My previous two posts were about the angst of privileged middle classes. I wrote first about the middle class habit of moving into the catchment area for good schools. Then I excused our tendency to maintain a less-than ethical existence. Untrained eyes could be forgiven for mistaking my motives in writing these posts. Am I not simply trying to assuage my own guilt at doing precisely those things?
Not so. I feel far less guilty about my complicity in all those middle-class clichés than perhaps I should. Rather, both posts were digressions of this one, in which I shall briefly discuss the ethics of Internet apps.
Last week it emerged that Condoleeza Rice, President Bush’s National Security Adviser during the Iraq invasion, and then his Secretary of State, was on the board of DropBox. For liberally minded types such as me, this presents a ethical dilemma: Condoleeza Rice is a torture-enabler and a war criminal; but DropBox is an incredibly versatile web app, one that has found a central place in my daily workflow. Rice’s appointment is a good reason for me to boycott DropBox, but to do so would be very inconvenient.
Someone who is ‘poor’ in technical knowledge would be compromised at this point. There are alternatives—Google and Microsoft provide their own cloud storage options—but DropBox is the easiest to set up. So unfortunately, the average consumer just has to swallow the Rice association, and get on with uploading their files. The #DropDropBox campaign will fail for this reason.
In this case, however, I am technically ‘rich’ enough to make an ethical choice. This is not a question of pound or dollar wealth. Rather, I have just enough expertise to maintain my own server. And because of this, I was able to install OwnCloud in just a few minutes. It provides the core DropBox functionality of storage, sharing and synchronisation… but all the files are stored on my own server space. There are even iOS and Android apps.
There are privacy benefits to OwnCloud too. When a person uses DropBox, they are entrusting their data to a corporation. As the Edward Snowden revelations have shown, this means that data could be compromised by prying security agencies, who have built ‘back doors’ into the popular services.
I do not think for one moment that Condoleeza Rice’s appointment to the board makes this more likely for Dropbox, or that she would somehow begin a project of actively snooping on other people’s files. But given her career to date, I am now far less confident that DropBox would fight any court cases, or would attempt to resist government pressure to release data. She brings the wrong corporate culture to DropBox, one that is inappropriate when the important consideration is respect for individual privacy against the excesses of the state.