The Internet and the death of ethics

Is the Net inherently unethical, or does it simply make it too easy for users to act immorally? Either way, tech too often brings out the worst in even the best of us.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

Some people see the Internet as a mirror held up to our culture. If it is, the mirror shows us in an unflattering light.

From newsroom staffers caught off guard on camera in a private moment gone viral on YouTube to dorm room trysts streamed live online, people have no shame about the despicable content they post on the Web. Respect and courtesy are quaint, outdated notions to these Internet citizens.

The people charged with protecting us from such abhorrent behavior not only fail to prevent it, they tacitly or explicitly encourage these breaches in morality because it means more page views, more customers, and more money. For example, YouTube's Community Guidelines state that the company works 24 hours a day, seven days a week to find and remove content that violates its ethical standards. Yet the same poor-taste, non-age-restricted videos appear there week after week, month after month.

Unfortunately, it isn't just misguided college kids or mean-spirited news junkies who propagate these crimes against fairness and human kindness. At a company I worked for, I discovered a senior executive had plagiarized about a dozen different Web sites in a report he had written for a client. He had copied the material directly from the sites and pasted it into his document, changing only a word or two here and there. (In a future post, I'll describe how I inadvertently discovered the plagiarism.)

Nowhere in the document had he mentioned that the material was taken from these sites. When I brought this serious breach of ethics to his attention, he replied, "Don't worry about it."

I told him I was worried about it and insisted he cite in the report the origin of the material. Ultimately, links to the pages from which he "borrowed" were inserted into the document, and a paragraph was added to state that much of the text was taken directly from the sites--though the material appeared without quote marks and without the explicit permission of the sites themselves.

The author of the report is a noted and well-respected scientist. I can only assume that the temptation of stealing the material was too great for him to pass up. If such an esteemed, well-regarded individual succumbed to the Internet's siren song of immorality without a second thought, have we lost the battle to preserve ethics in the online world once and for all?

Internet codes of ethics through the years
In January 1989, the Internet Advisory Board issued a memo titled Ethics and the Internet (RFC 1087) that focused primarily on the need to protect the U.S. government's "fiduciary responsibility to the public to allocate government resources wisely." These guidelines were intended to protect the government's investment in the Internet infrastructure from disruption or lack of access resulting from "irresponsible use."

The five activities proscribed by this code were seeking unauthorized access, disrupting the intended use of the Internet, wasting resources, corrupting data, and compromising the privacy of users. The Computer Ethics Institute has since devised the Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics (PDF), which take a much broader approach.

Computer Ethics Institute's Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics
The Computer Ethics Institute's Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics entreat computer users to treat each other with "consideration and respect." Computer Ethics Institute

Along with admonitions not to steal computer resources, use computers to steal or to "bear false witness," or use proprietary software without paying for it is a commandment stating that "thou shalt not appropriate other people's intellectual output." I was delighted to see the last of the 10 commandments: "Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans."

If this last commandment were actually enforced, the YouTube video archive would be considerably smaller.

Pleas for netiquette go unheeded
At the dawning of the Web in 1994, Virginia Shea released the Core Rules of Netiquette, which later became a book and Web site. As Shea points out, the rules describe good online manners and don't address the legal issues entailed in appropriate use of the Internet. However, she states in rule No. 2, "Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life," that any illegal activity is bad Netiquette.

If you're charged with educating students about Internet ethics, the University of Illinois offers Scenarios for Teaching Internet Ethics, which cover such topics as employers reading their employees' e-mail without permission, social-network users posting negative comments about people, and even writers copying material from Web sites and pasting it into their own reports without attribution.

Chris MacDonald maintains the EthicsWeb.ca site, which includes a list of Applied Ethics Resources for businesses, media, health care providers, researchers, government agencies, and computer professionals. Unfortunately, many of the links on the site are no longer active. I hope this doesn't indicate a loss of interest on the part of those sites' developers. It certainly can't be for lack of a need for such resources.

The fight for an ethical Internet may be a lost cause, if only because people's moral compasses appear to be irreparably damaged. Several years ago, a person I worked for instructed me and my co-workers to lie to writers about assignment due dates in an attempt to receive the assignments in a more timely manner.

Another former boss put my name on an e-mail he wrote to the columnists who worked for us, because he knew the columnists would be more willing to accept what the message proposed if they thought it came from me rather than from him. In both cases, I refused to comply.

I'm starting to think there are no ethics in business--my own experience does not refute this assertion. It could be that the lack of negative consequences for immoral, unethical behavior is perceived as tacit approval of such activities. In this regard, I believe the bard may have had it wrong: conscience definitely does not make cowards of us all.