netflix Prize Dataset (don’t worry about the algorithms, just get the gist of what they did)

The Future of Reputation (Ch. 1)

Guest Lecture: Laurie Jones. Privacy in social networks 2.

Blog entry due 9:00 AM.

February 26

What is a Chief Security Officer?

News story: Chinese army hacking accusation

Guest Lecture: Michael Maas.  A corporate perspective on security.

Blog comments due 9:00 AM.

February 28

HIPAA Fact Sheet

New Scientist article on a recent genetic privacy experiment

Guest Lecture: Laurie Jones.

Healthcare, medicine, and medical research: Ethical considerations.

March 05

How far should employers go to investigate the online activity of potential employees?

Debate 3.

March 07

FTC face recognition best practices

*Acquisti, Gross, Stutzman (2011). Faces of Facebook: Privacy in the age of augmented reality.  Paper presented at Black Hat 2011.

Privacy and government surveillance 1: Face recognition technology.  Uses and abuses.  

March 12


March 14


March 19

Google glass and the issue no one talks about

Privacy and government surveillance 2.

Blog entry due 9:00 AM.

March 21

Event data recorder mandate.

Federal Register describing the new regulation.

Debate 4: face recognition on campus.

Blog comments due 9:00 AM.

March 26

The Age of Big Data

Big Data in the Big Apple

Six Provocations for Big Data

Guest lecture: Laurie Jones. Big Data.

March 28

New york times: In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.  January 25, 2012.

Apple supplier responsibility reports

change at Foxconn

*yet more change

Economic impact of technology: Digital divide 1.

Blog entry due 9:00 AM.

Due today: outline of project paper (with at least two levels of headings), and a preliminary bibliography that includes at least eight sources 

April 02

*from low cost labor to vital market

Debate 5.

Blog comments due 9:00 AM.

April 04

Brynjolfsson, E. & McAfee, A.  Race Against the Machine:

ch. 2, pp. 12-27. 

ch. 3, pp. 28-52.

*theory of interstellar trade (with thanks to David).

*creating shared value (HBR)

Economic impact of technology: changing nature of work 1.

April 9

Brynjolfsson, E. & McAfee, A.  Race Against the Machine, ch.4, pp. 53-70.

Foxconn future.

Robots at Foxconn.

An alternative?

*The anti-technology stance

Economic impact of technology: changing nature of work 2.

Blog entry due 9:00 AM.

April 11

Debate 6

Blog comments due 9:00 AM.

April 16

Losing Our Humanity.  Read the summary, recommendations, and conclusion carefully.  You may skim the rest.

flying and cooperating robots

*Arkin, R. C. (2008). Governing lethal behavior: embedding ethics in a hybrid deliberative/reactive robot architecture..

Autonomous technologies: Robots and drones go to war 1.

April 18


April 23


Response to Human Rights Watch

Boston Dynamics technologies:


Cheetah robot

Big Dog

*Fiction: Robocop Ed 209

Caution -- this is pretty gory!

*Sparrow, R. Killer robots. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 24, 1 (2007), 62-77.

Autonomous technologies: Robots and drones go to war 2.

Blog entry due 9:00 AM.

April 25

*a personal perspective on drone strikes in Yemen

Debate 7.

Blog comments due 9:00 AM.

April 30


Be sure to follow the formatting instructions on this web page.

size: 36 in. by 48 in.

How to print: e-mail your poster (as an attachment) to

Victoria Poprocky

cc me 

and cc your TA Laurie Jones lajones+ethpol at

Be sure your full name (as it appears on your CMU ID)  is very evident in your e-mail, as you will need to show your ID to pick up the poster.

Please put the words “HERBSLEB CLASS POSTER”

as the subject line of your message to Victoria.

Absolute deadline for final poster to be received by Victoria is Monday, April 29, 9:00 AM.  Pick up your poster at SCS Operations, Wean 3612.  

Poster Session will be held on the NSH-WEAN walkway (4th floor).  We will occupy the west side of the corridor, only 1 person deep.  Please leave as much room for pedestrian traffic as you can.

