Adam Orth, the creative director of Microsoft Studios, has gone up to the plate for the possibility of an always-online restriction for the next Xbox (read more about that here). While this presents a number of pragmatic issues for Microsoft in terms of their interests and interaction with the gaming community at large, there is also a key ethical issue at play here. Although there are certainly many angles one could address Microsoft's ethical imperatives and failure to meet them in this case, a specific concern is that of Orth's justification of the always-online restriction.
Pissing on Us and Calling it Rain In Orth's tweets, he contextualizes the always-on restriction as a positive feature. He makes weak and absurd analogies of the next Xbox's potential always-online restriction to mobile phones requiring a mobile signal or vacuums requiring electricity. These analogies are weak because the functionality that each product delivers could not be delivered without the requisite connection, unlike a game console where the functionality of playing a game (sans online featured) could be easily delivered (and has been for years) without an online connection. Along with these off-base analogies, the underlying contention is wrong. "Always-online" is not a feature, as Orth would have us believe, but a restriction. There is no additional functionality that could be delivered by an always-online requirement. Many products, such as mobile phones (contrary to his example), computers, and older game consoles offer a wealth of functionality even without an internet connection, and there is no reason for such products to require an online connection to function. It is simply an additional barrier to entry in the interest of Microsoft and potentially also game publishers. It seems materially relevant to the morality of such an imposition that Orth would try to characterize it as some sort of positive feature. Based on what capitalism necessitates, Orth's sentiments likely echo those of what the Microsoft PR line would convey in the event of an always-online restriction for the next Xbox. In Orth's case, there is the potentiality for a rationalization on his part. However, if Microsoft adopts the philosophy that always-online is a feature rather than a restriction, such a contention is deeply unethical.
The Social Contract Rousseau's Social Contract applies fairly aptly to a situation in which intentional deception is used in advertising, particularly in a more "intimate" industry where there is active engagement between consumers and producers and some sense of camaraderie between them (however misinformed such an assumed relationship might be on the part of consumers). If Rousseau defines freedom as being a state in which everyone forgoes the same rights, one of those "rights" must clearly be the right to intentional deception in the interest of gain. Though Microsoft employees and Orth are clearly not the only moral agents to perpetrate such deception, as advertising is predicated on intentional deception and misrepresentation, that does not exculpate Microsoft from moral responsibility. Such an observation would only show that Microsoft's behaviors, along with many advertisers, is an immoral breach of human freedom and dignity. Additionally, Microsoft and its agents are imposing an undue duty on the gaming populous. In an exchange between the consumer and the producer of video games, the relationship has been fairly clear. The consumer pays for the content that they find to be of value based (ideally) on a plain and clear articulation of what exactly that content is. Based on consumer financial support, content creators are then able to produce more content. Insofar as duties exist, the producer has the duty to create content that can be easily consumed, and the consumer has a duty to pay or offer some support for the content they wish to consume. When the always-online restriction comes into play, that is an undue restriction on consumers due to the lack of necessity for Microsoft to impose such a restriction.
Demonstratable Necessity Some people may argue that Microsoft's always-online restriction is not a feature but a method of digital rights management, or DRM. If Microsoft were articulate their restriction in such a way, this in large part side-steps the moral objection to intentional deception. However, this effort still fails. In a relationship of clearly defined duties and freedoms that exist within the video game industry that apply to both consumers and producers, Microsoft would have to establish a demonstratable necessity in order to ethically impose such a restriction. The benefits that an always-online restriction would provide Microsoft with would be eliminating piracy and securing the console against the use of pre-owned games. Although the ethical issue of the playing of used games is one of significant dispute, and I would argue that the current model of a no-frills acceptability of the playing of used games is ethical from the utilitarian perspective as it best serves the long-term interests of the gaming industry, I will operate under the assumption that the elimination of used games is a moral good.
Piracy & Used Games The piracy justification is pretty simply put to rest. There are other methods of DRM that haven't been used by Microsoft that are less extreme than an always-on requirement. Therefore, it seems that if they demonstrate a necessity for some more rigorous DRM to protect them and the interests of publishers and developers that a less intense form of DRM could be used to accomplish their ends. Such an extreme barrier to entry simply to stop piracy is overzealous. Additionally, used game prevention could easily occur through the use of a one-time use registration code such as is the case with PC games. Therefore, preventing the use of used games is not a demonstratable necessity for imposing an always-online restriction.
An Ethical Egoist Perspective While the application of the Social Contract (as articulated above) or the application of utilitarianism (clearly, a greater good is subverted by an always-online requirement), one ethical framework that might allow for such a requirement in the pursuit of one's own interests is ethical egoism. However, A real ethical egoist application also shows that both Orth and Microsoft's potential deception and the application of an always-online requirement are unethical based on the fact that Microsoft's needs can be better served via alternate means. First of all, insofar as Microsoft's needs are preventing piracy and preventing the sale of used games, such prevention can occur without imposing an always-online restriction. In fact, an always-online restriction would hurt potential sales by presenting a barrier to entry and risking the ire of the gaming community at large. Microsoft's interests would be better served by adopting less extreme methods of meeting it's own needs. Second, on the subject of deception, it is a matter of considerable dispute whether ethical egoism accepts intentional deception as a means for which one to satisfy their self-interest. A more overarching question is can intentional deception as a means to satisfy one's own self-interest ever be ACTUALLY in one's self interest? What I mean is that if it is considered a moral good for Microsoft to intentionally deceive their consumers to serve their own interests, consumers would be granted the same latitude in terms of moral acceptability. Thus, an intentional deception towards Microsoft by discarding the implied EULA agreement when a console is purchased and embracing piracy instead would be the highest moral good rather than actually playing the system as intended. This Hobbesian "War of All Against All" is a zero sum game. Though each individual action seems to serve one's self-interest, it's really a race to the bottom of immoral behavior, in the context of ethical egoism, as no one's best interests are adequately served.
Conclusion Orth's assessment of Microsoft's mistaken (possible) plan of imposing an always-online restriction is obtuse and glazes over a great number of concerns, both pragmatic and ethical. Beyond the academic assessment of such an action's morality, the pragmatic result for Microsoft will likely be unfavorable for them. Such a move would be a mistake, and is highly unethical under any circumstances. Furthermore, the additional facet of Orth's deception (or rationalization) and Microsoft's likely PR line, we find a situation that is not simply somewhat immoral but highly reprehensible behavior on the part of the corporation and its agents. Such action impairs the effective action of the free market and distorts the meaning of the relationship between consumer and producer.