Internet Ethics and the consumer's private existence in an unstable regulatory environment -- untapped economic waters in a wild, wild west of identity theft and chronic consumption
When it comes to Internet ethics, even in the absence of legal requirements, businesses must themselves self-regulate when it comes to consumer privacy. If they do not, it is likely that the government will step in to do so, as the government has done in the European Union. This will only hurt businesses economically, and do damage to the equal ethical obligation corporations owe to shareholders. Furthermore, good business sense is about trust between the consumer and the business, and this is not honored when businesses unfairly spy upon casual surfers of their websites, or use consumer data for their own profit as well as research and marketing purposes.
Americans, according to a recent poll cited by J. Hodges in the journal of the Internal Auditor, now consider the Internet to be a more important source of information than radio or television, yet distrust its intrustive potential in their daily lives. This was the conclusion of the 2001 study "Surveying the Digital Future," a recent University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) area of long-time research. In addition, more than two-thirds of U.S. residents have regular, continuous access to the Internet in their homes, fifty give percent report frequently using e-mail, and fifty two percent have made purchases online. (Hodges, 2001) Ever since the age of direct mail, of course, consumers have had access to targeted advertising they may reject or accept. (Ewald, 2003) But the plurality of uses, of personal, business, and commerce, that most Americans deploy the Internet, makes the use of the Web particularly ethically dicey -- a business intrudes into the office of another business when an employee surfs for products online at work, and spam regarding advertising can intrude into a private conversation between parent and child while they 'talk' online.
Still, when Americans use something so vigorously and enthusiastically, they must trust the medium as ethical, correct? Yet despite these figures, two-thirds of the 2,096 Internet users and non-users polled believe that going online puts their privacy at risk. (Hodges, 2001) There is still a pervasive sense that their data may be sold or used for unscrupulous purposes, even while they use the Internet for innocent means. Thus, although Internet connections are ubiquitous to almost every workplace and home, the World Wide Web remain a tumultuous sea of uncharted ethical legal waters, in terms of consumer and user privacy as well as the regulatory issues regarding intellectual property that affect the content disseminated on the net.
The most pressing legal concerns and ethical, regulatory restrictions have centered on the dissemination of music through sites such as Napster, the controversial online music-sharing site. But today, the legal rights of artists compete for media attention with many interests regarding privacy and intellectual property for media contention. Some might contend that the Napster issue of the 1990s pales in comparison to the even greater ethical issues of making the Internet safe for ordinary consumers, so they may engage in social and business transactions such as paying their bills online, checking what doctor visits will be compensated by their health insurance providers, and submitting their resume and work related data to employees online. Consumers should be able to do so without putting their privacy at risk
Consumers are now used to the fact that computers and the Internet store data regarding consumer's health care, insurance and other important sectors of everyday life. They have perhaps even grown accepted and jaded to the emotional manipulations of advertising in their daily consumptive lives. (Kaess, 2004) Advertising is everywhere in daily life, and nowhere more so than the web. Businesses comfort themselves with the frequently cited ethical claim that the interactive nature of many web sites and discussion groups create or implied waiver of confidentiality for clients. You surf, you pay with your privacy -- click on a pop up, and your data may be used for marketing purposes to convey the typical profile and response to a specific advertising technique.
But when consumers are not simply enticed, but compelled to use certain sites, this seems like an ethically specious claim. Consider how many consumers are encouraged to conduct their banking online safely and securely, and banks limit hours to cut costs of 'real world' as opposed to 'virtual world' banking that requires no tellers and little overhead office costs. Consumers are encouraged to use such sites, even compelled to do so, and businesses profit by gaining greater access to their personal data, as the history of their screen name's activity on the site, from what advertising they spy on the site, to their interest in certain banking services may be accessed, used for advertising purposes, and even sold to other marketers. Surely, this is not ethical if the consumer is not aware of the practice.
But advertising and a free society require consumers to be informed and chary about media consumption. Paranoia about over exposure, warn some First Amendment activists, can ultimately limit freedom of speech, as the Internet may be one of the last places where individuals can freely air their view in an atmosphere of open discourse -- does not freedom imply a certain level of insecurity and risk. Also, another argument consumer rather than business ethical responsibility regarding use of the Internet is that consumers are buying anti-virus software and pop up protections for consumer's browser screens, designed to shield consumer and user identity from infiltration and to minimize intrusions by advertisers. But as consumers purchase more shields, hackers and even entrepreneurs develop more ways to circumvent such protections. One can always slam a door on a salesman, but ethically, companies are all over the Internet, making offers for software products for anonymous Web browsing and computer security, which includes unlisted IP address, encrypted Web surfing, and hacker protection from finding one's identity -- businesses whose very structure and existence challenges the nature of conventional ethical practices. Through a phenomenon known as cookies, the activities of an Internet user can be monitored by marketers and other interested parties, even while an individual surfs the web and accidentally clicks onto an advertising site -- while in real life, an individual who accidentally wanders into a store can always leave, without leaving any information for the store to use in his or her wake. Although cookies can be suspended by one's computer browers, to access online data for one's bank or one's health plan, often one must enable cookies, thus opening one's computer to attacks by interested parties as to one's buying habits, or even one's name and social security number. Again, while consumers can verbally refuse to give personal information to store clerks, they cannot similarly guard their privacy online, and their first amendment protection to free speech by witholding information is threatened by the right of business' supposed right to access disclosed information.
According to Tom Venetis in Consumer Dealer News, Europe has prefeered to err on the side of regulating the Internet, risking stifling free speech of website content editors. In contrast to the United States, Europeans have sought more stringent laws to protect personal information online, not trusting businesses to ethically police themselves. But true to form and honoring the First Amendment, "Americans want to leave that to free market," even though Americans may often suffer the abuses of the Internet regarding privacy issues of health care and billing even more than Europeans. This is because many of the industries on the web, such as health care and billing for routine expenses such as utilities, feature a variety of potentially hacker-friendly websites in the United States, while these expenses often fall under government control in the European Union, and thus must conform to state standards regarding website design. Americans, however, may not trust big business, but they trust the government even less to regulate personal speech and freedom. Emotionally, businesses must not take advantage of this 'brand trust.' (Kaess, 2004)
However, the European and United States split approach to Internet laws also shows the difficulty of legally regulating content upon an international medium such as the Web, which offers an open sea of opportunities for those who wish to stand outside the laws and conventional ethical boundaries. How can a European nation make a certain level protection legal within its borders, when in America it constitutes freedom of speech? There is an ideological and legal fight brewing between Europe and the United States over how to handle Internet privacy rules that cannot be easily settled without cooperation as well as conflict. More sensible than regulation might be companies to transnationally agree to ethical limits regarding disseminating consumer data accrued over the web, or, barring that, international companies allowing consumers to waive the right to disclose certain information, often required to register at a site, but are unrelated to payment and distribution of goods, such as whether the consumer…