March 13, 2014

Ethics contest revolves around Twitter and privacy

Helen Momo Koessler
Jon Reis
Helen Momo Koessler ’15 presents with the winning team.
David Duber
Jon Reis
David Duber ’14 explains the context of the case.

A student team that devised a plan to sell certain public tweets to Google and Microsoft has won first prize in the university’s second annual Stephen S.J. Hall Ethics Case Competition held March 7 at the School of Hotel Administration (SHA).

In this year’s competition, students were challenged to create a revenue-generating plan for Twitter that would not violate the privacy of the company’s users.

The plan, developed by the winning team of Quinn Cox ’15, Kevin Driscoll ’14, Lilia Karimi ’15 and Helen Momo Koessler ’15, calls for Twitter to create relevant, time-sensitive ads tailored to customers’ interests. Anticipating potential backlash from users, the team designed mandatory webisodes that quickly and easily explained Twitter’s new privacy policies and educated users about their options.

In business, ethical choices are not always obvious, said Judi Brownell, professor of management and organizational behavior, who organizes the event. It takes experience and skill to make the best decisions when corporate obligations to customers, shareholders, employees and society are at odds. The competition tested students’ ability to navigate complex business ethics issues and then propose and defend an ethical plan of action.

“The competition gives students a way to explore options creatively, learn from teammates and take a cross-disciplinary approach to ethical business decisions,” said Brownell. “Thanks to the generosity of the Hall family, students from across campus can learn the many aspects that go into making ethical business decisions.”

The second-place prize went to the team of Steven DiDominica ’14, David Duber ’14, Julia Kosineski ’14 and Alec Sherman ’14, who suggested that any data mining by Twitter was unethical. They instead proposed a revenue-generating solution called “Tweet Tree.” By subscribing to the new platform, Twitter users would gain more control over who sees their tweets and how widely their tweets can be shared.

Three teams earned honorable mentions.

“Ethics is central to our curriculum, not only at SHA but across Cornell,” said Michael D. Johnson, dean and E.M. Statler Professor at SHA, as he addressed the students in the competition. “It has to be embedded in your DNA; it can’t just be one course. You have to work on it every day.”

The competition – which included students from the SHA undergraduate and MMH programs, ILR School and the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Architecture, Art and Planning – is part of a schoolwide ethics initiative that launched in 2010, backed by Stephen ’56 and Marjorie ’58 Hall and their son Larry ’81. Larry’s son, Stephen ’06, represented the family at the competition and served as a judge with six members of the SHA faculty.

“The study of ethics is not just an academic pursuit. It carries on through your leadership throughout your career. Carry it with you, and you will do well,” said Stephen Hall ’06, congratulating the students for participating in the competition.

Ashlee McGandy is a staff writer at the School of Hotel Administration.