Ethics principals and values are universal and transcend time. However, progress always creates new problems and challenges in the application of our values. Every major discovery and invention throughout history brought about new moral concerns to society. That is particularly true in both the medical and technology field.
Is there a place for ethics on the Internet?
The Net is ubiquitous. According to the Hobbes Internet Timeline, there are 500 millions Internet users worldwide and 1,600,000 Internet domains. The Internet is global: 60% of Internet users reside outside the U.S. There is hardly a human activity that does not have an Internet application. Technology has an impact on the way we conduct business and our lives. The Internet is not a Value- Free Zone and it is not the Wild, Wild Web. How do values of conduct apply in the virtual world of the Internet, e-mail, blogs, and video posting? Is there an implicit understanding or general consensus of what is acceptable and what is not in the use of this new technology? What are the particular ethical issues concerned with this formidable “worldwide” tool of communication?
The Internet and the Law
Eugene R. Quinn, the patent attorney, law professor and president of Intellectual Property Watchdog, says that there is no such thing as “Internet Law,” but that “the Internet forces us to deal with legal issues that are substantially different from those issues traditionally faced in the ‘real world.’” Those issues include, among others, child pornography, hate crimes, terrorism, identity theft and hackers as well as service provider liability, trademark, domain-name dispute and legal liability in Web-page linking.
Interpreting existing laws to the Internet as well as prosecuting those that trespass them is particularly challenging because the Internet is not limited to national boundaries.
The Internet is used to break the law in areas such as prostitution, which is a crime in many states. Craig’s list, which claims to have 25 million users and 8 billion page views a month, created an “Erotic Services” category with some 9,000 listings in the New York region alone, offering “massages” and “escort services” that leave little doubt as to the true nature of the service. Last year, the Nassau County police, focusing on Craig’s list, made more than 70 arrests. In Jacksonville, Florida, the police posted a decoy ad on Craig’s list that resulted in the arrest of 33 men. “The Internet has allowed people to make contact in a way not possible before,” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University and a researcher in prostitution. “Ten year ago, this was not happening at all.”
Freedom of speech is granted by the First Amendment of our constitution and is a cornerstone of our democracy. As some people forget, it only protects citizens from restrictions imposed by the government. There are, however, laws that impose some limits on free expression in order to protect its citizens from harm, such as laws against child pornography. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the mere offer to sell or buy child pornography constitutes a crime even if there is no pornography to sell or buy.
The First Amendment does not protect obscenity. The true dollar figures of the pornography industry are very difficult to know, but most experts agree that it is at least a billion dollars. In 1973, the Supreme Court in Miller v. California established guidelines to determine what would be considered obscene:
1. Depicts sexual acts whose depiction is prohibited by state laws.
2. Is offensive, appealing to prurient interest as judged by reasonable person using community standards.
3. Has not serious redeeming social or artistic value.
The main concern in pornography is the protection of minors. Most psychologists and parents agree that exposing minors to pornography is harmful. Furthermore, child pornography exposes children to sexual predators. Many believe that pornography is harmful not only to children but to adults as well. Rabbi Asher Meir, the “Jewish Ethicist” of the Business Ethics Center in Jerusalem, says that pornography is harmful to the soul Online gambling is a multibillion dollar industry. Christiansen Capital Advisors estimate that online gambling revenue will reach $25 billion a year in 2010.
Online gambling is illegal in the U.S. The main concern of legislators is the risk it represents for teenagers and compulsive gamblers. Industry advocates have lobbied Congress to legalize, regulate and tax online gambling, claiming that there are systems in place to prevent both underage and compulsive gambling. They have not been successful until now. The government has begun a crackdown on online gambling companies that operate outside of the U.S. but service U.S. customers. In 2006, David Caruthers, the CEO of Betonsports, a British company listed on the London stock exchange, was arrested during a stopover in Dallas and is waiting trial. Betonsports was forced to cease accepting bets from U.S. customers and forced to repay its American customers’ account balances. Most ethicists and clergy object to gambling on moral grounds, claiming that gambling has no redeeming social value, and they object to the notion that gambling is a harmless entertainment if practiced with moderation.
