History of Computer Ethics through some representative codes of ethics

Lucia Tello Diaz, Porfirio Barroso Asenjo, Rishwina Dookhony


During the last quarter of the twentieth century Computer Science and Information Technologies have radically transformed the world. The emergence of Computer Science and the wave of technological advancement have made sharing, accessing and transmitting of information easier than ever before. Computer Science and Information Technologies have invaded all aspects of our daily life. All private, public or parastatal institutions have batteries of networked computers and most households are connected to the Internet.

Whereas Computer Science and Information Technologies are bringing a technological revolution in the world with numerous benefits, it is also bringing a host of problems. Not everyone is content with using these technologies for good and beneficial purposes. Many use these technologies, and more particularly the Internet, to spread unhealthy information; some do it for personal or political motives and others for personal financial gains. The revolution of Computer Science and Information Technologies has also brought with it some ethical, political, social and legal dilemmas. From this moment we only focus on the study of the ethical aspects of these Computer Science and Information Technologies.

The governments of the world have recognised the importance of Computer Science as a key ingredient to their countries economic development and have promoted it as one of the pillar of the world economy. However, not everybody, until today, is conscious of the necessity of the ethical aspects of Computer Science. Despite of this, we in our research found the existence of some codes of ethics from many organizations from all over the World who try to fulfil these gaps. As an example of this we present a sample of the codes of ethics provided by the most important Computer Science and Informational Technology societies of some of the most representative countries all over the world.

The field of Computer Science and Information Technologies is an area with no regulations from ethics point of view. This justifies the emergence of organisations codes of ethics in order to auto regulate or auto control their professional activities.

Within this field we find the Internet as one of the most important computer technological advancements that, not only has changed the concept of Computer Science, but has also created a need for a reformulation to deal with the ethical conflicts created by its use.

By studying a sample of the codes of ethics of the most important and representative national societies of Computer Science will help us to glimpse or make out more clearly how these organizations are faced to regulate the surroundings of Computer Science and, in addition, to check how the particular circumstances of each of these codes determine in a way their formulation or application form.

When we study the computer ethics codes we found two different research lines. On one side, the evolution of these through time, where we can observe the changes due to the articulation of the ethical principles or standards found in the codes of ethics. On the other side, the comparative analysis of these principles at the present time, we observe how the distinct national Computer Science societies have taken notice of the changes in the Computer Science and Information field fast arrival or appearance of the phenomenon Internet.

Therefore, we achieve two distinct but complimentary analyses. Firstly, we realise a diachronic analysis of the evolution of the computer ethics codes of the most important national computer societies: Association for Computer Machinery, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, British Computer Society y Data Processing Management Association – from now on ACM, IEEE, BCS y DPMA-, to observe how their theoretical approaches from the formulation of the first code of ethics in 1951 to the updated version of 1997 to elucidate also if the socio-cultural contexts in which they have appeared have influenced in their formulation.

Secondly, we realise an synchronic analysis of the ethical codes of the most prestigious national computer societies: Centro de Informática, Telemática y Medios –CITEMA-, Gesellschaft für Informatik –GI-, Canadian Information Processing Society –CIPS-, Australian Computer Society –ACS-, Japan Information Service Industry Association –JISA-, Finnish Information Processing Association –FIPA-, New Zeeland Computer Society –NZCS-, Internet Society of China -ISC-, Computer Society of India –CSI-, y la Computer Society of Zimbabwe –CSZ-, as well as the most relevant international ethical code draft of the International Federation of Information Processing – IFIP-, in order to compare statements of their codes and observe how the social and cultural circumstances have influenced somehow in their enunciation.

Finally, we study if the distinct computer ethical codes consider within their postulates the technological innovations emerged by the boom and success of the Internet.

The importance of our research is due to the historical approach that will assess how with the passing of time has influenced in the formulation of the computer ethics codes. Thus, it is not a mere content analysis of the texts, but a perspective in more accordance with the objectives we have proposed: to resolve the problems of the evolution of the ethical conception through the ethical codes of the most important Computer Science societies of the world.

To realise this study, we took the list of 40 principles or ethical topics from the book Deontología de Informática. The reason why we have chosen this book and not the books of others such as the one by C. Dianne Martin in her study Comparation of the New ACM Ethics Code with Previous Ethics Codes is because it is not only more complete, but it is the most up to date.

Finally, the importance or relevance of the obtained results is due to the global perspective that is contributed by the historical aspect of our research as we have mentioned. This aspect will show in a new and unique way the Computer Science and Information Technology field has evolved from the 50’s to the present time. In fact, since DPMA published first computer ethics code in 1951, we have observed the changes that have occurred in the formation of the statements of the ethical codes, as evident in the last published computer ethics codes as per example the codes of the Canadian Information Processing Society, CIPS 2005-. Therefore our results could not have been obtained without resorting to the historical methodology that we used in our research.