© Greg Ory 2018, Debate: Ethics of website management, a guide of best practices by Gregorius Vatis Advena, explaining fair disclosure, reliability and fair access.
Forms of interaction: The purpose of any website is to create interaction with a public on-line. The main forms of interaction are exchange of information and commercial transaction. The person responsible for the contents on-line is the sender, and anyone who reads it is the receiver. The relationship between sender and receiver is technical as it is enabled by a medium of communication, and ethical as the exchange has human implications for both sides.
Since it is the sender who initiates the process, we should enquire what she can do from the outset to ensure sound and transparent interaction. The best practices will address three reasonable questions any receiver asks when accessing a new website: 1) Who am I dealing with? 2) How trustworthy are they? 3) What do they want from me?
The first question can be addressed with a fair disclosure of identity. The receiver has the right to know with whom she is dealing. A website that discloses who is responsible for its contents is more serious than a site hiding such information. Many senders believe they can use a website as a wall between them and receivers to become unreachable. This is an insult to receivers.
The right attitude is fair disclosure. It ensures the sender will provide only contents she is prepared to answer for, morally, socially and legally.
I. Fair disclosure
Proportional interaction: Fair is the disclosure that enables proportional interaction between sender and receiver. It means the receiver can reach the sender in the same way that the sender can reach the receiver. Otherwise, the receiver is at a disadvantage.
Elements of fair disclosure: In principle, the elements of fair disclosure are name, e-mail, telephone and postal address. This applies especially to websites of commercial transaction. Under name, we should understand the name of the person responsible for the contents. In any company, at least one employee should be appointed as responsible for any contents on-line. The employee(s) will be named on the website as the contact person(s).
The e-mail provided should contain a person’s name, or at least a first name. The form email@example.com is more transparent than firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com etc. The disclosure of a valid e-mail address is the most essential requirement for proportional interaction.
Duty to answer: Any e-mail enquiry should be answered within one week. Although some invoke the law by arguing there is no legal obligation to answer, we are considering the practice here in terms of proportional accessibility. While nobody is obliged to provide any contents on a website, once contents are provided the website becomes an implicit call for interaction. If such a call exists, and a receiver writes to an e-mail disclosed on the website, the sender has a moral duty to answer. If this is not the case, the question raises itself as to why the e-mail was provided at all. Ignoring any message sent to an e-mail explicitly provided for contact undermines the credibility of a website.
It goes without saying that the reply should not be simply an automatic response. The sender is not obliged to enter a ping-pong with anyone on account of having answered the first message. Yet proportional interaction entails the duty to answer at least once. This is based on the principle that any receiver should be given the opportunity to challenge the sender over the contents of a website, and that it is morally reasonable to expect at least one reply. Otherwise, the website will resemble a tyrant whose motto is “read this and shut up”! By deliberately turning the receiver into a passive reader and being the only one to speak, the sender destroys interaction.
Blind forms: A blind form of contact is not enough to enable proportional interaction, since no contact information of the sender is provided and yet information from the receiver is expected. While fair disclosure can be complemented by a form of contact which some receivers may wish to use, offering only a blind form as a means of contact will cement the position of a website as a wall behind which the sender can hide from the receiver. It is therefore a very dubious practice.
Telephone number: A telephone number is a means of immediate or urgent contact that every website of commercial transaction should provide. The number disclosed should be the number of the employee(s) named as the contact person(s) rather than a blind number, i.e. a number not associated to any person (e.g. “for general enquiries”), or a number leading to an automatic line, or even a fax number not qualified as such.
Postal address: The postal address should be an address to which any receiver can send formal correspondence, including legal, to the name of the employee appointed as the contact person. Moreover, the address provided should be an address where any receiver can meet the contact person personally, e.g. an office rather than a residential address or an address only vaguely related with the company as sender.
Please consider resting your eyes at regular intervals.
Websites of information exchange: On websites where no commercial transaction is offered, the name can be a pseudonym if e.g. it is a literary website, and a telephone number is not essential, since there is generally no need for immediate or urgent contact. If the postal address disclosed is residential or does not enable receivers to access the sender personally, the sender may add the phrase “for correspondence only”.
