Ethical dilemmas

On this page, please add scenarios that illustrate ethical dilemmas in the realm of digital marketing. At the end of the semester you will be formulating your personal ethical code to serve as a decision making guide to help you navigate dilemmas like these.

  • Please give your entry a descriptive name.
  • Try to base your scenario on a real incident. Give a self-standing description of the scenario in your post, but give a link to more information if people are interested.
  • We will have a long list of scenarios, so please try to cover some new territory and keep your posts as short as possible (while still conveying the essence of the dilemma).
I have posted an example to get your started. You must post a unique scenario by November 9, 11 a.m.

Sabotage - Not Just A Sweet Beastie Boys Jam, Wikipedians Wax Woefully

posted Nov 9, 2010, 10:24 AM by Aaron Funk   [ updated Nov 9, 2010, 10:48 AM ]

After watching an emotional, hotly contested football match, I retired to the soothing balm of the Web and the embrace of my chat room brothers for some chest-thumping, ego-stroking, self-congratulatory victory taunting. 

One of the threads directed readers to the Wikipedia pages dedicated to players and coaches for the opposing team, where entries had been altered to suggest sexual impropriety and perversion, mental instability, and criminal records. 

As a fan of satire and mockery, I nevertheless was slightly alarmed at the ease with which these changes were made and how long it took to have them yanked.  There were then battles between the internet tough guys attacking the other team’s Wikipedia entries, causing what I can only imagine was a ton of work for the loyal Wikipedian peace keepers. 

Granted, there are safe guards in place to prevent this kind of activity but businesses have been known to clandestinely alter competitor’s Wikipedia entries to create inflammatory or biased entries.
For more information or to see how pervasive this issue is, use your favorite search engine and check out WIkipedia sabotage. 

Craigslist versus the spammers

posted Nov 9, 2010, 10:10 AM by Miles Shea

Not only is Craigslist the country’s most popular apartment listing site, job hunt destination and dating service all rolled into one, but it is also home to one of the largest front lines in the war against spammers.  Craigslist spam takes a variety of unethical forms, with one of the more common ones being the posting of an ad multiple times outside its proper category. 

An enormously valuable resource, facilitating a countless number of economic transactions, Craigslist is constantly under attack by spammers hoping to get a little more exposure for whatever little thing it is they sell.  Left unchecked, these practices could seriously inhibit its usefulness. 

One of Craigslist’s more effective countermeasures was the adoption of Captcha, which requires a poster to manually type in a displayed word.  So, spammers did what anybody in their situation would have done: pay poor people to type the Captcha words in for them!  Craigslist recently won a judgment which held that circumventing Captcha was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  We’ll see what happens next.

Google TV

posted Nov 9, 2010, 9:46 AM by Greg Kuehn

Google's "Don't be Evil" model should definitely be questioned sometimes. 

Google's practice of delivering free software in the interest of selling more ads is arguably evil.  So is the practice of selling ads in association with other people's content.

Do consumers really benefit by Google apps gobbling up office application market share from Microsoft and others? 
The software is free but is it really free?  It seems to me that we're trading quality productivity tools in order to be bombarded by distracting ads.

Now Google is rolling out google TV.  Some have said it is the beginning of the end of TV as we know it.  By compiling all of the free sources for content on the web, google is undermining the ability of the major networks to generate ad revenue. 

So now Google is planning on selling ads in association with video content that other companies paid to have produced while simultaneously undercutting those same producers. 

A New Login...Par For The Course...Until Firesheep

posted Nov 9, 2010, 9:27 AM by Adam Shepler   [ updated Nov 9, 2010, 9:32 AM ]

Take a moment and think about how many logins (user names and passwords) you have created over the years to access even the most nominal information…from social networks to local news sites, you create new logins ALL THE TIME. Think you’re safe???

On Oct. 24th, 2010, a Firefox browsing extension called Firesheep was released. What’s the big deal, you ask, as browser extensions are a dime a dozen these days, but this one raises much cause for concern.

After installing the Firesheep “extension you'll see a new sidebar. Connect to any busy open wifi network and click the big "Start Capturing" button. Then wait. As soon as anyone on the network visits an insecure website known to Firesheep, their name and photo will be displayed: Double-click on someone, and you're instantly logged in as them.”

