Ethics in cyberspace

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Cyberspace is a global community of people using computers in networks. In order to function well, the virtual communities supported by the Internet depend upon rules of conduct, the same as any society. Librarians and information technologists must be knowledgeable about ethical issues for the welfare of their organizations and to protect and advise users.

What is ethics? Ethics is the art of determining what is right or good. It can also be defined as a general pattern or way of life, a set of rules of conduct or moral code. Ethical guidelines are based on values.

The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) is one national organization which has developed a statement of its values. Every member of ACM is expected to uphold the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct which includes these general moral imperatives:

1) contribute to society and human well-being

2) avoid harm to others

3) be honest and trustworthy

4) be fair and take action not to discriminate

5) honor property rights including copyrights and patents

6) give proper credit for intellectual property

7) respect the privacy of others

8) honor confidentiality.

The very nature of electronic communication raises new moral issues. Individuals and organizations should be proactive in examining these concerns and developing policies which protect liabilities. Issues which need to be addressed include: privacy of mail, personal identities, access and control of the network, pornographic or unwanted messages, copyright, and commercial uses of the network. An Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) is recommended as the way an organization should inform users of expectations and responsibilities. Sample AUPs are available on the Internet at gopher sites and can be retrieved by using Veronica to search keywords 'acceptable use policies' or 'ethics.'

The Computer Ethics Institute in Washington, D.C. has developed a 'Ten Commandments of Computing':

1) Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.

2) Thou shalt not interfere with other people's computer work.

3) Thou shalt not snoop around in other people's computer files.

4) Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.

5) Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.

6) Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid.

7) Thou shalt not use other people's computer resources without authorization or proper compensation.

8) Thou shalt not appropriate other people's intellectual output.

9) Though shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.

10) Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that show consideration and respect for your fellow humans (Washington Post, 15 June 1992: WB3).

The University of Southern California Network Ethics Statement specifically identifies types of network misconduct which are forbidden: intentionally disrupting network traffic or crashing the network and connected systems; commercial or fraudulent use of university computing resources; theft of data, equipment, or intellectual property; unauthorized access of others' files; disruptive or destructive behavior in public user rooms; and forgery of electronic mail messages.

What should an organization do when an ethical crisis occurs? One strategy has been proposed by Ouellette and Associates Consulting (Rifkin, Computerworld 25, 14 Oct. 1991:


1. Specify the FACTS of the situation.

2. Define the moral DILEMMA.

3. Identify the CONSTITUENCIES and their interests.

4. Clarify and prioritize the VALUES and PRINCIPLES at stake.

5. Formulate your OPTIONS.

6. Identify the potential CONSEQUENCES.

Other ethical concerns include issues such as 1) Influence: Who determines organizational policy? Who is liable in the event of lawsuit? What is the role of the computer center or the library in relation to the parent organization in setting policy? 2) Integrity: Who is responsible for data integrity? How much effort is made to ensure that integrity? 3) Privacy: How is personal information collected, used and protected? How is corporate information transmitted and protected? Who should have access to what? 3) Impact: What are the consequences on staff in the up- or down-skilling of jobs? What are the effects on staff and organizational climate when computers are used for surveillance, monitoring and measuring?

As the schools incorporate Internet resources and services into the curriculum and the number of children using the Internet increases, other ethical issues must be addressed. Should children be allowed to roam cyberspace without restriction or supervision? How should schools handle student Internet accounts? What guidelines are reasonable for children?

Organizations need to be proactive in identifying and discussing the ethical ramifications of Internet access. By having acceptable use policies and expecting responsible behavior, organizations can contribute to keeping cyberspace safe.

Selected Resources on Information Ethics

'Computer Ethics Statement.' College & Research Libraries News

54, no. 6 (June 1993): 331-332.

Dilemmas in Ethical Uses of Information Project. 'The Ethics

Kit.' EDUCOM/EUIT, 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600,

Washington, D.C. 20036. phone: (202) 872-4200; fax: (202)

872-4318; e-mail:

'Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.' P.L. 99-508.

Approved Oct. 21, 1986. [5, sec 2703]

Feinberg, Andrew. 'Netiquette.' Lotus 6, no. 9 (1990): 66-69.

Goode, Joanne and Maggie Johnson. 'Putting Out the Flames: The

Etiquette and Law of E-Mail.' ONLINE 61 (Nov. 1991): 61-65.

Gotterbarn, Donald. 'Computer Ethics: Responsibility Regained.'

National Forum 71, no. 3 (Summer 1991): 26-31.

Hauptman, Robert, ed. 'Ethics and the Dissemination of

Information.' Library Trends 40, no. 2 (Fall 1991): 199-


Johnson, Deborah G. 'Computers and Ethics.' National Forum 71,

no. 3 (Summer 1991): 15-17.

Journal of Information Ethics (1061-9321). McFarland, 1992-

Kapor, M. 'Civil Liberties in Cyberspace.' Scientific American

265, no. 3 (1991): 158-164.

Research Center on Computing and Society, Southern Connecticut

State University and Educational Media Resources, Inc.

'Starter Kit.' phone: (203) 397-4423; fax: (203-397-4681;

e-mail: rccs

Rifkin, Glenn. 'The Ethics Gap.' Computerworld 25, no. 41 (14

Oct. 1991): 83-85.

Shapiro, Normal and Robert Anderson. 'Toward an Ethics and

Etiquette for Electronic Mail.' Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand

Corporation, 1985. Available as Rand Document R-3283-NSF/RC

and ERIC Document ED 169 003.

Using Software: A Guide to the Ethical and Legal Use of Software

for Members of the Academic Community. EDUCOM and ITAA,


Welsh, Greg. 'Developing Policies for Campus Network

Communications.' EDUCOM Review 27, no. 3 (May/June 1992):