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Ethics and the Internet

Tony Lewis

School of Business, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Vic 3083


We are witnessing the beginning of the rapid rollout of broadband telecommunication networks. In my opinion, history will recognise the Internet we have now as an interim or a "Claytons" Internet. I further believe that the impact of the "real" Internet on business and Society will by far exceed anything we have yet seen.

Many groups of professionals can and do enjoy powerful and privileged positions within our society. Their individual and collective activities can also have a significant impact on the physical and social environment, as well as particular work situations. As more and more public and private organisations adopt this "real" Internet and extend their on-line capabilities, then the potential impact on individuals and groups within society will multiply. Any professional that would use the Internet to deliver or support innovative programs should be aware of any negative consequences, and be at least willing to identify ways of reducing or eliminating them (Romagnesi and Lewis, 1999).

The concept of groups of professionals (voluntarily) accepting a set of ethical behaviours is not new. Members of the Australian Computer Society (ACS) are required to adopt a comprehensive set of guidelines that not only promote honesty and integrity in professional practice, but also express a willingness to work for the general wellbeing of society (ACS, 1999). Other groups of professionals, such as accounting societies, have already adopted ethical guidelines, and others are in the process of formulating them.


In the early 1950s people generally put their trust in science to solve all the major problems faced by society. This was not surprising since the world had just emerged from a war that had essentially been won by the application of new technologies. Society gave scientists and other professionals the freedom to develop new innovation with little or no accountability. For a decade or so, the quality of life steadily increased, people prospered and life was good. However, this period also saw the beginning of a steady increase in the diffusion of new technological innovation aimed at transforming the natural and business world, with a subsequent impact on society in general. From the 1960s onward, new innovation increasingly leap-frogged ahead of society’s ability to accept and integrate it (Langford, 1995). The frequency of technologically induced change is now such that society is forced into a state of constant change.

Many of the problems that science promised to solve are still with us. Many new problems actually created by innovation have been added to the list. Increased access to education and rapidly expanding communication networks mean that people are generally well informed. Many individuals now perceive that some of the problems they currently face could have been moderated, or avoided, if negative consequences could have been identified prior to wide spread diffusion. Constant change means that it is practically impossible to plan for the future. Many individuals, including farmers, face considerable uncertainty and fear for themselves and their children. Some feel betrayed, as they believe the interests of government or large-scale business have been placed ahead of their quality of life. Most people are now unwilling to give scientists and other professionals that have the potential to effect their quality of life the same freedoms afforded their predecessors in the 1950s (Romagnesi and Lewis, 1999).

Some Definitions Relating to Ethics

Before proceeding, some basic definitions are provided. It is acknowledged that ethical arguments and concepts vary significantly, many related to specific schools of philosophical thought that have emerged over a very long period of time. However, the following definitions are not offered as a preferred listing, but are intended merely to clarify the issues raised in this paper.

  • Society – A body of people living as members of a community (The Macquarie Dictionary, Third Edition, The Macquarie Library Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia).
  • Ethics – Society’s interpretation of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable actions or behaviour (Lewis, 1998, 1999) expressed through:
  1. Various laws
  2. Professional (voluntary) standards of conduct
  3. Expectations of employers
  4. Expectations of customers
  5. Society’s general expectations in the form of "norms", taboos etc.
  • Morals – an individual’s "internalised" sense of right and wrong (Lewis, 1998, 1999).
  • Relationship between ethics and morals – from the perspective of society as a whole, if a large enough group of individuals express the same moral position, then there may be sufficient impetus to generate an ethical position. From the individual’s perspective, if one’s morals conflict with what society deems acceptable, then it is up to individuals to resolve their own cognitive dissonance (Lewis, 1998, 1999).

Some Characteristics of the Internet

Bill Gates once stated that one of the things he liked most about the Internet, was that it changed every day. The Internet has evolved rapidly, and there is little doubt that its capabilities will continue to expand. However, over time some basic Internet concepts (Hahn and Stout, 1994) have emerged, and these form the context for the remainder of the paper:

  • The Internet is a group of world-wide information resources
  • No one person or business owns the Internet
  • These resources are vast, beyond the comprehension of a single human
  • The Internet is a conceptual, rather than a physical place, i.e. focus is on the content
  • The computer and telecommunication networks are simply a medium that carries the content
  • The Internet is a people-oriented society

The main thing to note about these concepts is that they form a "conceptual" view rather than a "physical" view of the Internet. The physical view recognises the Internet as a collection of computer and telecommunication technologies organised into a network of networks of global proportion. This conceptual view is not constrained by physical limitations, such as the tyranny of distance. The Internet is seen as a resource that can be used by anyone that has the means to access it. It has become a meeting place for people, that to date has remained free of widespread domination or control.

The Relationship Between Society and the Internet

Within the context of the conceptual view of the Internet described in the section above, the Internet is perceived as one facet of a multi-facet society. As such, the Internet is therefore subject to the same overarching ethical expectations as for broader society. For example, if individuals were asked to divulge personal or confidential information to a Government agency, they would expect that agency to take reasonable steps to ensure that unauthorised third parties could not gain access. Likewise, if the agency required personal and private information to be transmitted through the medium of its Internet site, clients would expect the agency to take reasonable steps to block access by third parties (i.e. hackers) during transmission.

Expectations of Society in Respect to the Internet

Most peoples’ expectation is that scientists and other professionals will use the Internet in ways that will enhance the human experience and not hinder it. People generally expect that they will not be injured, exploited or ignored. As society has defined expectations in respect to ethical behaviour, the responsibility for meeting those expectations falls directly to the professionals who would use the Internet to interact with their client groups.


  • If extension services use the Internet to diffuse information about innovative farm practices that has the potential to provide some advantage, then ethically, the same information should also be made available to all other farmers in their client groups who do not have Internet access.
  • Any individual or group within extension services who would use the Internet to selectively target a specific type or class of farmer in order to promote their own aims and aspirations would risk violating the ethical expectations of their client group as a whole.
  • If extension services request their clients to provide personal or other sensitive information via the Internet, then they are ethically bound to make reasonable precautions to safeguard it.

Potential Penalties for Ignoring Ethical Issues

As time passes it is becoming increasingly obvious that societal pressures are requiring higher levels of accountability from a wide range of professionals and academics. Whether or not ethical standards are based on fact or misconception, are fair or unfair, is essentially immaterial. The "perceptions" and "expectations" of individuals in society can be powerful forces in forming ethical boundaries. The consequences for transgressing these boundaries range from legal penalties, to boycott of programs, products or services by sub-sections of the client group, and as such threaten the success of extension programs.


  1. ACS (1999) Australian Computer Society Code of Ethics,
  2. Hahn, Harley, Stout R (1994) 'The Internet: Complete Reference' (Osbourne McGraw-Hill: Berkeley, Cal.)
  3. Langford D (1995) 'Practical Computer Ethics' (McGraw-Hill), Chapter 1
  4. Lewis T (1998) 'Course material developed for subject I.T. Professional and Ethical Issues delivered to students in the second semester 1998' (Swinburne University of Technology, Lilydale Campus, Victoria)
  5. Lewis T (1999) 'Course material developed for subject I.T. Professional and Ethical Issues delivered to students in the first semester 1999' (Swinburne University of Technology, Lilydale Campus, Victoria)
  6. Romagnesi J, Lewis T (1999) Design for a course in I.T. professional and ethical Issues. In 'Proceedings of AICEC99 (Australian Institute of Computer Ethics) International Conference' Lilydale, Victoria.

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