Professional ethics and the role of chartered societies: a case study

John Lindsay


As the combination of computation and telecommunications becomes ubiquitous the boundaries of public life and private life blur further than contracts of employment have previously clarified. Professionals who exercise a degree of freedom and control over workplace organisation now have a more difficult task in deciding which sorts of activities should be organised through which sort of social processes, in particular which are illegal and which are legal, and the relationship between legality, business practice and ethics.

When these professionals are also members of societies which exist under some sort of “charter” which binds them to ethical responsibility, usually to “fellow professionals, employers and society” or some similar formulation, the policies of the society become political in a way which is difficult to reconcile while keeping an “open society”.

This paper will describe the origination, conduct and conclusion of a case study in which a professional society in Britain, existing by Royal Charter, had to work out a policy on the issue of pornography in information and communication technologies. The author was a member of the task group set up to formulate a position. The result suggested a separation of categories of ethical responsibility involving workplace, university, school, home, closed public spaces and open public spaces.

It identified a number of issues in which the impact of the technology on existing social relations is not widely and clearly understood, including: to know, publish, photo, group, reasonable, misuse, guilty, public good and fantasy.

These developments create ethical problems for professionals in making a wide range of decisions in their public and private lives, in which the professional society may then play a role which is different from the political party, trades union, employers confederation or other civic associations. The paper suggests a role which this society can play and a method by which it might be played.

The issue of pornography is only an exemplar of a wider range including at least:

  • Intellectual property – its defence, protection, leverage, rights;
  • Information access – as historically understood in librarianship; Data protection – defending the integrity of the individual personal data subject;
  • Security and encryption – in particular right of access;
  • Harassment – probably not much different from workplace protection.

Each of these raise a range of ethical issues in which the guidance of the professional society will be significant, for example in the proposal of the British government to produce a “freedom of information” act.