Ethics and Law in New Media/Ethics in Turbulent Times

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Ethics? Isn't good and bad the same as in the days of old...?[edit]

Ethics in its classical meaning describes the rules and standards which regulate an individual's behaviour towards others. For sure, most of the "golden rules" have remained the same also in the Internet Age - but at the same time, a number of totally new ethical questions have arrived (which sometimes lead to reconsideration of earlier positions - a good example is the "intellectual property" sphere which has been facing increasing challenges in recent years). In our course, we'll attempt to discuss a number of these.

We may ask: isn't it just another artificial "hurricane-in-a-teacup"? Apparently not - Internet is not just the computers and the cables, but most of all, people. It is the largest human community where people living physically thousands of kilometres apart can influence each other. And without a certain ethical "critical mass", this community will have only a bleak future. The threatening scenarios of Internet "getting drowned in dung" are based on large-scale unethical behaviour. A parallel can be found with the physical realm - just as some businesspeople are willing to seriously damage environment in the name of greater profits, spammers and other "lower life forms" (as classical hackers tend to call them) in Internet do the same. The results can be equally unpleasant.

A very broad field to play in[edit]

Herman Tavani in his book "Ethics and Technology" uses the term "cyberethics", reaching the same conclusion as outlined above - "computer ethics" and even "Internet ethics" do not mirror the central role of people behind the technology. He has noted that there are different points of view on cyberethics:

  • computer science - must understand possible ethical challenges established by the new technology
  • philosophy - should see the ethical cases in technology as a part of the "bigger picture" in applied ethics
  • social/behavioural science - should investigate the impact of new technologies to social institutions as well as different groups in society
  • library/information science - must be aware of the growing problems faced by the current "intellectual property" paradigm, as well as of the issues of censorship and free speech in the cyberspace.

Also, according to Tavani, there are three possible approaches:

  • professional ethics - main views here are those of computer science, engineering and library/information science, issues examined include professional responsibility, systems safety and reliability, codes of conduct (best practices) etc.
  • philosophical ethics - the views of philosophy and law, issues include privacy and anonymity, copyright/intellectual property, freedom of speech etc.
  • descriptive ethics - the views of sociology and behavioural sciences, main issues are aspects of social impact of technology on different social institutions (government, education) and social groups (age, gender etc).

Various approaches to ethics[edit]

In his book "Ethics for the Information Age", Michael J. Quinn has outlined different ethical theories that can be applied to the information age, also giving examples of cases for both for and against them:

  • Subjective Relativism - while relativism in general denies the existence of universal moral norms, subjective relativism also states that every individual has his/her own 'right and wrong'.
  • Cultural Relativism - this theory suggests that the meaning of 'right' and 'wrong' reflects a society's moral guidelines which can change both in space (different locations) and time (different eras).
  • Divine Command Theory - stemming mostly from three widespread monotheistic world religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), this theory bases 'right' and 'wrong' on the will and command of God, using holy books (Scripture) for guidance.
  • Ethical Egoism - exemplified by the novels of Ayn Rand, this theory considers maximum long-term personal gain as the only criterion for 'right'. Trade is considered the main principle in human relationships as well. Yet, ethical egoism does not rule out helping others - but this is considered reasonable only if there is a perspective of mutual interest.
  • Kantianism - an ethical theory by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, striving to define an universal model for ethics by prescribing a behaviour that could be used as a universal standard. Kant's Categorical Imperative has two versions:
    1. Act only from moral rules that you can at the same time will to be universal moral laws
    2. Act so that you always treat both yourself and other people as ends in themselves, and never only as a means to an end.
  • Act Utilitarianism - defined by English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, this theory takes the Principle of Utility (or the Greatest Happiness Principle) as its starting point: "An action is right (or wrong) to the extent that it increases (or decreases) the total happiness of affected parties.". Note that according to this approach, good things can result also from bad motives and vice versa.
  • Rule Utilitatianism - here, the Principle of Utility is applied to rules rather than actions: it states that we need a set of moral rules that would lead to the maximum increase of total happiness if followed by everyone. While it is also rule-based like Kant's approach, it differs from the latter greatly in that utilitarianism focuses on results, while motives are more important to Kant.
  • Social Contract Theory - first defined by Thomas Hobbes and further developed by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this theory strives to define a set of rational rules which would be found reasonable by all rational people (if everyone follows them). For example, driving on the right (or left, depending on the country) could be an example of such a rule.
  • Rawls' Theory of Justice by John Rawls has two main points:
    1. Every person has a 'fully adequate' set of rights and liberties, he/she must recognize the same for other people.
    2. All inequalities must satisfy two conditions: a) the related social positions must be fairly accessible for everyone (e.g. via access to education), and b) they must follow the difference principle, being the most beneficial to the least-advantaged members of society (e.g. via a graduated income tax).

