Archive for the ‘sex’ Category

The Ashley Madison Hack: A Sleazy Attack on a Sleazy Business

Several weeks ago, hacker group The Impact Team threatened that they would release the identities and credit card numbers of clients of infidelity promoting social network Ashley Madison. This week, they made good on their threat, releasing details of a reported 36 million user accounts.

For the moment, the data is apparently out there — some news outlets clearly have access already — but it’s hard to find. But informed commentators suggest it may soon be available and searchable online.

Some will call this a victimless crime: a scuzzy company’s lying-and-cheating customers are getting exposed for what they are. But it’s worth noting that there may be some innocent victims in all this: some Ashley Madison accounts may be spoofed by people using stolen credit cards. Others accounts may belong to people who are not in fact married, but who nonetheless don’t need their online dating habits shared with the world. And even the company’s ‘core’ customers, the ones who truly are acting dishonourably, don’t necessarily deserved to be punished in vigilante style. Or perhaps more to the point, it’s not that they don’t deserve it, but rather that The Impact Team doesn’t have the right to decide.

What about Ashley Madison itself? It’s in a sleazy business to say the least. Of course, employees at Ashley Madison aren’t themselves committing adultery (well, unless they happen to be, incidentally). So some people might wonder whether the company itself is doing anything wrong in the course of business? I think pretty clearly, yes. When you actively and knowingly contribute to someone’s wrongdoing, you share the blame. And there are a range of familiar examples in which helping someone to do wrong is considered blameworthy. Think of lawyers suborning perjury. Think of business agents facilitating bribery.

Naturally, many are calling this a “wake-up call,” for web-based companies and for the corporate world more generally. Reports suggest that insiders at the company knew that privacy was a big risk, and worried about “a lack of security awareness across the organisation.” One sign of a lax attitude toward privacy: according to a report in The Guardian, while customer passwords were stored in hashed (scrambled) format, “information such as addresses, credit card details and sexual preferences is all stored in plain-text in the database.” So anyone with access to the database has access to a treasure trove of private info.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that, human nature being what it is, it’s easier to make money by pandering to people’s baser instincts, than it is to protect the private information gathered along the way.

SkyDrive: Is Microsoft a Nanny State?

When should a corporation play the role of legal and moral enforcer? And when does a corporation start to take on the obligations — and limits — of a government?

Consider Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. When it was released last year, the new OS has met with mixed reviews. But at least one review, by PC World, noticed something interesting about SkyDrive, the new cloud storage service integrated into Windows 8:

“Microsoft restricts the types of files you may upload: Illegally copied commercial content is prohibited, and so are files that contain nudity or excessive violence.”

Just what does that mean? Let’s focus here just on the nudity part.

During an online Q&A session this summer, two Microsoft engineers clarified. Apparently SkyDrive’s rules mean that you are free to store your nudie pics, as long as they don’t include any child pornography. But if you use SkyDrive’s file-sharing feature, the limits are more strict: no nudity at all. So, those topless beach photos from your Mexican vacation are OK to store, but not to share. Is Microsoft checking to make sure stored erotica doesn’t include children? That’s not clear.

This raises interesting problems related to the amount of control that corporations have over everyday activities like storing computer files, especially when — as is the case with many tech companies — their services become part of the infrastructure of our lives, woven into everything we do.

Such power isn’t going to go away. But it does raise questions about the ethical standards that apply to corporate behaviour. If corporations have the kinds of power that were once reserved for states, do they then have the same kinds of obligations? Do the same standards for surveillance and search-and-seizure apply to Microsoft and its users as apply to a government and its citizens?

Of course, if Microsoft users don’t like it, they are in principle free to opt out. There are alternatives to SkyDrive — including Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud, and many others. But Microsoft’s market penetration in terms of operating systems means that for many users (especially ones who aren’t technically sophisticated) SkyDrive is the default. And default options matter; there’s a vast psychological literature on how often people simply go with the default, even when an alternative is available that would advance their interests better.

With great market power comes great responsibility.

PETA Promises Porn With a Purpose

Is it just me, or has PETA jumped the shark? The always-provocative animal-rights organization is at it again, this time announcing that it’s planning on starting its own porn site to draw attention to the plight of animals. And once again it’s alienating groups that it ought to consider allies.

See this version of the story, by Madeleine White, for the Globe and Mail: PETA to launch porn website: Is this still about animal rights?

The animal rights group, known for its naturalist ways, has registered the domain name and plans to launch a pornography website in December that “draws attention to the plight of animals….”

