As the computer has evolved in the modern world, so the potential for communication has also increased. The computer, and the development of the Internet, has meant that human society has become more connected than ever before and the barriers between nations and people around the globe have been broken down. While this is a positive development in many ways, the growth of the Internet has also meant that there has been an increase in a wide range of new problems. One of these is the issue of ethics. "Just as ethics evolve as human societies grow and change, so similar ethical questions are raised during the evolution of this global electronic community." (Ethics on the Web)
The more that technology for communication and open publication of information advances, the more questions are raised about issues relating to moral codes of behavior and problems about what is right and wrong on the Internet. The easy access to information and the ability to use and manipulate that information can result in serious consequences when there is no control.
As electronic communication becomes essential to the daily lives of more and more people, ethical questions take on a practical urgency ... sometimes the hacker can kill. According to Britain's Scotland Yard, someone broke into the weather computer network, interrupting the weather forecast for the English Channel. In this case, this unauthorized entry led directly to the loss of a ship at sea.
(Ethics on the Web)
Other less severe forms of unethical Internet behavior includes aspects such as spam mail and credit card fraud. This paper will look at the issue of ethics and the Internet by discussing the foundations and basis of this new technology. Secondly, the way in which the Internet relates to ethical problems will be investigated. This paper will also deal with some views about what can be done to solve the problems that ethics and the Internet raise.
The Internet is the most important storage base and communication platform for information in the world today. There are million of users accessing data and reading information on the Web each day -- and there are also thousands of new Web pages being produced and updated daily. The information that is offered for easy access on the Internet is therefore very extensive. There is quick and easy access to information on every topic and field of knowledge and expertise. This ranges from legal information to health and medical advice, to business and personal information. The one central problem from the point-of-view of ethics is that all of this data is essentially uncontrolled. This means that there is no one single authority or group of editors or related experts to determine what information is correct and ethically appropriate and which data is believed to be potentially risky or incorrect. With the current 'free for all' situation this means that any person can post any kind of information online as they see fit. By posting content on an attractively designed website viewers are often in the dark as to whether the content is valid or not.
In order to combat this problem the Internet needs a form of organization to evaluate and control information posted on the Net. The chief function would be to make sure that the information provided for online publication is not only accurate but also that it and does not go against any ethical norms. Yet, the implication of ethics again raises even further problems: for example, what is meant by ethical norms? And whose ethical norms can be referred to when the entire world and all nations are simultaneously involved on the Internet?
One of the most essential areas of ethical concern is the issue of the correctness of the information provided on the Internet. Fraudulent and incorrect information can endanger the lives of others. A good example is health and medical information and advice which are provided for the general online public, and which can contain errors and incorrect views which may influence human health. Some Web sites are unethical in their approach and publish incorrect and unchecked information in order to attract readers and views to their Web site to sell products. It has been found in recent studies and surveys that many medical Web sites are offering information that is incorrect or misleading. Because the sites are professionally designed and seem to be authentic many people accept this information at face value and use it -- often to their detriment. This has become a serious concern for many doctors and medical professionals.
There's much current concern among health professionals about "the absence of real protection from harm for citizens who use the Internet for health purposes." One response has been the development, by a number of organizations, of codes of conduct. Their purpose is to attempt to address the issue of the quality of health information available via the Internet. (Till J.)
The above is only one example of how the Internet can be used for unethical practices. The problem lies in the fact that the Internet is so large and extensive that control of all information is practically impossible. One groups or even a number of groups or authorities could never control the output of data on the Internet. Even if this were possible it would go against the spirit of the Internet as a source of free information. This would in effect raise other ethical issues such as the restriction of public information. Secondly, anyone can easily create a Web site in a few hours and this adds to the impossibility of direct control over the flow of online information.
What is needed is a general consensus about ethical procedures and actions that are accepted by the entire online community. This has already, to a certain extent, been achieved in Newsgroups where there are procedures and rules -- called "netiquette" -- which have been accepted and agreed upon, as well as being enforced, by the members of those particular groups.
3. Ethics and its relation to the Internet
There are many definitions of ethics and ethical actions. Very simply, ethics refers to an understanding of certain forms of behavior as either right or wrong. "The field of ethics, also called moral philosophy, involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior." (Ethics) However, there are many complex aspects to the understanding of ethics. An early idea of ethics was put forward by the philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th Century. They suggested that ethical action was concerned with providing "... The greatest balance of good over evil." (ibid) Considering what has already been said about the Internet, this definition immediately raises questions such as: who determines what is right and wrong for all people and who are the ethics for? One answer to these questions, in terms of this theory, is that ethical rules are there to determine the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But one can also argue that those people who are in the minority also have the tight to a say in what it considered to be wrong or right.
Another approach which attempts to solve this dilemma is the "rights approach" to ethics. This view of ethics comes from the views of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, among others. This view stresses the choice of the individual. This perspective is possibly a better option when investigating ethics on the Internet. In other words, from an ethical point-of-view, the individual has a right to truth and a right to correct and non-fraudulent information. The individual also has the right to privacy and the right to his or her belief and view, as long as they do not violate the rights of others.
Another approach to ethics which is also worth considering in terms of the Internet is the "common good" approach. This approach " ... assumes that community members are bound by the pursuit of common values and goals." (ibid) This is a particularly important view when considering the way that the Internet has developed and the basic "spirit" of the Web -- as will be discussed in the next section. This view of ethics as the common good comes from the thoughts of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. "The common-good approach challenges us to view ourselves as members of the same community, reflecting on broad questions concerning the kind of society we want to become and how we are to achieve that society. " (Waern, Y.)
The investigation of ethics and the Internet refers to all three of the above approaches. It is the third approach that seems to be most appropriate to the nature of the Internet. However, in order to understand the relationship of ethics to the Internet it is import firstly to understand how the Internet functions.
3.1 The nature of the Internet
Essentially the Internet is a large and complex network of interlinked computers. It was originally developed in…