The big three of unsolved problems[edit]

Traditional ethical norms face most problems in regulating three large fields related to the new technologies - compensating creativity (most evident in copyright), privacy and censorship (thus falling into the philosophical ethics category in Tavani's classification above). While the latter two face a lot of new aspects, the former is experiencing a more radical reconsideration (we will discuss it deeper in our later sessions).

In addition, some totally new ethical problems can be found. A good example is domain squatting - registering domain names that refer to some entity (e.g. or and suggesting the potential reference to "buy it out". On the one hand, it is sometimes a fair game: in principle, everybody is equal in registering new domains. On the other hand, it is even a twofold problem - an identity theft as well as a milder kind of extortion.

Four phases of development of the cyberethics[edit]

Tavani's phases of cyberethics are somewhat overlapping with the computer generations defined by the history of technology. The starting point in the 1940s and its rather different reality is illustrated by Tavani quoting the anecdotal "The world needs only four computers" (in some variants, the number is five or six; the author is unclear, but sometimes it is assigned to Thomas J. Watson, the CEO of IBM these days).

Phase I[edit]

1950s/60s. Standalone mainframe computers. First attempts in AI lead to related ethical questions:

  • Can machines think? If so, should we develop a thinking machine?
  • If machines can be intelligent, what does it mean to be human?

Advent of privacy concerns: fears of the Big Brother, huge centralised databases

Phase II[edit]

1970s/80s. Emergence of commercial sector, birth of networking (WAN & LAN). Ethical questions:

  • personal privacy (as in previous, but now with networking/commerce aspect added)
  • (the so-called) IP - or rather, illegal propagation and duplication
  • computer crime - disruption and breaking-in

Phase III[edit]

1990-present. The Web era. Added ethical questions:

  • free speech
  • anonymity
  • jurisdiction
  • trust
  • public vs private information

Phase IV[edit]

Present to near future. Convergence of technologies. Ubicomp, smart objects, ambient intelligence, microchips, bioinformatics, in the future also nanocomputing.

Morally transparent vs morally opaque technology[edit]

While the cyberethics can often be descriptive (without giving judgment; as opposed to normative, which judges the situation as right or wrong), there are places where normative ethics comes into play. In some cases, the ability to use normative ethics depends on the technology itself:

  1. Transparent - everything can be understood, users are aware of both the technology (at least in general level) and moral implications (e.g. phone tapping)
  2. Opaque with known features - users are aware of the technology but do not understand moral implications (e.g. search engine)
  3. Opaque with unknown features - users are not aware of the features that have moral implications (data mining tools)


  • TAVANI, Herman T. Ethics & Technology: Ethical Issues in an Age of Infomation and Communication Technology. John Wiley & Sons, Danvers 2007.
  • QUINN, Michael J. Ethics for the Information Age. International Edition. 5th ed. Pearson 2012

Food for Thought[edit]

  • Could it be possible to develop a universal Code of Ethics for Internet?
  • Herman Tavani lists many different 'kinds' of ethics applicable to Internet. Is it possible to reach contradictory results using different ethical approaches? What about the theories listed by Quinn?
  • Compare the three types of transparency (the last passage in the text) in Internet.

To Do[edit]

  • Pick an ethical theory from above and write (to your blog) a short example both for and against its main points (preferrably in the context of new media / IT / information society).
  • Read Pekka Himanen's paper "Challenges to the Global Information Society" and
  • Write a blog review of Himanen's paper.

NB! Due to a larger volume to read (38 pages), the deadline for the second task will be in two weeks (September 19).

Recommended reading[edit]