e-Ethics Developer - Lesson 4

Lesson #4: Global Information Ethics

About this lesson
A computer with a key We've looked at ethics for the designer and developer from a variety of different vantage points. In Lesson 4, this module's final instructional segment, we'll examine ethics from the macro to the micro; on a global level down to the ethics of personal privacy.

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Global Information Ethics [1]
A scale picture Computer ethics today is rapidly evolving into a broader and even more important field, which might reasonably be called "global information ethics". Global networks like the Internet and especially the world-wide-web are connecting people all over the earth. As Krystyna Gorniak-Kocikowska perceptively notes in her paper, "The Computer Revolution and the Problem of Global Ethics" [Gorniak-Kocikowska, 1996], for the first time in history, efforts to develop mutually agreed standards of conduct, and efforts to advance and defend human values, are being made in a truly global context. So, for the first time in the history of the earth, ethics and values will be debated and transformed in a context that is not limited to a particular geographic region, or constrained by a specific religion or culture. This may very well be one of the most important social developments in history. Consider the following global issues:

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Global Laws

If computer users in the United States, for example, wish to protect their freedom of speech on the internet, whose laws apply? Nearly two hundred countries are already interconnected by the internet, so the United States Constitution (with its First Amendment protection for freedom of speech) is just a "local law" on the internet -- it does not apply to the rest of the world. How can issues like freedom of speech, control of "inapropriate content", protection of intellectual property, invasions of privacy, and many others to be governed by law when so many countries are involved? If a citizen in a European country, for example, has internet dealings with someone in a far-away land, and the government of that land considers those dealings to be illegal, can the European be tried by the courts in the far-away country?

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Global Education

If inexpensive access to the global information net is provided to rich and poor alike -- to povertystricken people in ghettos, to poor nations in the "third world", etc.-- for the first time in history, nearly everyone on earth will have access to daily news from a free press; to texts, documents and art works from great libraries and museums of the world; to political, religious and social practices of peoples everywhere. What will be the impact of this sudden and profound "global education" upon political dictatorships, isolated communities, coherent cultures, religious practices, etc.? As great universities of the world begin to offer degrees and knowledge modules via the internet, will "lesser" universities be damaged or even forced out of business?

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Information Rich and Information Poor

The gap between rich and poor nations, and even between rich and poor citizens in industrialized countries, is already disturbingly wide. As educational opportunities, business and employment opportunities, medical services and many other necessities of life move more and more into cyberspace, will gaps between the rich and the poor become even worse?

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Globalization, the Internet, and the Future of Computer Ethics[10]
A picture with books and a scale over the books Because of the global impact of computing in recent years, and because of the merging of computing and communications technologies that has also recently occurred, the field of computer ethics might be perceived as one that is currently in a state of flux or transition.

A question of current interest has to do with the impact of the Internet and the Web for the field of computer ethics. Has Internet technology made possible certain ethical issues that could not have existed (or at least did not exist) in the pre-Internet era? Johnson (1997) has argued that with respect to ethical considerations, Internet technology has three special features or characteristics worth considering: its scope, which is global and interactive; the ability to communicate with anonymity; and the reproducibility of information on the medium.

A picture of a computer Although she notes that these features may make a "moral difference in that they make behavior in an electronic network morally different from offline behavior," Johnson does not claim that the Internet has introduced any new ethical issues. Some authors, however, now use the expressions "Internet Ethics" (see Langford, 2000) and "CyberEthics" (see Spinello, 2000) in ways that might suggest, at least initially, that the Internet has generated new ethical issues and that possibly a separate field of study dedicated to ethical issues involving this relatively new medium is needed. Clearly, the Internet has perpetuated and, in certain cases, exacerbated many of the ethical issues associated with the use of earlier computing technologies. But has it introduced any new ethical issues?

How will globalization and the Internet affect the future of computer ethics? Johnson (1999) has recently speculated that the field of computers ethics, at least as we currently understand it, "may and, perhaps should, disappear in the future." She suggests that what we now view as issues in computer ethics might well become integrated into the issues of "ordinary ethics." Johnson is very careful to point out, however, that the issues themselves will not disappear; rather, they will "not be posed or framed as issues of computer ethics."

For additional information, read the article The Computer Revolution and the Problem of Global Ethics, then return to the lesson to learn about the ethics of privacy.

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Privacy and Anonymity [1]
A picture of a scale and a woman One of the earliest computer ethics topics to arouse public interest was privacy. In the early 1970s, major computer privacy laws were passed in the USA. Ever since then, computer-threatened privacy has remained as a topic of public concern. The ease and efficiency with which computers and computer networks can be used to gather, store, search, compare, retrieve and share personal information make computer technology especially threatening to anyone who wishes to keep various kinds of "sensitive" information (e.g., medical records) out of the public domain or out of the hands of those who are perceived as potential threats. During the past decade, commercialization and rapid growth of the internet; the rise of the world-wide-web; increasing "user-friendliness" and processing power of computers; and decreasing costs of computer technology have led to new privacy issues, such as data-mining, data matching, recording of "click trails" on the web, and so on [see Tavani, 1999].

The variety of privacy-related issues generated by computer technology has led philosophers and other thinkers to re-examine the concept of privacy itself. Since the mid-1960s, for example, a number of scholars have elaborated a theory of privacy defined as "control over personal information" (see, for example, [Westin, 1967], [Miller, 1971], [Fried, 1984] and [Elgesem, 1996]). On the other hand, philosophers Moor and Tavani have argued that control of personal information is insufficient to establish or protect privacy, and "the concept of privacy itself is best defined in terms of restricted access, not control" [Tavani and Moor, 2001] (see also [Moor, 1997]). In addition, Nissenbaum has argued that there is even a sense of privacy in public spaces, or circumstances "other than the intimate." An adequate definition of privacy, therefore, must take account of "privacy in public" [Nissenbaum, 1998]. As computer technology rapidly advances -- creating ever new possibilities for compiling, storing, accessing and analyzing information -- philosophical debates about the meaning of "privacy" will likely continue (see also [Introna, 1997]). Questions of anonymity on the internet are sometimes discussed in the same context with questions of privacy and the internet, because anonymity can provide many of the same benefits as privacy. For example, if someone is using the internet to obtain medical or psychological counseling, or to discuss sensitive topics (for example, AIDS, abortion, gay rights, venereal disease, political dissent), anonymity can afford protection similar to that of privacy. Similarly, both anonymity and privacy on the internet can be helpful in preserving human values such as security, mental health, self-fulfillment and peace of mind. Unfortunately, privacy and anonymity also can be exploited to facilitate unwanted and undesirable computer-aided activities in cyberspace, such as money laundering, drug trading, terrorism, or preying upon the vulnerable (see [Marx, 2001] and [Nissenbaum, 1999]).

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