e-Ethics Developer - Lesson 1

Lesson 1: Computer Ethics: Basic Concepts and Historical Overview

Bar with years from 1940 to 2000

1940s and 1950s
Computer ethics as a field of study has its roots in the work of MIT professor Norbert Wiener during World War II (early 1940s). Wiener and his colleagues created a new field of research called "cybernetics" -- the science of information feedback systems.
In 1950 Wiener published his monumental book, The Human Use of Human Beings, which laid down a comprehensive foundation which remains today a powerful basis for computer ethics research and analysis. Wiener's book included (1) an account of the purpose of a human life, (2) four principles of justice, (3) a powerful method for doing applied ethics, (4) discussions of the fundamental questions of computer ethics, and (5) examples of key computer ethics topics. [Wiener 1950/1954, see also Bynum 1999].

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1960s and 1970s
In the mid 1960s, Donn Parker of SRI International in Menlo Park, California began to examine unethical and illegal uses of computers by computer professionals. He published "Rules of Ethics in Information Processing" in Communications of the ACM in 1968, and headed the development of the first Code of Professional Conduct for the Association for Computing Machinery (eventually adopted by the ACM in 1973).
In the mid 1970s, educator Walter Maner began to use the term "computer ethics" to refer to that field of inquiry dealing with ethical problems aggravated, transformed or created by computer technology. In 1978 he self-published and disseminated his Starter Kit in Computer Ethics, which contained curriculum materials and pedagogical advice for university teachers to develop computer ethics courses.
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1980s and 1990s
By the 1980s, a number of social and ethical consequences of information technology were becoming public issues in America and Europe: issues like computer-enabled crime, disasters caused by computer failures, invasions of privacy via computer databases, and major law suits regarding software ownership.
In 1991 the first international multidisciplinary conference on computer ethics convened, which was seen by many as a major milestone of the field. It brought together, for the first time, philosophers, computer professionals, sociologists, psychologists, lawyers, business leaders, news reporters and government officials. It generated a set of monographs, video programs and curriculum materials [see van Speybroeck, July 1994].
New university courses, research centers, conferences, journals, articles and textbooks appeared, and a wide diversity of additional scholars and topics became involved throughout the 1990s, heralding in a ‘second generation of Computer Ethics.’

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Professional Responsibility[1]
As with Lesson #2: Consider Ethics in Teacher Relationships, interactions between computer professionals and other individuals have important ethical implications. Consider that computer professionals have specialized knowledge and often have positions with authority and respect in the community.[1] For this reason, they are able to have a significant impact upon the world, including many of the things that people value. Along with such power to change the world comes the duty to exercise that power responsibly [Gotterbarn, 2001]. Computer professionals find themselves in a variety of professional relationships with other people [Johnson, 1994], including:

Client Professional
Professional Professional
Society Professional

These relationships involve a diversity of interests, and sometimes these interests can come into conflict with each other. Responsible computer professionals, therefore, will be aware of possible conflicts of interest and try to avoid them.

Codes of Ethics
With the advent of computer ethics as a field of study and considering the variety of relationships and accompanying potential ethical problems resulting from these relationships, codes of ethics have evolved as guidelines for the developer and designer.

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IEEE Code of Ethics
In 1991 a Joint Curriculum Task Force of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) adopted a set of guidelines ("Curriculum 1991") for college programs in computer science. [?] The guidelines say that a significant component of computer ethics (in the broad sense) should be included in undergraduate education in computer science [Turner, 1991].

In addition, both the ACM and IEEE have adopted Codes of Ethics for their members. The most recent ACM Code (1992), for example, includes "general moral imperatives", such as "avoid harm to others" and "be honest and trustworthy". And also included are "more specific professional responsibilities" like "acquire and maintain professional competence" and "know and respect existing laws pertaining to professional work." The IEEE Code of Ethics (1990) includes such principles as "avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest whenever possible" and "be honest and realistic in stating claims or estimates based on available data."

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Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice [7]
The short version of the code summarizes aspirations at a high level of the abstraction; the clauses that are included in the full version give examples and details of how these aspirations change the way we act as software engineering professionals. Without the aspirations, the details can become legalistic and tedious; without the details, the aspirations can become high sounding but empty; together, the aspirations and the details form a cohesive code. Software engineers shall commit themselves to making the analysis, specification, design, development, testing and maintenance of software a beneficial and respected profession. In accordance with their commitment to the health, safety and welfare of the public, software engineers shall adhere to the eight principles.

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Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics”[8]
The Computer Ethics Institute (CEI) is the most prominent organization dedicated toward the promotion of ethical computer use in the United States. Its primary function is to study, publicize, and coordinate the intersection of information technology innovations, business interests, regulations and other public policies, and ethics. The organization was founded in 1985 by the Brookings Institution, IBM, the Washington Consulting Group, and the Washington Theological Consortium, and was originally known as the Coalition for Computer Ethics. In 1992, the coalition changed its name and incorporated as a research, education, and policy study group.

Further consider implications, consequences, and strategies of ethics in the classroom by visiting the modules on Ethics for Students, Ethics for Instructors, and our Case Studies.

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