Not surprisingly, many feminists (in the broadest sense of the term) have objected. The general line of argument is that you’re not really accomplishing anything if you’re raising awareness for one cause (say, animal suffering) by doing damage to another cause (say, sexual equality). When PETA uses naked bodies, they are almost always female bodies, portrayed and instrumentalized as sex objects. Porn, in other words, is pretty problematic as a consciousness-raising tool.

Now none of this assumes that all porn is automatically a bad thing. It is, by definition, naughty, and certainly controversial, but there’s little reasoned objection against portrayals of nudity or sexuality per se. Any sane objection has to be rooted in things like objectification, which is not a necessary ingredient of porn, though it is certainly a common one. Of course, no one knows yet just what kind of porn PETA has in mind, but the group’s history suggests that we shouldn’t expect anything terribly progressive.

Why does the group use such tactics in the first place? PETA claims that they have no choice:

Unlike our opposition, which is mostly composed of wealthy industries and corporations, PETA must rely on getting free “advertising” through media coverage.

But that’s not exactly true. According to PETA’s financial report, the organization has about a $36 million budget, overall, out of which it spends about $11 million on “Public Outreach and Education.”

It perhaps goes without saying that any for-profit corporation that tried to set up such a website to draw attention to its product would draw fire, too. But of course it is utterly unthinkable that Coca-Cola or Microsoft would set up an entire porn site just to draw attention to their products. That’s not to say that lots of companies don’t use sex in their advertising, but no mainstream company would ever go so far as to use actual porn to reach an audience. But then, PETA isn’t a for-profit corporation, but rather a not-for-profit corporation, one that exists to promote animal rights. But is objectification of female bodies for a cause different than objectification of female bodies for money, ethically speaking? PETA will surely say “yes.” After all, this is porn for a good cause, not just for its own sake, and not just to generate filthy profits. But it’s worth remembering that PETA’s values, and the goals it seeks, are far from universal. We’re not talking about, say, world hunger or literacy. And there are all kinds of for-profit companies that produce products that make the world a better place in tangible, agreed-upon ways.

Maybe the problem with PETA isn’t (just) that their campaigns objectify women, but that they are cavalier about doing so. They’re single-minded in pursuit of their objectives, and sex is just one more tool for them to use in pursuing it. An organization that’s supposedly committed to getting us to think about the plight of animals can’t afford to be seen as clueless about other ethical issues.

Topless in Not-Quite-“Public”

According to a CBC story, a Toronto woman was chastised by security guards after taking her shirt off (leaving only her rather modest black bra) at Toronto’s Festival of Beer.

Here’s the story: Toronto woman told to put her top on

…Jeanette Martin was at the annual Toronto beer gathering on Sunday when she took up a dare from one of her friends and took off her shirt. She was wearing a bra but apparently that wasn’t enough for organizers.

“Within 10 seconds flat I had a security guard telling me to put my top back on or else I’d be escorted out of the grounds,” Martin told CBC News….

The CBC story rightly points out that, 20 years ago, a young Canadian woman named Gwen Jacobs fought and won a legal battle for the right to go topless — entirely topless — in public.

What the CBC story misses, however, is that the Festival of Beer is not a public place. It’s a business venue. As we all know, there are plenty of business establishments with a policy: “No shirt, no shoes …no service!” The basic ethical principle here is that private establishments get to make their own rules about the tone they want to set.

In fact, the Beer Festival’s rules aren’t limited to proper attire. According to the Festival’s FAQ, there are plenty of rules, including for example:

What can’t I bring with me?

No pets
No children
No opened water
No food
No chairs
No coolers
No large video cameras
No cameras other than for personal use

Of course, these rules aren’t all about attire, but you see the point. A private business gets to set rules, including ones that set the tone for their events, and attire is a significant part of that. Bars and nightclubs in particular very often have dress codes — many forbid ripped jeans, for example, or require that men wear shirts with collars. (For interesting reading, see the rules for attire for customers of Harrod’s department store.) Now pointing out that companies generally have the right to make their own rules for decorum doesn’t mean that there are not ethical limits on such rules. It’s not hard to imagine truly morally obnoxious rules they could impose. For example, if a company imposed Victorian standards on women but put no limits at all on what men could wear, that would be unfairly discriminatory. But requiring shirts is far from that.

Unfortunately, while the Beer Festival’s organizers may have been within their rights to establish rules of decorum for their event, the reasons offered by the event’s organizers were weak ones. According to the CBC,

Martin was told that she would attract unwanted attention from men and her safety was at risk.

