Towards a synthesis of Discourse Ethics and Internet regulation

Penny Duquenoy, Harold Thimbleby and Steve Torrance


The Internet has generated a great deal of ethical debate [e.g. 1, 2]. Ethical tensions have emerged due in part to the enabling aspect of Information Technology (e.g. freedom of expression, scope of reach) which are evident to a certain extent within national cultures, and magnified within an international environment. Addressing ethical issues on the Internet within national boundaries, although difficult, would normally result in national policies supported by the governments concerned, and where appropriate, by introducing legislation. However, the global (international) nature of the Internet poses difficulties in the resolution of such ethical concerns by traditional methods of regulation [3].

This paper proposes a distinctive approach to the resolution of international ethical issues concerning the Internet. It seeks to examine the appropriateness of Habermas’s Discourse Ethics [4] to the Internet as a methodology for the resolution of ethical dilemmas within such a global dimension. A universalistic ethics has an intuitive appeal as far as an “ethics for the Internet” is concerned.

Links and relationships between Habermas’s theory of discourse ethics and the Internet are pursued and comparisons made between the two. This study reveals parallels between discourse ethics in the societies as envisaged by Habermas, and the larger “society” of the Internet.

How far these parallels go, particularly the ‘fit’ between theory and practice, is considered as we move from the abstract to the practical. This section of the paper reports on international and UK working groups involved with regulatory mechanisms and issues concerning the Internet. The viewpoint is an observational one, with the focus not so much on the content of the discussions as with the underlying conditions, procedures and outcomes – and how far they are in accord with the preconditions for discourse ethics as described by Habermas.

Is there a place for Habermas’s Discourse Ethics in the Internet arena? This paper shows that to some extent a discourse ethics is already in operation – how far this goes to resolving the deeper issues remains to be seen. Habermas offers a dynamic approach to resolving ethical conflict which, at least in part, meets some of the requirements of an Internet ethics.


[1] Johnson, D.G., and Nissenbaum, H., (Eds) (1995), Computers, Ethics and Social Values, Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[2] Kling, R., (Ed), (1996), Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, 2nd Ed., Academic Press Inc.

[3] Berleur, J., and Brunnstein, K., (Eds) (1996), Ethics of Computing: Codes, spaces for discussion and law, Chapman & Hall, London .

[4] Habermas, Jurgen, (1983), Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, MIT Press 1990. Translated by Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen.