Ethical and social issues of the Internet

Richard G. Platt and Bruce Morrison


In the late sixties, the Advanced Research Projects Agency founded Arpanet, a network originally designed as a testbed for computer telecommunications applications and technologies. While initially allowing only about sixty sites, the introduction of new protocols and LAN technology allowed the Net, now known as the Internet, to grow dramatically. This growth-rate has been at times as high as twenty-five percent a month. With this dramatic expansion has come the inevitable growing pains. In its original form, the Internet was, as one Internet expert put it:

“both relatively small and remarkably homogenous – well educated, technologically sophisticated, and united by general agreement on what the Internet was good for and what was good for the Internet (Chapin 1994).”

Such an atmosphere, while perfectly matched to the original mission of the INternet, has run into ethical and social dilemmas that need to be solved if the Internet is to evolve into, or serve as a guide for the National Information Infrastructure that is being discussed by so many these days. Amidst all the praise and excitement are voices that, while no less enamored of the potential, are just as concerned with the more difficult aspects that the concept brings with it. While issues such as privacy aren’t as glamorouse as virtual reality or multimedia, if they aren’t dealt with now, the opportunities may never come to fruition.

In his 1986 article “Four Ethical Issues of the Information Age,” Richard Mason pointed out four areas of ethical concern that were emerging due to new technology in the information sciences. While not specifically mentioning the Internet, which at the time was the little-known, exclusive club mentioned above, the issues he discussed are very much current with the situations the NII is facing today. Mason represented his four main ethical issues with the acronym PAPA. These were privacy, accuracy, property, and access (Mason 1986). Using this framework for current issues on the Internet, some logic can be brought to what has previously been considered a wild-west, frontier justice situation.