Issues of Ethics and Responsibility with Internet Information Quality

Laurie A. Smith King


Initially, the Internet connected but did not inform; the interface was insufficient to fully keep the promise of information sharing. Today, the world wide web and attendant search engine technologies offer an unprecedented ability to distribute information effectively. Increasingly people rely on the Internet as a primary source of information, and even traditional sources of information such as newspapers, journals, magazines, radio, books, and television are adding an Internet component to their distribution. But to use this information, people need to make judgements about the veracity and quality of the information they receive. How do we make these judgements about Internet information?

At present, there are very few real controls, little accountability, and the quantity of on-line information that is false or misleading is disturbing. The Internet makes it possible to broadly disseminate huge amounts of false information relatively anonymously. There are fewer ‘brand-name’ identifiers that aid the consumer of on-line information, and when traditional media go on-line, the rules are often different for their on-line counterparts. For example, the printed bestseller list of the New York Times comprises 34 books in 3 categories, whereas the on-line version consists of 370 books in 12 categories.

Email has also evolved into an information conduit in unexpected ways. Scores of ‘information viruses’ proliferate in which misinformation and hoaxes are passed on via email, often with the best of intentions. Although most would not Xerox an article and send it to dozens of their closest friends and relatives, people forward email broadly without a second thought. It is simpler than ever to reach a wide audience with information which lacks proper attribution of sources, or contains only sloppy attribution. We need to understand the level of responsibility one should take when quoting a web-source or forwarding unverified anecdotes in a piece of email. In some sense, forwarding is the same as publishing. At what point do we cross the line from free Internet speech to yelling fire on a crowded network?

Yet another issue is plagiarism based on Internet sources. For example, there is increased plagiarism among high school students downloading papers whose spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and vapid content make them virtually indistinguishable from actual papers by students likely to cheat in this way! Some teachers have reacted by modifying writing assignments to require students to submit handwritten notecards, outlines, and research notes.

Part of the attraction of the Internet is the potential for alternative cyberspace communities where prejudices based on physical appearances cannot operate because one’s identity is defined differently. Yet we are less experienced with how to safeguard digital identities. For example, identity theft consists of ‘stealing’ facts about another person, using the facts to get credit cards and run up a debt, and then shed the identity. How can we trust that people are who they claim to be on-line while at the same time respect and protect one’s identity?

Another phenomenon is that of “evaporating information” such as a reference to a web site which no longer exists. The use of URLs as references and sources for additional information in journals is becoming more common-place. How reliable and long-lived are such references compared to “hardcopy” references? In cyberspace, where is the library and who is the librarian? What responsibility does an author incur when using a URL as a reference?

This author believes that the same technology that spawned these problems, can play a part in their solution. Like a vaccine, the disease can be part of the cure. The same power harnessed to spread misinformation quickly can be used to ferret out the truth. This paper will discuss these and related issues, and the role technologists can play.