Internet Users’ Judgements of Ethical and Unethical Behaviour


Beata Krawczyk – Brylka
Technical University of Gdansk
Faculty of Management and Economics


A person who wants to be successful in the information society has to use information systems which are the integral part of interpersonal and business life. The development of information technology influences on people’s relations with others, their ways of thinking, decision making, needs and moral principles.

The grate impact of Internet as the main way of communication on psychological and sociological aspects of people’s life is widely discussed nowadays. The main effects of Internet common use which cause ethical threats are:

  • Young people prefer to pattern their principles after mass media than older generation. Internet is such a medium and it is out of control so it can promote such ideas as violence, pornography, etc.
  • The development of information technology is much faster than knowledge of its social consequences.
  • Internet subjection and the problem of its treatment.
  • Consequences of author anonymity and information separation, which leads to depreciation of responsibility.
  • Easiness of copying Internet information without changing it or author permission.
  • The separation between cybernetic and real words because of their own rules and the time a person needs to exist there.

Most of Internet users, however, notice the positive and negative consequences of their involvement in Internet activities for their interpersonal communication skills. It is very interesting to know if they judgements of other people behaviour are different from non-users. Does the ethic behaviour mean the same to users and non-users and where is the border of time spent on Internet that changes our ethic judgements? Do people’s judgements differ when the situation is connected to using a computer and when it is not?

To explore these items an experiment is under way on students at technical and art universities in Gdansk. It consists of the following parts:

  1. A questionnaire asking students about amount of time they spend surfing the Internet, their reasons of using Internet, the most important Internet services they most often use and their opinions about cyber society.
  2. A psychological questionnaire exploring hierarchy of values important in human life (for example: Polish adaptation of Rokeach Value Survey) that allows to check if they depend on being a user or not. Responsibility, honesty and politeness will be the most interesting, because they are strongly connected to interpersonal communication: either direct or via Internet.
  3. A set of five scenarios describing different life situations in which people behave more or less ethical. Respondents will have to estimate how their behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable using a defined scale. The scenarios include:

    (a) A person borrows a videocassette from a friend. Unfortunately the video recorder destroyed the cassette and it is useless. The person gives the cassette back without telling anything to avoid the complaining. A few days later the culprit buys a new cassette and uses some tricks to exchange it with the old one.

    (b) A client buys some food in a supermarket and finds a product he didn’t pay for in his bag. He/she checks the bill and discovers that the cashier didn’t charge the item by mistake. A client keeps the product and doesn’t tell the cashier about the mistake.

    (c) A person is asked by a friend to take care about his flat during holidays. One day a friend decides to have a party in this place without asking the owner permission.

    (d) A person shares with a friend some private information. The friend meets somebody who refers to the information involved in the secret. The information slips out.

    (e) A student needs to write an essay about information society to get credit with a course but has no idea how to do it. A student goes to the library, and after opening a book a hand-written note concerning the same essay left by someone else is there. A student writes an essay, very similar to the found one.

  4. A set of five scenarios describing behaviour of people using a computer. They are based on the idea proposed by Jennifer Kreie’s and Timothy Paul Cronan’s article: How Men and Women View Ethics, published in Communication of the ACM, September 1998. The tested students will have to judge behaviour in the same fashion as before in p.3. The scenarios are:

    (a) A programmer modifies a bank’s accounting system to hide his overdrawn account and avoid the overdraft charge. After making a deposit, the programmer corrects his modification.

    (b) A person received software ordered from a mail-ordered company but also finds another software package sent in error. The person keeps the extra program and does not pay for it.

    (c) A programmer uses company Internet and tools to prepare a new application for a friend on his own time on weekend.

    (d) A company employee contracts with government agency to process data involving information about children and their parents. The employee copies the data at the boss’s request. The job contract does not prohibit this.

    (e) A person who was inadvertently given access free of charge to a proprietary information on Internet uses it without paying the fee.

The experiment is aimed at answering three main questions:

  1. Does the Internet use influence the individual hierarchy of values?
  2. Are the ethical judgements in real life situations differs from the opinions on behaviour observed in the virtual Internet environment?
  3. What are the factors important in the group of users that impact on their values system (gender, age, type of education, belief system).

The paper will illustrate quantitative details of the experiments using tables and diagrams.