The Computer Ethics Institute, a Brookings Institution project, developed the 10 commandments of the ethical Internet user:
1. Thou shall not use a computer to harm other people. (Safety)
Safety is a major concern with the use of the internet. A recent survey by Cox Communications in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that teens remain unconcerned about the risks of sharing personal information on the Internet. Social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, Friendster and Xanga allow users to create a profile with personal information and photos. The research indicated that many teenagers would consider meeting someone face-to-face that they had met on the Internet. Child molesters use the Internet to lure children. Many have been exposed to sexual predators. In September of 2007, the New York State Attorney General’s office conducted an undercover investigation and found that its investigators posing as underage users on Facebook were “repeatedly solicited by adult sexual predators.” Another investigation found that there were more than 29,000 profiles of sexual predators on MySpace soliciting sex from teenagers. The Center recommends that parents take some specific steps to protect their children, such as placing computers in the living or family room where they may monitor a child’s use of the Internet.
Safety from terrorism is also a concern with the Internet. Terrorist organizations use the Internet as a forum to spread their messages of hate and violence and to advance their political and ideological agendas. They use the Internet to recruit sympathizers. Terrorist organizations also use the Internet to gather and distribute information on possible targets to attack. According to Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication at the University of Haifa, Israel, there are more that 8,000 terror websites. The United States Institute for Peace lists 8 reasons why the Internet is an ideal arena for terrorist organizations:
1. Easy access
2. Little or no regulation, censorship, or other forms of government control
3. Potentially huge audiences spread throughout the world
4. Anonymity of communication
5. Fast flow of information
6. Inexpensive development and maintenance of a Web presence
7. A multimedia environment (the ability to combine text, graphics, audio, and video and to allow users to download films, songs, books, posters, and so forth)
8. The ability to shape coverage in the traditional mass media, which increasingly use the Internet as a source for stories.
Terrorist organizations use the Internet as a form of psychological warfare to spread disinformation and deliver threats. They also use their websites to raise money, to recruit members and to plan attacks.
Weiman, author of Terror on the Internet, gives the example of an Al Qaeda site that posted a plan of a multiple bombing of Madrid just before the election with the purpose of forcing Spain to withdraw from Iraq. The posting was made three months before the 2004 Madrid attack. A researcher from Norway filed a report alerting the authorities, but no one paid attention.
There is little that can be done. Buck Revell, former chief of operations at the FBI, told U.S. News and World Report that “As long as they don’t specifically engage in criminal acts, they can do anything they want to aid and abet their activities. This is a safe haven for them.”
Hate organizations such as the KKK and Strom Front use the Internet to further their causes and to recruit members by hosting extremist websites. Some even make a financial profit by selling Neo-Nazi memorabilia online.
Recently, the justice Ministers of the European Union agreed to strengthen its laws to prosecute and penalize those who promote violence and recruit for terrorism. “The Internet is used to inspire and mobilize local terrorist networks and individuals in Europe,” thus“functioning in a virtual training camp,” said the Ministers. This agreement will facilitate the shutting down of websites that advocate terrorism and bomb making. The number of arrests connected to terrorism in 2007 was twice as many as in 2006.
2. Thou shall not interfere with other people’s computer work. (Hackers)
According to a 2001 study of the University of California, the annual cost that hackers have inflicted on U.S. businesses was 6 % of total revenue. It is estimated that some 56,000 viruses have been created, and the number is growing every day. Some hackers justify their actions on the principle that all information is public and that authority is to be challenged.
3. Thou shall not snoop around in other people’s computer files. (Privacy)
We all cherish our privacy and appreciate laws that protect it. However, the Internet has been used to violate that privacy. Many claim that privacy is in fact impossible to protect from the public eye because of the possibility for anyone to post both photos and videos on the Web. Once you step out of the protection of your home you can become a target. This reality might be a good incentive to behave properly, wherever we are.
Our privacy is violated when we become victims of identity theft. According to the Better Business Bureau, the cost last year of identity theft via the Internet was more than $5.6 billion dollars, affecting 900,000 adult victims. The BBB lists the following tips to prevent access to personal information:
• Do not release Social Security or account numbers in response to e-mail, phone or in-person requests. When responding to e-mail, ignore any Internet links provided and type the full address instead.
• Keep all sensitive documents, checkbooks and credit cards securely locked away at home and at work.
Carry only those credit cards that you need in your wallet.
• Before discarding, shred all private documents. • Retrieve paper mail promptly and place outgoing checks or other sensitive documents in a U.S. Postal Service mailbox.
• Sign up for automatic payroll deposits.
• Replace paper bills, statements and checks with online (paperless) versions.
• Keep passwords hidden (even in your own home) and change them frequently.
• Use and regularly update firewall and antivirus software.
• Do not respond to suspicious e-mails. Delete them, and if there is any doubt contact the company to determine if the e-mail is real.
• Don’t discard a computer without completely destroying the data on the hard drive.
