Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ethics and the Intetnet

                       Internet Ethics

It is essential to start with some understanding of the history and the nature of the Internet.
Where did it come from?

[For a much more detailed history of the Internet, see the Hobbes Internet Timeline click here]
What are the implications of this evolution for the ethics debate?

  1. The distributed nature of the Internet – based on packet switching and the routing and rerouting of packets along multitudinous networks and nodes – makes any central control of the medium impossible, even if it was thought desirable.
  2. The Internet was developed originally for military and then academic purposes. As originally conceived and used, it was a closed network with specific uses and functions and therefore, initially at least, never provoked a debate about ethical issues in the way that cinema or radio or television – all immediately available to those who could afford it - immediately did.
  3. The Internet was originally designed for, and used by, the few and the intellectual. This gave it a particular set of values – such as tolerance of dissent and antipathy to control – that still pervades much of the debate about Internet content and regulation.
  4. The Internet was originally used exclusively by Americans and even today around two-fifths of all users reside in the U.S.A. This means that the debate around the Internet has been influenced massively by American culture and values, notably the First Amendment of the US Constitution (which guarantees freedom of expression) and more generally an hostility towards Government intervention or control.
  5. The growth of the Internet has been exponential: more and more people are using it for longer and longer to do more things. This has at least three consequences:

  1. The Internet is no longer the preserve of the few and the intellectual. In many industrialised societies, a majority of citizens have access – whether at home or at work – and the user profile is increasingly approximating that of the citizenry as a whole.
  2. The Internet has ceased to be an American phenomenon. There are now almost as many users in Europe as there are in the USA and therefore much of the ethics debate now is a clash between American and European culture and values.
  3. As Internet growth continues and especially as we see more users in Asia and South America, the ethics debate will not simply be an American vs European one. Increasingly we have to accommodate a wide diversity of cultures and value systems.
So much for the history of the Internet. What about the nature of the Internet? What range of services does it provide?
The main forms of content are:

  • E-mail which enables one to communicate almost instantly and at negligible cost with any of the other 400 million Internet users world-wide
  • Internet Relay Chat (IRC) which enables people to converse either in groups or one on one in chat rooms – some 40,000 world-wide – focused on different subjects or different groups
  • Usenet newsgroups – of which there are about 40,000 – which enable people to file articles or comments or pictures about a whole host of different subjects, ranging from the very technical to the sexually bizarre
  • The World Wide Web which now consists of over one billion sites ranging from the ultra sophisticated like to the typical home page such as my own.
The types of activities which are taking place on the Net can be analysed as follows:

  • Communications, previously through e-mail, but increasingly through telephony using the Internet Protocol (IP) networks
  • The provision of information whether through data bases to which access is normally limited or through Web sites which are open to all Internet users with a suitable browser
  • E-commerce whether it is business to customer (B2C) or – currently four times the size – business to business (B2B)
  • E-Government whereby Government departments interact with citizens, from the simple provision of information to the completion of forms, through to various transactions.
What are the implications of this range of services for the ethics debate?

  1. The Internet is not one network but many – indeed it is a network of networks. It does not provide one type of service offering but many – and this range will increase. These services have many different characteristics and the ethics debate has to take account of this – how we approach chat rooms many not be how we approach newsgroups, especially where children are concerned.
  2. The Internet has many actors with different interests. Infrastructure companies like Cisco or Oracle may have little or no involvement in content. Microsoft may start by ‘simply’ providing a browser (Explorer) and then go into the portal business (MSN). Not all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide access to all newsgroups and most chat rooms are not hosted by ISPs. If one is attempting to bring a sense of ethics to the Internet in any particular instance, it is essential to know who has the control and the responsibility.
  3. There is still a poor sense of understanding of the issues. On the one hand, those who campaign for more ‘control’ of the Internet often have little understanding of the technological complexities. Typically they do not know how newsgroups and chat rooms are hosted and many politicians do not know the difference between a newsgroup and a Web site. On the other hand, many providers of Internet infrastructure and services have little understanding of, let alone sympathy for, the concerns of users. Frequently complaints about material or requests for meetings are dealt with in a cavalier fashion or even ignored.
  4. Increasingly the debate about the content of the Internet is not national but global, not by specialists but by the general populace. There is a real need for this debate to be stimulated and structured and for it to lead to ‘solutions’ which are focussed, practical and urgent.
In considering whether there is a place for ethics on the Internet, we need to have understanding of what such a grand word as ‘ethics’ means in this context. I suggest that it means four things:

  1. Acceptance that the Internet is not a value-free zone This means that the World Wide Web is not the wild wild Web, but instead a place where values in the broadest sense should take a part in shaping content and services. This is a recognition that the Internet is not something apart from civil society, but increasingly a fundamental component of it.
  2. Application of off-line laws to the on-line world This means that we do not invent a new set of values for the Internet but, for all the practical problems, endeavour to apply the law which we have evolved for the physical space to the world of cyberspace. These laws might cover issues like child pornography, race hate, libel, copyright and consumer protection.
  3. Sensitivity to national and local cultures This means recognising that, while originally most Internet users were white, male Americans, now the Internet belongs to all. As a pervasively global phenomenon, it cannot be subject to one set of values like a local newspaper or national television station; somehow we have to accommodate a multiplicity of value systems.
  4. Responsiveness to customer or user opinion This means recognising that users of the Internet – and even non-users – are entitled to have a view on how it works. At the technical level, this is well understood – bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) end the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) endeavour to understand and reflect user views. However, at no level do we have similar mechanisms for capturing user opinions on content and access to it.
Now that we have a better understanding of what ethics means in the context of the Internet, we need to address the question: whose responsibility is ethics on the net? The answer is that responsibility should be widely spread.

  • Government is the democratic mechanism for deciding what activity is unacceptable – and therefore should be criminalised – in a particular society. As far as practical, these same laws should be applied to the Internet. Not many new laws – hacking is one example – are necessary.
  • Having made laws, they should be enforced – in cyberspace as much as in the real world – and, in many jurisdictions, the police themselves have too little technical expertise and resource.
  • Internet service providers have to accept that they are not the same as the telecommunications operator or the postal service which deliver private one-to-one messages. Although, given the nature of the Internet, they cannot possibly be expected to pre-check content, once they receive a notification or a complaint about something they are carrying or hosting, they have to take a view.
  • Equally, the operators of services on the Internet have to take account of how that service might reasonably be expected to be used. For instance, if a Web hosting company carries a site providing information on bomb making or suicide assistance, they cannot claim to have no responsibility if that information is used. Or, if a chat room is used by a paedophile to groom a young girl before he manages to meet and abuse her, the operator of the chat room cannot deny any responsibility. This is not a matter of legal liability but of moral responsibility.
  • Of course, Governments, law enforcement, ISPs and service operators can only do so much - which is why we have to empower end users. Consumers should be given the knowledge and the tools to apply their own ethical codes to use of the Internet by themselves and their families. Parents and teachers have a special responsibility in this regard.
  • Finally, we need a compelling recognition that children must have special protection. Use of the Internet is not like watching television: the device is not shared in real time with other members of the family in a public space like the living room and broadcasting conventions like the ‘watershed’ (no adult content before 9pm) do not apply. We need new defence mechanisms.

In seeking to apply a sense of ethics to cyberspace, there are some major problems but also some useful solutions.

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