Because it is fairly uncommon for a website to securely encrypt anything but your initial login, you are left vulnerable to future logins that happen based on a cookie (you know when your login information automatically appears, or social networking websites automatically log you in based on your prior login). This vulnerability is known as “sidejacking”. The attacker gets a hold of your cookie via an open wireless network (as made dead simple by Firesheep) and allows them to do anything you would normally be able to do on that website. The creator of Firesheep states that “Websites have a responsibility to protect the people who depend on their services. They've been ignoring this responsibility for too long, and it's time for everyone to demand a more secure web. My hope is that Firesheep will help the users win.” In my opinion, an odd way to “address” the issue, but no matter your feelings on the issue, just think twice the next time you’re browsing around on unsecured sites in your local coffee shop. To learn more about ways to circumvent this extension, check out this TechCrunch article.

Check out the Firesheep article with full extension description.

Websites Look to Crack Down on Third Party Tracking

posted Nov 9, 2010, 9:15 AM by Will Riseley

A couple of weeks ago I brought up a related issue in class.  I had recently visited the Tom’s Shoes website and searched for a couple of outside articles about the company.  The next thing I knew I was being followed, smothered even, by Tom’s ads that would pop up on just about every site that I visited.  The Tom’s onslaught has since died down but the issue of online tracking and monitoring persists.

These days, monitoring is prevalent on almost every site that you visit and much of it is happening clandestinely, behind the backs of both the Internet surfer and the host sites that they visit.  As a result some websites have begun cracking down on monitoring.  Is this because they are worried about the privacy of their visitors?  Probably not;  Many of these sites are recognizing that there is a lot of money to be made in capturing and selling their own site visitor data.  Clamping down on tracking can also be a good PR move for companies.

Market research and data is a very valuable tool for virtually every company.  It can also be valuable to the consumer as it allows them to receive more targeted advertising that allows them to cut through the clutter in an increasingly informative world.  Where should the balance be struck?

See November 9th article from WSJ HERE

More information from NPR HERE

Are private conversations in online forums really private?

posted Nov 9, 2010, 6:26 AM by Jackie Lyndon   [ updated Nov 9, 2010, 6:46 AM ]

Imagine you have a serious mental disorder, say you’ve recently been diagnosed bipolar, and at the suggestion of your doctor you’re reaching out to others in health-oriented online chat rooms for support and to learn about other’s experiences. You’ve connected with several people who can relate to what you’re going through, and have even felt safe enough to share your own experiences and the medication you’re taking when suddenly you detect suspicious activity in the room. What’s going on? Who’s in here with us? Wasn’t this supposed to be a safe, private place to talk? Not so much.


According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the incidence of “scrapping”—where an individual with sophisticated software can break-in to online forums and virtually copy everything that’s being said—is on the rise. In this specific incident, the forum was and the perpetrator was none other than Nielsen Co., the New York-based media-research firm. From Nielsen’s perspective, it was simply conducting market research on one of the target audiences for its pharma clients; data that it will turn around and sell for a premium price. But from the perspective of the individuals who shared their most carefully-guarded secrets in what they thought was a safe environment, it was an act of violation.


Gathering personal information of this sort is certainly critical to pharma companies, who are continually on the lookout for fresh insights on what their customers and potential customers think, feel and need. But there are myriad other ways to get this information that don’t involve breach of trust and breaking-in to private conversations to eavesdrop and record them. Online surveys, focus groups and personal interviews are just a few of the many alternatives. As well, sites like do sell their patient info, after it has been scrubbed to ensure anonymity. So what gives, Nielsen? In my opinion, this is yet another scary but true example of ethical misconduct in the realm of digital marketing. With so much technology at their fingertips, marketers must vigilantly heed this simple caveat: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.


To read the full article, click here.       


Who's in that Creepy Van Parked Outside of my House?

posted Nov 8, 2010, 7:16 PM by Jamie

Chances are it's Google; the creepy company announced in May that 'the camera-equipped cars it uses to take pictures for its street mapping service for years inadvertently collected personal data from unsecured wireless networks across the world.' In defense of the company's actions, Google initially said the data that it collected was 'fragmentary--and therefore not personal or sensitive.  But Canadian regulators last month found that Google had captured highly sensitive information, including complete emails, user names and passwords...'

