5th IFIP-WG9.2 Namur Award Lecture

Namur, January 14th, 2000

Internet ethics are not optional at business or at home - Summary

by Professor Simon Rogerson
Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility
De Montfort University, Leicester, UK
URL: http://www.ccsr.cse.dmu.ac.uk/staff/Srog/srog.html

The Internet

The development of an expanding set of international information networks, known as the Internet, has been one of the most influential applications of computers and telecommunications. This phenomenon has led to millions of people being interconnected and this will grow to over 200 million by the year 2000. It has evolved from a closed world of specialists and experts to a common and commercial universe open to the general public. The networks of the virtual society offer exceptional possibilities for exchanging information and acquiring knowledge, and provide new opportunities for growth and job creation. However, at the same time, they conceal risks to human rights and alter the infrastructure of traditional public and private operations.

The problems

Johnson (1997) explains that the potential benefit of the Internet is being devalued by antisocial behaviour including unauthorised access, theft of electronic property, launching of viruses, racism and harassment. These have raised new ethical, cultural, economic and legal questions which have led many to consider the feasibility and desirability of regulation in this area. Similarly, it is questionable whether technological counter measures will be very effective either. The absence of effective formal legal or technological controls presents grave dangers to the virtual society. Consequently, there is a need to rely heavily upon our ethical standards.

Internet ethics

Johnson (1997) suggests that there are three general ethical principles that promote acceptable behaviour in the virtual society: Such principles appear to be built upon core values which most if not all humans would subscribe to. Moor (1998) suggests that such core values are life, happiness, ability, freedom, knowledge, resources and security. However, Moor explains that, "To say that we share the core values is only the first step in the argument toward grounding ethical judgements. The most evil villain and the most corrupt society will exhibit core human values on an individual basis. Possessing core human values is a sign of being rational but not a sufficient condition for being ethical. To adopt the ethical point of view one must respect others and their core values. ... If we respect the core values of everyone, then we have some standards by which to evaluate actions and policies." This appears to be an effective conceptual way to address the ethical issues related to the Internet.


The outcome of not subscribing to such principles is likely to result in chaos overwhelming democratic dialogue, absolute freedom overwhelming responsibility and accountability, and emotions triumphing over reason (Badaracco and Useemm, 1997). For businesses operating in the virtual society these principles can be expanded into a number of explicit actions such as: Such actions provide the means for self regulation that would combat the regulatory flux surrounding the Internet and might lead to effective policies regarding transparency, responsibility and respect of appropriate legal frameworks.


The home will be the physical location of the virtual society. Many of the organisations with which people interact have used computer technology to provide new forms of interaction that can take place from the home. Information has quickly become one of the most valuable commodities of our society. Information in the future is likely to take many different forms. Taylor (1995) suggests that information will be domesticated as utility networks reach the home of most people and information appliances become cheaper, intuitive to use and interactive. He suggests the types of services and products that might bring about this domestication. They include: tele-healthcare, tele-education, entertainment and media, real time information services, electronic publishing, digital imaging and photography, virtual zoos and wild life experience, virtual reality experiences and tele-travel. In a short space of time most of Taylorís list has become a reality. It is a total information experience. Indeed E.everything has arrived.

We must be wary of the potential dangers. For example, children can be exploited to reveal personal information about themselves, or they might go one expensive Internet shopping sprees or they might down load unsuitable material such as pornographic picture or they might become emotional upset from inadvertently visiting a stealth site (Silverthorne, 1999). Certain practical measures can be used such as filters, locating computers in a family space and restricting the amount of time children can be on-line each day but what is vital is sound moral education. As Karen Jaffe, executive director of KidsNet, a non-profit organisation devoted to children and the media explains, "The most important thing is having conversations with your children about your own values. You can have the V-chip and filters, but if your child doesn't have a sense of what is appropriate as defined by the values of the family or school, then none of this matters."

A second example concern healthcare. The growing moves to create electronic patient records covering a patientís complete medical history from the cradle to the grave is a good illustration of why we must be extremely careful in the way information is created and distributed particularly over the Internet. Certainly the electronic patient record allows providers, patients and payers to interact more efficiently and in life-enhancing ways. It offers new methods of storing, manipulating and communicating medical information which are more powerful and flexible than paper based systems and can accommodate processing of non-textual medical information such as images, sound, video and tactile sense. There are, however, potential problems. The electronic patient record will hold a complete profile of the individual comprising personal and medical details. Access to this information much be carefully controlled ensuring such access is limited to only the relevant and authorised portion of the information. Since medical details contain some sensitive information such as past drug use or genetic predisposition to various diseases it is important to keep this information truly private. There will always be tension and trade-off between the need-to-know and the right to confidentiality. Misdiagnoses are quite rare, but far from unheard of. Procedures must be in place to ensure that once an error is identified the electronic patient record is corrected and all points of distribution informed of the error. Finally, inaccurate data input can be potentially life threatening in this application. It is particularly difficult to correct inaccurate data given the global distribution via for example, the Internet, of this information to primary and secondary healthcare providers.


The Internet will change society. We must be aware of the potential benefits and dangers and be prepared to challenge any antisocial activity. Therefore, Internet ethics are not optional, they must become a way of virtual life at work and in the home. Only then will we reap the benefits that this amazing technology offers.


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Insitut d'Informatique - 19/10/2000