The postal address is not essential for websites of information exchange, but it adds seriousness. If the sender is based in a country where freedom of expression is threatened, this can be omitted. Instead, the sender may provide an address or P.O. box in another country. Whatever the circumstances, a valid e-mail must be disclosed and interventions from any receiver should be answered at least once.
The disclosure should be of easy and unambiguous access. Easy access means no more than one click should be needed to reach the page containing the disclosure. Unambiguous means the disclosure is not mingled with further contents, but clearly separated on the very top or bottom of the page.
Ideally, every page of a website should include a fair disclosure at the bottom. Alternatively, the page including the disclosure should be the homepage or a page no farther than one click from the homepage. It must be indicated as a page of disclosure.
II. Reliable Links
Any hyperlink comprises a link text or image directing to a URL. The link is reliable when there is a direct relation of contents between the link text or image and the URL, and contrariwise unreliable. Unreliable links make a website untrustworthy. Any serious sender has the duty to provide only reliable links on her website.
For example, and most importantly: If a link be called “Contact”, it must direct to a page of fair disclosure without any detour. This is the first requirement of reliability.
This link is reliable: Contact Greg Ory
This link is unreliable: Contact Greg Ory
This link is unreliable: Contact Greg Ory
Link titles: Internal links must direct to where they say they will. If the link is a slogan or a fixed phrase that relates only indirectly to the URL, there must be a title visible by any receiver, preferably in the form: “This link will direct you to [short and objective description of the URL].” The title appears when the receiver’s mouse hovers over the link, e.g. over This Link, or This is my fancy slogan.
If the link is an image, regardless of its shape and nature, a title like the above must be added. Receivers have the right to know beforehand the consequences of their click. The meaning of any image-embedded link must not be left to the receivers’ interpretation.
If the link is an external link, a title like the above should be added even if the name on the link is exactly the same as the external URL, e.g. w3schools. If the external URL is part of a commercial website, a brief and objective description of the product or service offered must be added even if the link is not embedded in the capacity of an advert, e.g., “as I was reading on the website of Volkswagen”, or even “this is my posh granny showing off her new car”.
Adverts: If the link is an internal advert in text or image with no further description, a link title should briefly describe the product or service offered in the URL. To ensure seriousness and objectivity, promotional language should be avoided.
Please consider resting your eyes at regular intervals.
If the link is an external advert paid by a third party, there must be a title describing the product or service regardless of any promotional description provided by the third party in the advert, e.g. in the form: “This external link directs to the website of [legal name of the company and brief description].”
While suppliers in their adverts have the right to describe their products and services in their own words, the sender of the website in which the advert will appear has the duty to provide receivers with an objective description of the company, its products and services. This is so because the sender chose to display a third party advert by her own will, so that it is the sender’s responsibility to tell receivers which choice was made, given that the receiver did not enter the website to see the advert, but the original content which the sender purports to provide.
Disclosure of third parties: Moreover, if the website displays external adverts paid by third parties, the best practice for the sender is a disclosure on the top or bottom of the homepage and the most popular landing pages, e.g. in the form: “[For this or that reason], this website displays adverts paid by the following third parties: [legal names of all parties]”. This is the most serious practice. It ensures that receivers are given the chance to handle links responsibly, knowing beforehand that not all links are internal.
The above practice discourages dishonest persuasion and protects receivers from false and deceptive advertising. By disclosing the legal names of the third parties beforehand and in the link titles, the sender makes all third parties answerable toward receivers, who will feel empowered by a trustworthy website.
III. Fair access
The best possible practice is universally free and equal access. The sender requires nothing from the receiver in exchange for the interaction. In other words, the sender requires only intellectual engagement with her website. Access to any content does not depend on (1) previous registration, (2) payment of fees or (3) exposure to adverts.
Since the internet serves different purposes, universally free and equal access cannot be expected from every website. It is therefore important to consider which cases admit of legitimate exceptions, and how these exceptions can provide a degree of fair access.
Registration of data: In some instances, it is necessary to provide personal data, e.g. name, e-mail and phone number, to open an account within an website, while the data will be stored in a server. Users need to log in before they can access their account.