We also have some concern about our privacy vis-à-vis the government. The Federal Government Agencies maintains databases containing personal information of millions of American citizens. According to David Linowes, author of Privacy in America, it was estimated back in 1982 that the government had 3.5 millions files on U.S. citizens. Many of these files are now accessible by computer networks. Congress passed the Privacy Act in 1974 to protect citizens from inappropriate use of personal information. The law prohibits government from disclosing information about an individual without his or her consent.
4. Thou shall not use a computer to steal. (Computer Fraud)
As e-commerce develops, so does computer fraud. Sophisticated software allows criminals to access bank accounts and credit card account to deplete these accounts and transfer funds to their own accounts. Jessica Sabatia, a former accounts-payable clerk, accessed without authorization the accounting software of the North Bay Health Group and issued checks payable to herself. The fraud resulted in the loss of $875,000 to the North Bay Health Group. She pleaded guilty to computer fraud and was sentenced to a five-year prison term and a $250,000 fine.
5. Thou shall not use a computer to bear false witness. (Libel and Defamation)
Anyone can create a website and post false information about an individual or a company, and there is not much one can do to protect one’s integrity and reputation once that posting has been made.
Libel and defamation is a critical issue for bloggers. Last year, the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimated that there are some 12 million bloggers in the U.S. Some bloggers have been debating whether the Weblog community should follow specific ethical guidelines. Responsible bloggers recognize that they are addressing the public and have some ethical obligations to society in general. CyberJournalists.net has created a model “Bloggers code of ethics.” Although not all bloggers are journalists, many believe that they should follow more or less the ethics code followed by journalists.
According to the Media Law Center, there are approximately 150 lawsuits in the U.S. against bloggers. Most of the lawsuits claim defamation and libel. However, only six of these lawsuits have resulted in penalties for the bloggers. Most of the other cases have been either dismissed by the anti-SLAPP laws or were settled out of court, or the defendants were found not guilty. (The Anti- SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — prevents litigation whose only purpose is to intimidate a critic by the threat and cost of a lawsuit.)
Last year, in California, a cruel Internet hoax provoked the suicide of Megan Meir, a 13-year-old girl. A neighbor, Mrs. Lori Drew, a 47-year-old woman, created a fake MySpace page pretending that she was a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. “Josh” flirted with Megan, and she thought that she had a new boyfriend. This virtual relationship went on for two weeks, but then suddenly the “boyfriend” became mean and insulted her. His last comment was “the world would be a better place without you.” Megan, in tears, ran to her bedroom closet and hanged herself. Lt. Craig McGuire, the Sheriff’s spokesman said that what Ms. Drew did “might have been rude, it might have been immature, but it wasn’t illegal.” She was later indicted for her role in Megan’s death.
Some corporations such as Sun Microsystems have created their own corporate blogs and encouraged their employees to participate or to create their own blogs. Sun Microsystems, in a message to employees, said:
"Many of us at Sun are doing work
that could change the world. We need
to do a better job of telling the world.
As of now, you are encouraged to tell
the world about your work without
asking permission first."
The company nevertheless lists some “dos” and “don’ts,” such as:
1. Be respectful
2. Be interesting but be honest
3. Think about the consequences
4. Don’t write anonymously
5. Don’t tell secrets
6. Do not comment on work-related legal matters
The publisher Thomas Nelson, a Ruder Finn client, launched its blog in 2005. Aware of the risks of ethical laps in blogging, the company listed a number of rules to follow. Among them were:
• You agree to write under your own name.
• You agree not to attack personally fellow employees, authors, customers, vendors, or shareholders. You may disagree with the company and its officers, provided your tone is respectful and you do not resort to personal attack.
• You agree not to post any material that is obscene, defamatory, profane, libelous, threatening, harassing, abusive, hateful or embarrassing to another person or any other person or entity.
• You agree not to post any material that violates the privacy or publicity rights of another.
In 1994 Ruder Finn was hired to represent Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the Balkan War. Our goal was to alert the world to the ethnic cleansing that was taking place in those regions. Some Serbian support organizations posted false and damaging information on the Internet about our work and our company. Our clients were contacted by e-mail and encouraged to cancel their business relationship with us. Ruder Finn posted rebuttals and clarifications about our work but the problem continued. None of our clients took the accusations seriously, but we still have, after all these years, inquiries about our work for Croatia. We always respond by explaining the appropriate work we did.
6. Thou shall not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid. According to a recent study by the Institute for Policy Innovation, Copyright Infringement costs the U.S. Economy $58 billion a year. The Software and Information Industry Association estimates that the value of software stolen worldwide is $11–$13 billion a year. In Vietnam and in China more than 90% of existing software has been pirated.
