Cyberespace: Ethical Problems with new Technology

Porfirio Barroso


In Aristotelian terms, Morals are defined as conformity to socially accepted standards of conduct and Ethics are defined as conformity to codes of moral principles. Taking into account the interpretations of other authors, we define Ethics as a philosophical, normative, theoretical and practical science that encompasses both one’s individual and social aspects, in terms of the morality of human acts, according to reason, always with honesty as the ultimate goal.

Cyberspace has become the catchword for the interactive communications environment of the Internet. Increasingly, people’s relationships, jobs and money will gravitate to cyberspace, giving rise to novel ethical issues.

Cyberethics refers to the application of classical ethics to the latest Information Communication Technologies, including the Internet. It involves the way computers pose new versions of standard moral dilemmas, exacerbating old problems and forcing us to apply ordinary moral norms to uncharted realms.

The fundamental principles of cyberethics are Privacy, Property, Access and Accuracy. They imply a new set of responsibilities for both professionals and users of the Internet.

Privacy is one of the basic supra-rights of every individual. Thus, the protection of the right to privacy is among the most worrisome aspects of the Information era. How can the inalienable right of each person to keep secret whatever he considers part of his own personality and human dignity be guaranteed in an information-oriented society, in which the rights to information are regulated and the preferential nature of the freedoms concerning information is legislated? How can we defend the private lives of people without limiting creativity and the growth of technology and vital innovations in information?

With respect to property, the increasing use of Web-based electronic publication has created new contexts for the terms piracy and plagiarism. As the cost of publication decreases in electronic media, we need fewer copyright protections. Plagiarism is the failure to abide by standards that ensure that information can be verified and traced to its sources. Since Web sources are often volatile and changing, it becomes increasingly important to have clear standards for verifying the source of all information.

Computers are tools used to achieve the goals of an organization or an individual. But who should have access to this powerful resource? What limitations and rules should govern the availability of information? How can access and usage be legislated and regulated in such a way that the Internet and other information technologies lead to a more humane world? In our society, we are obliged to compete for many of the things that we need and want. Those who have access to powerful tools are in better condition than those who do not. Thus, the fact that computers are widening the gap between rich and poor is a major concern.

Responsibility for children’s access to the Internet is, in itself, a matter of Ethics; irresponsible access for children can have cognitive and developmental effects. Some children have access to their parents’ computers and connections to the network. Moreover, the connection of schools and academies to this new source of knowledge is inevitable. An application for use in schools that would provide access only to those pages previously examined by parents or teachers is already under development. There are also a number of other strategies for keeping children away from Internet pornography.

Should an individual be able to gain access to the information that is held on him or her in a database?

In Western democracies, free access to information is generally regarded an inherent right. However, it also means having the power to destroy or amend outmoded data. Who owns the data on an individual? And who is responsible for its accuracy, one of the principal pillars of all informative processes. In cyberspace, the concept of accuracy exists under new conditions and requires new forms, exigencies and applications. Its distortion is associated with new dangers.

When a person discloses private data to an organization, accuracy is obviously an ethical issue. The literature of computer ethics is replete with cases in which individual persons have been harmed by virtue of the inaccuracy of the data about them. Errors in databases can be attributed to several factors, including the lack of accountability for failure to update information and correct errors. Although data about individuals may be accurate at the time it is gathered, the subject’s circumstances may change over time. There is often no provision for old data to be destroyed, meaning that an individual may carry past burdens into the future.

Perhaps the concepts of privacy, property, access and accuracy are merely the expression of a pragmatic, narrow-sighted ethics that confronts only the most urgent problems. Nevertheless, they signify the core of the attempt to construct the history of the Internet and the development of ethical doubts and concerns with respect to its use and the consequences.

Present-day humanity can not envision its future separately from the evolution of the new information and communication technologies, among them the Internet. But these technologies will only achieve human sense when they uphold an exquisite respect for the rights and liberties in which human dignity materializes.

These circumstances suggest that the use of the Internet should be legally regulated to guarantee basic individual rights. However, it would be naive to assume that legislation is the remedy to these problems. What is needed, above all, is a reinforcement of the professional pledge and ethical responsibility on the part of Internet professionals, users and, in particular, servers.

In conclusion, the cybersociety in which we live needs an Ethics of the Internet. Certain ethical demands on the professionalism and responsibility of the internauts are essential, and can be extrapolated from the guidelines for the communications media. Internet ethics depends more on the receiver or navigator than on the transmitter. Thus, both legislation and a code of ethics are necessary to this network.