To understand the issue of internet ethics, you must first have a basic understanding of how the internet actually works.
Although the internet actually came into being by the American military in 1969, it wasn’t until 1989 that the World Wide Web was created in Switzerland. Today there are some 400 million people regularly using the internet for both personal and business matters.
The internet was originally designed as a closed network for military and then academic purposes and, because of this closed nature dealing with specific issues, the problem of online ethics was not foreseen.
Only the intellectual few were able to use the internet in its early days and as such, a set of values seen as inherent in these individuals was basically seen as the ‘code of conduct’. Therefore, acceptance of disagreement and aversion to restraint were seen as acceptable at that time.
The growth of the Internet has been incredible and more and more people are using it for increasingly longer periods to do more things. No longer is the internet the property of the intellectual few. In many societies, the internet can be accessed by almost all citizens. If they don’t have the internet at home, it can normally be accessed through academic institutions or libraries.
Although the internet was first developed for Americans, it has long since ceased to be an American phenomenon although around two thirds of users are still Americans. At the moment, the debate is basically between the USA and Western Europe. However, as Internet growth continues, so does the need to accommodate a broader range of cultures and value systems.
Understanding the need for ethics on the internet requires a basic understanding of the nature of the internet and the services it provides.
The main forms of content are the World Wide Web, Email, Chat rooms, and Usenet newsgroups.
The World Wide Web which now consists of over one billion sites that range from the simple personal homepage that many people have today right up to the very sophisticated sites of professional businesses.
Email allows instant communication with other internet users worldwide. The implications of this ability in business are enormous.
There are around 40 thousand chat rooms online. These are generally focussed on a particular subject or group of people and allows people to communicate either one on one or in groups. This ability has certainly made the world a smaller place, particularly for those who have family and friends in other countries.
There are also around 40 thousand newsgroups that enable people to share articles about a range of different subjects. These can range from the technical to the bizarre. Sometimes the ethics of the more sexually bizarre can come into debate.
So how can a code of ethics be applied to services of the internet? There are a number of things that need to be considered but, particularly where there are children, parental supervision cannot be surpassed.
The internet is made up of many networks and this continues to grow. The services all have different characteristics that need to be treated differently so any ethics debate must take this into account.
There are many different people involved in the internet and these people all have different agendas. There are companies who specialise in internet infrastructure, Internet Service Providers, as well as those who provide content. Not all companies provide services to all chat rooms or newsgroups and so forth. Therefore, ethics can only be applied when it is known who has the control and responsibility for all of these services.
With the ever increasing populace of the internet, this call for ethics has become global and is not restricted to the specialists but to the general public who want solutions that are practical and focussed.
The World Wide Web needs to be seen as part of society rather than as a separate entity and, as such, it should be subject to the same values and ethics as we expect in offline business. It is a fundamental aspect of modern day business and should not be seen as a value free zone.
Issues such as copyright, child pornography, consumer protection, racial vilification and so forth need to be subject to the same laws and ethical standards as general society and more stringent controls put in place for the protection of the masses of people using the internet.
Failure to do so can only result in World Wide Anarchy via this medium of the internet. Is this the future we want for our children?