The illegal downloading of music has provoked a major crisis in the music industry, with a decline of close to 30% in album sales since 1997. Kevin Maney, a contributing editor at Conde Nast Portfolio, believes that the only way the music industry will make money in the future is not by selling CDs but by concerts and sponsorships.
7. Thou shall not use other people’s computer resources without authorization or proper compensation. Jérôme Kerviel, the French 31-year-old options trader at Société Générale, did just that. He accessed other people’s computers and managed, after making some very significant gains for the bank, to lose 5 billion Euros. It seems that he did not directly profit from the scheme but was probable hoping for a genergenerous bonus at the end of the year. This fraud was the largest in recorded history.
8. Thou shall not appropriate other people’s intellectual output. (Plagiarism) The Internet facilitates plagiarism because of the availability of information and the possibility to copy just about anything. It is a particular temptation for students and authors. Plagiarism is really fraud, taking and claiming as your own something that is not. It is a practice that is rampant, and only a few get caught. Plagiarism is against the law and can be prosecuted under the Copyright Act. Anti-plagiarism software has been developed to detect such practice.
9. Thou shall think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are using. Don Gotterbarn, of the Ethics Research Institute at East Tennessee State University, believes that computer technology has social and ethical consequences. We have to think of the potential negative consequences of the programs we develop. There is a website that indicates, step by step, a way to hide IP addresses. The immediate consequence, if Internet users apply the system, would be to make it much harder, if not impossible, for Internet providers and the police to track down criminals that use the Internet to accomplish their deeds. Any website or posting that instills fear can drive people to take irresponsible action that could be detrimental to their well-being.
10. Thou shall always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans. Cyber-bullying or the deliberate hostile and harmful communication via the Internet, is a serious problem, particularly for teenagers.
According to a Pew Internet research report, 32% of all teenagers say that they have been targets of Cyber-bullying. The research also found that girls more than boys are more likely to be victims.
Cyberbullying.Org, a Canadian not-forprofit organization, created a website to help people deal with this issue. It recommends some preventive measures to avoid being a victim of cyber-bullying, such as never sharing personal information or numbers, and never opening a message from someone that is unknown. They also recommend that once cyber-bullying has occurred the victim should inform the service provider, who can track the origin of the e-mail, inform the police and advise never to reply to a harmful message.
The issue of ethics and the Internet is being addressed on a global level. The United Nations initiated, in 2005, a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva to address the issue of Internet Governance, defined as:
The Development and application by Government, the private sector and civil society in their respective roles of shared principles, norms, rules, decision- making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.
In 2007, the Internet Governance Project, a consortium of academics with scholarly and practical expertise, was created to conduct research and publish an analysis of global Internet governance. The goal of the Internet Governance Project (IGP) is to:
• Inform and shape Internet public policy choices by providing independent analysis and timely recommendations.
• Identify and analyze new possibilities for improving global governance institutions.
• Develop policy positions guided by the values of globalism, democratic governance and individual rights.
New technology and the Web in particular present new challenges in our search for ethics. Human nature has not changed, nor have basic ethical principles. However, technology allows us to work at a faster pace and to be more productive. We do more in less time and therefore our ethical challenges are multiplied and more frequent. Furthermore, because of time constraints, we may be tempted not to take the necessary time to reflect on the consequences of the decisions we make.
As mentioned in David Finn’s article, Ruder Finn has been concerned about ethics since its early days. That concern has never changed. Ruder Finn has been a leader in this field, and now many corporations are taking ethics very seriously. Fifty-seven of Fortune 100 companies are members of the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association. The values of honesty, integrity, and transparency clearly have relevance and impact on corporations. Louis Finkelstein wrote, in 1958, an article published in Fortune magazine entitled, “The Businessman’s Moral Failure,” in which he stated:
" We hear of financiers deliberately
lying about their operations and the
financial condition of their companies
to mislead investors and make a
killing in stocks. Too many businessmen
never stop to ponder what they
are doing; they reject the need of
self-discipline, they are satisfied to be
clever, when they need to be wise.
They worry about their place in the
economic ladder but are not concerned
sufficiently with whether the
civilization in which they work is
likely to collapse. They can defeat a
competitor but may well be defeated
by the competitor of us all, which is
The message still applies today.
We have made some progress, not only with new laws, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, but, more importantly, by an increased expectation of stakeholders and the public that corporations and their leadership be ethical and be responsible corporate citizens.