Please arrive by 10:15 if possible to set up your poster.

May 02

wrap up

May 10


Final papers due noon

Many items are also available from the ACM Digital Library, which you can access from campus or using VPN.  

Course Requirements and Grading

Your final grade in this course will be based on:

Class participation

Students are expected to do reading assignments prior to class so that they can participate fully in class discussions. The class participation grade will take into account class attendance and participation.

Participation does not entail simply answering when spoken to. Informed discussions are critical to the learning process and will make this class much more interesting and fun for all of us. Each student is expected to volunteer substantive comments freely. Quality (versus quantity) is important. Your score will be determined by my assessment of your contributions.

The “system” that I’ll use is, at the beginning of the course, everyone starts with a score of “100”. Each time you participate in class or interact with me, I’ll update your participation score upwards or downwards by an appropriate amount based on the interaction. Participation does not have to be limited to class sessions only.

I will make every attempt to involve every student in this process, but it is possible that I may consistently overlook a potential contributor. Please bring this to my attention. This process may be considered somewhat subjective but, through our collective efforts, we can ensure that it is fair. 

Some criteria for effective class participation are:

  1. Is the participant a good listener?
  2. Is there a willingness to participate?
  3. Are the points made relevant to the discussion and linked to the comments of others?
  4. Do the comments show evidence of rigorous analysis?
  5. Is there a willingness to test new ideas, or are all comments "safe"? For example repetition of case facts without analysis and inference is "safe", but a off-the-beaten-path comment that leads to creative discussion will be considered valuable.
  6. Do the comments clarify, highlight, and synthesize important aspects of earlier comments and lead to a clearer statement of the concepts being covered or to new knowledge/insights?
  7. Do the comments identify overlooked points and points that turn out to be influential in further discussion?
  8. Are comments well thought out or just thrown out?

Class debates

Each blog assignment will include a policy question that will also be used as the topic for a class debate. Several students will be assigned specific roles in each debate. Those students will present their arguments in front of the class. Then we will have an open class discussion. Each student will present oral arguments during one debate during the semester. The class debate grade will be based on the oral arguments a student presents during their assigned debate. Participation in the open class discussion will be factored into the class participation grade.


Seven blog assignments will be given throughout the semester.  We will use the blog capabilities of blackboard. Every blog entry should include a properly formatted bibliography that includes all works you referred to as you prepared your blog entry. These works should be cited as appropriate in the text of your entry.

Your blog entries need not be lengthy.  Terse, well considered, well argued, and well informed entries will be greatly preferred to lengthy, disorganized responses.  The best answers will seamlessly incorporate things you've learned from the text and class discussions, will apply ethical theories appropriately, and pay careful attention to relevant evidence.

In addition to composing your own original blog entries, for each course topic you wil alsol comment on the blog entries of other students. These comments need can be very terse, but no credit will be given for merely “me too” or “I disagree” comments.  They should cite evidence or raise thoughtful questions, give additional support, or comment on the reasoning of the blog entry.  

In the posting, students should provide a brief introduction to the submission that explains its relevance to the week’s topic area(s), explain why it’s interesting or noteworthy, and pose a question that compels readers of the post to comment and/or think more deeply about the submission.

All blog entries and comments are due at 9:00am on the due date. We will often discuss blog topics, entries, and comments in class, so you may find it helpful to bring an electronic or hard copy of your homework with you to all classes. You will lose 10% for turning in homework after class on the day it is due. You will lose an additional 10% for each late day after that. I reserve the right to take off additional points or refuse to accept late homework submitted after the answers have been discussed extensively in class. Reasonable extensions will be granted to students with excused absences or extenuating circumstances. Please contact me as soon as possible to arrange for an extension.

Criteria for Blog Entry Grading


All students in this course will be required to complete an individual or group project that involves writing a paper. Students may choose whether to work individually or in a group with one other student. The project gives students an opportunity to explore one topic in depth. Students may select as their paper topic any social or policy issue related to computing. The paper should discuss multiple viewpoints related to the issue and include an overview of how decision makers might approach an evaluation of the various arguments and factors to reach a policy decision.