As Martin herself suggested (along with many who posted comments on the story), if men are behaving badly, then security should deal with them, rather than blaming Martin.
Update (Aug. 12): I’ve learned through other news outlets that Martin says there were women wearing bikini tops at the Beer Fest on the day in question. That makes Security’s objections harder to understand. A business is still within its rights, but the distinction between a bra and a bikini top is, well, skimpy.

Surfing Porn at Work

As someone once said, ‘let he among you who has a free hand cast the first stone.’

Canadian Business recently reported that the head of Houston’s public transit agency has been suspended (for a week) for using the agency’s internet connection to look at porn.

This sort of conflict is likely to become increasingly common, since the only thing more ubiquitous in office settings than boredom are high-quality internet connections. And I suspect that under-prepared employers are likely to continue overreact, for no particularly good reason.

It seems to me that the point here should not be about porn; the point should be whether personal web-surfing at the office is allowed at all. There’s all kinds of deviant, transgressive, and socially controversial stuff on the web. Porn, per se, is far from the worst. So surfing the web for non-business purposes should either be allowed, or not. Either could well be a reasonable policy. A company can reasonably forbid use of company internet for personal purposes, just as most forbid use of corporate stationary or corporate premises by employees who are moonlighting. On the other hand, a company might reasonably allow a certain amount of personal usage as akin to making the occasional personal call on a company phone. But if employees are not allowed to use company internet for personal (including entertainment) purposes, that should be a clearly-stated policy.

There are of course a couple of circumstances in which an employer would have a legitimate interest in limiting the kind of stuff employees access online. One is size. If the employee is downloading large porn files (say, entire movies), that kind of thing could have an impact on the firm’s bandwidth usage, something that could cost money or just slow down internet access for employees engaged in legitimate work. Of course, the same would go for employees downloading the latest episode of Breaking Bad on iTunes. The second circumstance would be if there is a chance that the download would be visible and reflect badly on the company. If for some reason the fact that you’re surfing porn at work is liable to come to the attention of people outside the company, then, reactions to porn being as variable as they are, you should avoid drawing potentially unwanted attention to your company that way.

But in general, at least, the fact that it’s porn you’re looking at on your break, behind a closed office door, shouldn’t much matter to your employer.

None of this is to say, of course, that surfing porn at work is a good idea. It’s generally pretty dumb, especially if there’s any chance at all that co-workers are going to see and be offended. After all, we’re talking about the office, not your own living room. And so while employers have reason to allow their employees a certain amount of latitude, employees have reason to exercise a certain amount of discretion.

Want to Avoid Scandal at the Top? Hire a Woman!

There’s an antiquated quip / greeting-card slogan / bumper sticker that says, “Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.” I say “antiquated” because in 2011, we all know that very often — let’s say half the time — the best person for the job is a woman. That’s far beyond “sometimes.” But there’s one job-related talent that seems to make women especially qualified for positions of senior leadership, and that is their apparent ability to avoid bringing themselves, and their organizations, into disrepute by involving themselves scandals.

See this story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, for the NY Times: When it Comes to Scandal, Girls Won’t Be Boys

Female politicians rarely get caught up in sex scandals. Women in elective office have not, for instance, blubbered about Argentine soul mates (see: Sanford, Mark); been captured on federal wiretaps arranging to meet high-priced call girls (Spitzer, Eliot); resigned in disgrace after their parents paid $96,000 to a paramour’s spouse (Ensign, John) or, as in the case of Mr. Weiner, blasted lewd self-portraits into cyberspace….

Now, Stolberg’s piece is about male vs female political leadership. But the same point can be made in the corporate world. What do the names Skilling, Madoff, Boesky, and Hurd all have in common? Well in addition to referring to persons implicated in major scandals, they all have the title “Mr” in front of them. Indeed, it’s relatively hard to name a female CEO or other senior executive who was culpable in a headline-making scandal. Martha Stewart’s name comes to mind, but her insider trading had nothing to do with her executive position. (And sure, Oprah Winfrey, CEO of Harpo Productions, gave Jenny McCarthy her own TV show, but that’s a different kind of scandal.)

Of course, we have to be careful with letting anecdotes stand in for stats, here. The first and most obvious reason why my male CEOs are involved in more scandals is because there are more CEOs. According to the Globe and Mail, “Only 17 per cent of corporate officers and 13 per cent of directors at Canada’s top 500 private and public sector companies are female.” According to Catalyst (a nonprofit aimed at expanding business opportunities for women), only 30 of The Financial Post 500 companies are headed by women. In the US, the numbers seem even lower: as of 2009, there were just 13 female CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Still, it does seem that males are liable to be involved in scandals out of proportion to their statistical dominance in the C-suite. Male CEOs seem more likely to behave badly than female ones. Does this have anything to do with the documented correlation between testosterone and financial risk-taking? Hard to say. But it wouldn’t be that surprising if a tendency toward risky behaviour in one domain were correlated with a tendency toward risky behaviour in another.

