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Internet Ethics

Ethical Behavior and Technology

The Internet allows consumers, businesses, and industry to do many new things in unique and efficient ways. The technology around which it is built is also changing and advancing rapidly. A source of concern is that the legal and ethical developments regarding the Internet are not able to keep up with the fast pace of technological change. Questions about appropriate use, ethical and legal responsibilities can be grouped as follows:

  • protection of intellectual property
  • prevention of fraud
  • protection of freedom of expression versus problems of defamation
  • protection of privacy
  • control of Internet indecency versus free speech

Ethics deals with standards of human conduct that direct the behavior of individuals and groups. These standards, in turn, are developed by the society within which the individual or group exists. Since the Internet allows access to individuals and groups from a wide and complex range of societies and backgrounds, the ethical standards of the participants can vary widely. However, in order for the users of the Internet community to be able to interact productively through communications and commercial transactions, it is necessary for the community to develop a common set of ethics or standards of human conduct that governs their behavior. This is especially necessary since those who are interacting are doing so in a virtual community where they cannot see or meet each other physically. Without a common ethical framework, no trust can develop between those interacting, and the Internet will then fail as a medium for interaction.

Several groups are trying to develop guidelines for a common ethical framework for the Internet. ReelSEO is an online video and Internet marketing group that provides helpful advice about the ethical, professional, and legal obligations of those who use online videos as a tool for Internet marketing. In an attempt to counter the troubling proliferation of socially irresponsible video online, a  “Pledge for Online Video Responsibility,” was developed to help both online video professionals and enthusiasts be more mindful and considerate of others. I had an opportunity to work with Grant Crowell, a professional consultant and developer in the online marketing space, on the Pledge. My contribution was to identify ethical obligations to guide actions by online video professionals. These include a pledge to build trust in those who rely on one’s independence and objectivity in making and evaluating online videos. The standards to carry out the Pledge include:

  • Acting in a responsible manner and always considering the consequences of one’s actions before making decisions
  • Being able to defend one’s actions if questioned by others, or if they were to appear in any public media or venue.
  • To encourage others to join the community in using online video responsibly, thoughtfully, and respectfully – both towards others and ourselves

Another groups trying to develop guidelines for a common ethical framework for the Internet is taken from the Internet Advertising Bureau website. The IAB strongly endorses the view of the Division Advisory Panel of the National Science Foundation Division of Network, Communications Research and Infrastructure which, in paraphrase, characterized as unethical and unacceptable any activity which purposely:

(a) seeks to gain unauthorized access to the resources of the Internet,

(b) disrupts the intended use of the Internet,

(c) wastes resources (people, capacity, computer) through such actions,

(d) destroys the integrity of computer-based information,


(e) compromises the privacy of users.

An examination of these guidelines for ethics on the Internet indicates that they address many of the areas that involve legal implications as well as ethical ones. It is often true that what is illegal is also unethical. However, the opposite is not always true: what is unethical may not always be illegal. For example, it may be considered unethical to sell information regarding your customers to another agency but it may not necessarily be illegal.

Ethical behavior seeks to go beyond legal requirements to ask questions such as: Is it what is best for all concerned and not just for myself? Would I want someone else to do the same thing to me?

It can be seen that ethics is much more difficult to pin down than legality, and is much more a personal decision. This is all the more reason for technology professionals in the computer industry to set high ethical standards and to act in a way that its actions and the basis for them are clear to all concerned. One approach to accomplishing this is to have a clearly stated set of guidelines for the organization that addresses general issues, as well as specific issues prone to ethical problems, and make sure that both employees and customers are familiar with.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 2, 2011