December 17, 2009

Operation Chokehold -- and the Trapped Ambulance

Greetings. Yesterday I suggested that "Operation Chokehold" -- an apparently satirical call for an iPhone-based protest against AT&T's mobile data network that appears to have rapidly morphed into a real event -- was irresponsible and even potentially deadly.

A number of iPhone users and others contacted me with their arguments about why Chokehold is a simply grand and glorious idea.

Let's explore their thinking, along with an ethics quiz question to ponder. We'll leave aside for now the obvious point that purposely flooding the network with data in an explicit attempt to disrupt its operations is certainly a violation of the AT&T Terms of Service.

Some observers feel that since AT&T's mobile data network is so bad in many areas anyway, hardly anyone would notice even a large-scale attempt to flood the network with data in protest. Others suggested that AT&T was "so evil" (some mentioned their ongoing PATRIOT Act wiretapping concerns) that any protest was justified, and that to argue against protesting corporate activities would reduce us to -- for example -- the current situation in Iran. A couple of people were concerned that the protest had been compared with terrorism in some quarters. I would call the protest potentially criminal, but not terrorism -- given that the latter generally involves a different motivation, at least by my personal definitions.

A more common theme -- which I noted as a legitimate concern in my original item -- is that important services perhaps shouldn't be using these kinds of public mobile networks in the first place. This is a serious issue, but the reality is that given the funding and other limitations of many public safety infrastructures, it is not uncommon for some workers, who are going to do anything they can to get their jobs done (whether officially approved or not) to use ordinary cell phones and conventional mobile data resources, at least as fall-backs to their official equipment.

Several people suggested that even though the problems with AT&T's mobile data network are already very well documented, the protest would help to highlight the situation and emphasize how dangerous it was to use that network for crucial activities.

The issue of public safety takes us to the ethical quiz. I find it very useful when analyzing Internet issues to try find historical or non-Internet comparisons and analogies that might help to focus the situation.

So let's think about a typical freeway (or thruway for you Easterners). This freeway is pretty busy much of the day. Sometimes it's awful -- traffic slows to a crawl. Ambulances, whose drivers are always trying to find the quickest routes to move their patients, sometimes choose to use the freeway at times when they expect the traffic will be relatively light and especially when their patient needs particularly urgent care. Getting stuck in traffic -- for example behind an accident -- could result in a dead patient (this is not merely a hypothetical outcome).

Now one day, the "Our Freeways are Too Damn Crowded" group coordinates a protest among their members. They want to completely shut down a major freeway at midday for an hour, when it would ordinarily be moving along pretty well in that particular area.

At the designated time, drivers from the group synchronize their movements across a section of freeway and pretend to have simultaneous engine failure, completely blocking the road.

The ensuing mess takes more than an hour to clear up. Just behind the protest blockage is a now trapped ambulance carrying a critical patient. The ambulance driver -- based on his experience and traffic reports up to that hour -- had chosen to take the freeway as the best route for that particular trip.

Due to the delay, the patient dies.

The ethical question: Should the protest organizers (and/or the persons who actively engaged in the protest) be held culpable in some manner for that death?

If your answer is no, then a secondary question would be how many deaths would be required "up front" for you to change your mind? 5? 100? Or do you feel that innocent deaths -- even if low probability -- resulting from such an event are always justified to make a point?

Please be sure to include the text of a condolence letter to the families of any victims with your replies as appropriate.

Odds are that the Operation Chokehold protest won't kill anyone. It may in fact not even be significantly noticed. Those aren't the issues. The question is whether even taking the risk (whether proposed satirically or seriously in the first place) for the purposes of protesting iPhone performance is worth the chance of innocent persons being harmed, however small that risk may be.

Common sense, and basic ethics, say no.


Posted by Lauren at December 17, 2009 10:02 AM | Permalink
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