So should boards of directors actually discriminate against men, given the male tendency to become embroiled in scandals? No. For one thing, the fact that “more” male CEOs than female CEOs seem to get into hot water has to be put into context: very few CEOs of either sex get themselves into the kind of trouble that makes headlines. So to say that men are more likely to get into trouble is like saying that the risk of getting hit by lightning is higher than the risk of shark attack: both risks are in fact tiny. And besides, we probably don’t want to advocate discrimination against individuals based on their membership in a group that merely has a statistical tendency towards a particular weakness. But then again, such a statistically-driven hiring bias might well be better than the entirely baseless bias that results in their being so few female CEOs in the first place.

Workplace Accommodation of Masturbation

Here’s an odd story, to say the least. A woman in Brazil has apparently won the legal right to masturbate at work — frequently — and to watch porn on her work computer as part of that activity.

Here’s the story, from David Moye blogging for the Huffington Post, via the Employer Handbook blog:

In a decision that can only be described as touchy, a Brazilian judge has reportedly ruled that a 36-year-old female accountant can legally masturbate at work and watch porn on her work computer.

Ana Catarian Bezerra successfully argued that she suffers from a chemical imbalance that triggers severe anxiety and hypersexuality, according to a viral news story….

It’s a story sure to engender plenty of giggles, but it’s also another example of a bizarre little story that serves as a pretty decent starting point for consideration of more serious issues.

A couple of quick points:

1) It’s worth considering the gender issue, here. People’s reactions to this story clearly have a lot to do with the fact that the individual involved is a woman. I wonder, if the employee with the habit of excessive on-the-job masturbation had been male, would people’s reaction change from giggles to disgust? I suspect so. I suspect a male with this proclivity would garner far, far less sympathy. Now in making this observation (or, I should say, this educated guess), I am emphatically not claiming reverse discrimination. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the fact that many of us would judge a man more harshly in this situation. In fact, that makes a good deal of sense to me. Men account for the vast majority of sexual predators and are the more frequent perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace. So it’s not surprising if our primary reaction to a male with a masturbation-at-work habit would be critical, rather than supportive. That’s not to say that a man wouldn’t deserve the same workplace consideration that the judge in this case mandated; it’s just to say that a man might have a harder time getting sympathy. I’m not sure what to do with that distinction, but it’s worth noting.

2) The woman in this case is basically arguing that she has a kind of disability, one that the workplace ought to accommodate. All obvious jokes aside, it’s an issue that ought to be considered seriously — as the court in this case clearly did. Now, the woman in question claims a chemical imbalance that triggers her odd behaviour. And of all the odd behaviours that take place in the workplace, something of a private and sexual nature certainly isn’t the oddest or most disruptive. But refusal to accommodate this particular disability wouldn’t need to be based in a repressive Victorian view of human sexuality. The very fact that humans — and I’m thinking in particular of co-workers here — have the reactions they do to the thought of other humans pleasuring themselves means that such behaviour, especially when publicized is bound to be disruptive, even if it happens out of sight. But then again, our society is still crawling slowly towards truly embracing the notion, enunciated most forcefully by John Stuart Mill, that we shouldn’t have rules against behaviour that doesn’t harm anyone, and that, hence, what goes on between consenting adults behind closed doors is nobody else’s business. But it’s not clear just how that rule of thumb applies when the ‘business’ in question is actually someone’s business, and when the closed door involved is an office door.

MTV’s “Skins”: The Ethics of Profiting from Teen Sexuality

There’s been a lot of chatter in the last few days about MTV’s teensploitation show, “Skins.” Of course, one theory says that that’s just what MTV has been hoping for — a lot of free advertizing.

I’m quoted giving a business-ethics perspective on the show in this story, by the NYT’s David Carr: “A Naked Calculation Gone Bad.”

What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.

And you’d be right.

Last week, my colleague Brian Stelter reported that on Tuesday, the day after the pilot episode of “Skins” was shown on MTV, executives at the cable channel were frantically meeting to discuss whether the salacious teenage drama starring actors as young as 15 might violate federal child pornography statutes.

Since I’m quoted in that story, I’ll just cut to my own conclusion:

“Even if you decide that this show is not out-and-out evil and that the show is legal from a technical perspective, that doesn’t really eliminate the significant social and ethical issues it raises,” said Chris MacDonald, a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto’s Clarkson Center for Business Ethics and author of the Business Ethics Blog. “Teenagers are both sexual beings and highly impressionable, and because of that, they’re vulnerable to just these kinds of messages. You have to wonder if there isn’t a better way to make a living.”

