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Internet Ethics

Internet Code of Ethics: Privacy Rights and Intellectual Capital

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. In other words legal and ethical standards need to be created to keep up with the pace of technological change. 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.

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

Several groups are trying to develop guidelines for a common ethical framework for the Internet. One examples of such a guideline on the web is given below and 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, and/or

(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 October 7, 2011