Google's ethical misconduct extends beyond its "significant breach" of data protection law; the company also went as far as lying to several international investigation committees. However, the largest infraction, in my opinion, comes in the form of "toothless" punishment by the U.K.'s Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).  In exchange for breaking the law and lying to authorities, Google must 'enhance its employee training programs on privacy and security and institute a policy that requires Google engineers to maintain a privacy design document on all projects.' Really?

The bottom line: If government does not intervene and give just punishment for gross privacy violations than there will be no stopping the invasion and stealing of citizens' private information by large companies such as Google.  

This article sites Paul Sonne, U.K. Says Google Broke Data Law, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 4, 2010.

Additionally, WSJ is conducting a great series on internet privacy called "What They Know

Where does our online content come from?

posted Nov 8, 2010, 4:11 PM by david dickensheets

One way to drive traffic and interaction to a site is to continuously put content on the site that people will be interested in.

Most reputable sites are pretty good at developing their own content to keep their readers interested, but this is the internet after all.  I think it goes without saying that the web is full of "sharing."  Sites post pictures, articles, videos, music files, you name it, some with consent of the owner and some without.

I think this raises an interesting issue to consider when adding content to a website, blog or even a social media page. 
  • Is the internet free domain, meaning once something has been posted publicly we are allowed to use it?
  • Is it OK to use someone's content as long as we give them credit?
  • Where do you draw the line between stealing content and "sharing" it?
For an example of how this can end badly for your company, check out this link

Location-based data mining...

posted Nov 8, 2010, 3:38 PM by Mark Harrison

As we discussed in class last week, location-based marketing is an emerging social media application that promises interesting value to marketers. Consumers submit another layer of data about themselves (in this case, where/when they are geographically) in exchange for some promotion from a merchant. On the surface, this exchange isn't that different from what see in TV/media: in exchange for your attention/time spent viewing advertisements, you gain access to media content.

However, in location-based applications, there is a more implicit tradeoff that consumers may not fully understand. By sharing geo-data with marketers, they are opening up a new layer of data about their lives that can be used for many purposes. Hailey already mentioned in class the "Please Rob Me" site that demonstrates how easily geo-data can be exploited, but if we assume a certain level of security within applications, my concern would be how these applications might resell geo-data to marketing intelligence firms. Behavioral profiling is a big part of marketing, but to what extent are consumers aware of the implicit tradeoff they are making when using location-based services? To some extent, this problem exists in search engines and browsers as well, but I think people have become more aware of it, and to some extent privacy concerns hamper certain policies and tactics (ie, Facebook's Beacon). It seems to me that location-based services may be opening up a pretty big gray area when it comes to profiling and targeting.

-Mark Harrison

Some more background on LBS marketing applications:

SEC versus a fifteen-year-old

posted Nov 8, 2010, 12:52 PM by Jordan Moretti   [ updated Nov 8, 2010, 1:48 PM ]

In the late 90's, a young teen named Jonathan Lebed was using Yahoo! Finance and E*Trade message boards to essentially market his stock picks, which over time generated close to a million dollars in trades for the kid.  These message boards are much like user reviews, where anyone with an email address can pick a username, and post thoughts on different publicly traded stocks.  Jonathan figured out quickly that he could rouse other users into a frenzy by pitching his picks like an over-caffeinated infomercial.  A brief excerpt from one of his post went as follows: 

"I see little risk when purchasing FTEC at these DIRT-CHEAP PRICES. FTEC is making TREMENDOUS PROFITS and is trading UNDER BOOK VALUE!!!

Jonathan became so adept at triggering trading excitement, that he reported made as much as a $74,000 profit in one day.  Companies with small trading volume would suddenly blow up to 50X the number of shares as traders dove in head first.  The SEC took notice, and tried to come down hard on Jonathan, but couldn't really prove that he'd done anything illegal.  He eventually returned $285,000, but walked away with about a half-million dollars.  

It's an interesting case of marketing individual interests on these group sites where, especially in the earlier stages, one could get away with some wild west-esque escapades. Is it entirely up to the individual to filter through such online postings, or does the site need to monitor usage?  In this case, it wasn't altogether clear.  Either way, it's safe to say that anyone can say just about anything over the internet...

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