I wouldn’t bet one way or the other on how this will turn out — in particular on whether pressure from advocacy groups and advertisers will convince MTV to can the show. If it does, then this controversy turns into a nice example of how just the wrong kind of corporate culture can produce bad results. Consider: there are an awful lot of people involved in conceiving and producing, and airing a TV drama. In order for Skins to make it to air, a lot of people had to spend months and months going with the flow, basically saying to themselves and each other “Yes, it is a really good idea to show teens this way, to use teen actors this way, and to market this kind of show to teens.” Hundreds of people involved in the production must have either thought it was a good idea, or thought otherwise but decided they couldn’t speak up. If this turns out badly, MTV will have provided yet another example of how things can go badly when employees aren’t encouraged and empowered to speak up and to voice dissent.

Back to Playboy…errrr School

Marketing to kids is always a touchy subject. But even worse is when a company accidentally markets to kids. And when you accidentally market to kids something that is seriously adult-oriented…watch out!

Check out this story, from the Globe & Mail‘s Business section: Firm regrets back-to-school ad for Playboy thongs, bras

Giant Tiger, a discount retailer with outlets across Canada, says it made a big mistake when it marketed Playboy-branded underwear in a back-to-school flyer. Many parents complained to the retailer over the ads for bras, thongs and other items with Playboy’s logo.

Giant Tiger has apologized to the parents, and Playboy, according to the news agency, is working with the retailer to ensure that such items are aimed at women over 18. Playboy, the spokeswoman said, has strict rules that prohibit marketing to minors….

Now, the actual offense here is pretty modest (no pun intended). And there’s every reason to believe both companies when they say it was all a mistake.

I wonder if this is another, quite different, kind of example of the little ethical lapses (or lapses in quality more generally) that can occur when things are done cheaply. (For those of you not familiar with the chain, Giant Tiger stores are a couple of notches down-scale from Walmart, in most regards. Discount products, cheaply displayed.) Without casting aspersions on the skill or judgment of the workers who put together Giant Tiger’s flyers, I have to wonder whether slips of this kind aren’t more likely at bargain-basement retailers. If you shop at GT, you’re either shopping there because you can’t afford to shop somewhere more fancy, or you’re choosing to in order to save money to spend on other things. And, at risk of overgeneralizing, if you want stuff cheap, you’re going to get things done cheaply. Sweatshop labour may be the most high-profile result, but you’re also going to get things like shoddy marketing. On the other hand, I wonder if this could have happened at that most famous of discount retailers, Walmart? They’re famous for cutting costs, but they’re also famous for efficiency.

Charity Porn

Some people think the kind of consumer-driven charity represented by the (Product) Red Campaign is a bad thing. “Consumerism isn’t the answer,” they say, “It’s the problem.” You can’t (or shouldn’t?) help those less fortunate by pandering to Western culture’s base, consumerist instincts, say the critics. Well, if you’re one of those critics, brace yourself: a Japanese porn production company (Natural High) is now making “charity porn.” According to the folks at Jezebel:

[T]he Natural High performers have sex with impoverished local Africans on film. The director gave about $11,000 to a Kenyan charity, distributed some corn and free T-shirts to the locals in the area and then — reportedly — gathered up a few local men to have sex on tape with their performers…. For every DVD they sell, the company plans to give another $10 to the same charity.

Just about everyone I’ve read seems to find this project distasteful, but at least some are uncertain why they feel that way. Others think the wrong here is obvious — but they don’t necessarily do a good job of explaining that. The most common charge seems to be “exploitation,” though as I’ve said here before, it’s much easier to launch a charge of exploitation than it is actually to state clearly what that means. There are worries about playing to cultural stereotypes about the dangerous sexual potency of the ‘naked savage,’ etc. But, just to play devil’s advocate, here, there’s also an infusion of cash happening that wouldn’t be happening otherwise. It’s not clear how we should weigh the kind of diffuse harm (or insult?) done by such portrayals with the small-but-real benefits of these cash donations.

One last point: surely some regular readers will have noted by now the parallel between this story and last week’s blog entry Burger King’s “Whopper Virgins” campaign. (See: Advertising, Documentaries, and Cultural “Exploitation”.) In both cases, someone from a developed nation visited a less-developed nation, perhaps bringing some benefit but with the primary mission of deriving benefit, for themselves, precisely from the “primitive” image of the locals. It’s food for thought.
Found via Marginal Revolution who got it from Wronging Rights who got it from Jezebel, etc.

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