Registration of data is something very serious and must not be taken lightly. The only senders whose call for data registration is legitimate are e-mail and banking providers. Even those often prove too weak to handle and protect data provided by users. Other senders should have a very good reason to require registration from any receiver. This also applies to websites of commercial exchange: Secure forms of payment should be enabled without the need of data registration within the server of a website.
In all other cases, the most transparent senders are those who require no data from receivers. This is the greatest proof of seriousness and respect for privacy that a website can show.
Payment of fees: Under no circumstance is the payment of single or regular fees for access to a website or parts of a website acceptable. This applies to websites of commercial exchange in the following manner: While receivers may pay for a product or service offered through the website, the mere access to the website should not be subject to any fee. Similarly, when you go to a shoe shop, you may pay for a pair of shoes if you decide to buy, but you do not pay simply to enter the shop.
To websites of exchange of information, this principle applies in the following manner: If the focus of the website is not an explicit trade, the interaction resulting from exchange of information should not be regarded as a commercial service provided by the sender. When it comes to this type of website, any serious sender will regard active engagement with the website as the best form of payment from receivers.
Noble cause: Exchange of information that refers to social and political matters and to matters of knowledge and science, e.g. via a blog or an independent website, serves a noble cause. Noble is any cause that aims to educate and enlighten, as well as to enhance the values of individuals and groups. The payment of fees to access a website that purports to serve a noble cause undermines the credibility of the website, whether or not the sender regards her on-line pursuit as a noble cause.
The concept of noble cause also applies to newspapers. The use of pay-walls on journalistic websites is illegitimate. Any citizen that builds a website for the cause of mass enlightenment through debate and access to information has the moral onus of maintaining the website by her own means. It could not be different: Nobody asked the citizen to take the initiative. If the maintenance proves expensive, and if the sender is humble, she should encourage donations. What cannot happen is the practice of a sender who acts under the motto: “I am offering this website out of my own initiative for the advancement of a noble cause, and you, receivers, now have to pay for that!”
This is a very serious issue. When the sender asks for donations, she is addressing those who can contribute for the noble cause. When she imposes a fee, she is excluding those who cannot afford to pay. Yet the excluded are often those who would profit the most from the exchange of information.
Exposure to adverts: In some instances, it is acceptable for websites to provide adverts from third parties. This is the case of a website of commercial transaction that displays adverts from partners. It is reasonable for receivers to expect adverts related to the sender’s products and services. As explained earlier, the best practice for senders is to announce beforehand that adverts will be displayed, e.g. in the words: “[For this or that reason], this website displays adverts paid by the following third parties: [legal names of all parties]”.
Please consider resting your eyes at regular intervals.
For websites of information exchange where any noble cause is involved, exposure to adverts is a more doubtful practice. Adverts are not the kind of content that it would be reasonable to expect from them. The more reasonable approach for the sender would be to ask for donations first.
Should any kind of advert appear, the best practice is to warn receivers by a pop-up (so-called) with the above statement. Any effort should be made to show receivers that their exposure to adverts is not regarded as a matter of course. A website providing educational videos (e.g. a science lesson or a recording of an opera) should not try to squeeze a soap advert in the middle of the videos.
Ethical mirrors are websites that should be regarded as a reference in terms of fair disclosure, reliability of links and fair access. Ethical mirrors are not necessarily design mirrors. A website can be well designed and have a bad ethical management. It can also have a bad design and still be an ethical mirror.
The biggest and most influential websites currently are far from being ethical mirrors. The more powerful a website becomes, the more it runs the risk of becoming a law to itself. Yet the most refined and most serious websites are neither big nor in the spotlight. Setting good standards is a movement from the bottom to the top. The more smaller websites raise their ethical standards, the more bigger websites will be pressured to do the same.
Senders of smaller websites have no excuse to ignore an ethical management of their interaction with receivers. On the contrary, they are in the best position to set high standards of disclosure, reliability and access, especially on reading sites. Reading sites are websites of information exchange designed to provide receivers with an enhanced reading experience on-line, e.g. a website of debate or an educational website on philosophy. A new essay about Aesthetics of Reading Sites will be released soon.
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