Throughout the semester we will be discussing skills related to writing a research paper. These research skills are shown in italics in the course schedule. Hopefully, you have already been introduced to most of these skills. However, if some of these skills are new for you, please don't hesitate to ask the professor and TA for further assistance.

Students should think about paper topics during the first half of the semester. They should discuss their paper ideas with the professor or TA in person or via email. By February 19, all students must submit a one-paragraph description of their selected topic (5% of course grade).

By March 26, all students must submit an outline of their paper (with at least two levels of headings) and a preliminary bibliography that includes at least eight sources (5% of course grade).

On April 30 we will hold a poster fair during class in which students will present their (hopefully almost complete) projects (10% of course grade). This will be a good opportunity for students to give each other feedback and to get feedback from the professor and TA that will help improve the final papers. The poster session will be open to all members of the CMU community.

Final papers are due Friday, May 10 at noon, submitted electronically. They should be 5-8 single-spaced pages. The paper title, author name(s) and email address(es), and date should appear at the top of the first page, followed by a short abstract. Do not include a separate cover page. Please number all pages.

Papers must include a bibliography and proper citations, with a minimum of 10 references cited including at least two peer-reviewed conference or journal publications. While Wikipedia and similar sources might be used for background information, it is expected that students will find more authoritative sources for information and cite these sources rather than citing Wikipedia. The American Psychological Association (APA) style should be used for the bibliography and citations (students may use an alternative style with permission of the instructor).

Papers should be well structured with appropriate headings throughout, and include conclusions that are well supported by the rest of the paper. All assertions need to be supported with citations to relevant literature. You should cite ideas, not just direct quotes. Headings should be used to structure the paper. A "roadmap" at the end of the introduction is highly recommended.

Papers should be spell checked and proofread. Make sure you properly punctuate quotations and citations. (Punctuation goes inside quotation marks. Citations go outside quotation marks, but before the period at the end of the sentence.) Avoid opinionated language and phrases like "obviously" and "it is obvious."

Students are welcome to submit rough drafts of their papers (or sections of their papers) for feedback prior to the final paper deadline. Students are also encouraged to form small groups and exchange draft papers among group members for additional feedback.

Possible generic top-level outline for project

This is just a possible outline, and will not be right for every paper and topic.  It is just to give you an idea of what an outline for this assignment could look like.  Use your best judgment, and construct an outline that provide the best, most compelling structure for you paper.

Criteria for Grading

A Brief Word on Cheating and Plagiarism

Don’t!—no grade is worth sacrificing your personal integrity. Students bear responsibility for being familiar with generally accepted practices governing bibliographic research and citations of resource materials (including web resources) in all written assignments. Cases of cheating, plagiarism, and unauthorized collaboration will be handled in accordance with the University’s policy on academic integrity.

Cheating includes but is not necessarily limited to:

1. Submission of work that is not your own for papers or assignments

2. Submission or use of falsified data

3. Collaboration in the preparation of an assignment unless expressly allowed by the


4. Plagiarism which includes, but is not limited to, failure to indicate the source with quotation marks or footnotes where appropriate if any of the following are reproduced in submitted work:

a. A graphic element

b. A proof

c. A phrase, written or musical

d. Specific language

e. An idea derived from the work, published or unpublished, of another person

Penalties for Cheating

The penalty for cheating on an assignment is zero credit for the work submitted.

The penalty for cheating on group work is as follows:

All incidents of cheating are reported to the Dean. Additional penalties may be imposed.

Please feel free to contact your instructor, TA, or advisor if you have any questions related to this topic.

Classroom Etiquette

Cell phones should be turned off. If there is a situation where you need to be able to receive a call during class, you should use the “silent” mode on your phone and quietly leave the room when a call comes in.

Laptop computers are permitted to be open during class. I reserve the right to ask that laptops be closed at any time and to call on any student using a laptop in class.

I greatly appreciate students arriving on time for class.

Thanks in advance for your efforts to create a class environment that works for everyone!