Search CCSR Information

Cyberspace: the ethical frontier

This article was originally published in The Times Higher Education Supplement June 9th 1995.

SEPERATOR BAR
*

A revolution ignores moral issues at its peril, argue Simon Rogerson and Terrell Ward Bynum

Copyright © S Rogerson and TW Bynum 1995

Computing technology is the most powerful and flexible technology ever devised. For this reason it is changing everything - where and how we work, learn, shop, eat, vote, receive medical care, spend free time, make war, friends and love.

The information revolution has become a tidal wave that threatens to engulf and change all that humans value. Governments, organisations and individual citizens therefore would make a grave mistake if they view the computer revolution as "merely technological". It is fundamentally social and ethical.

As information technology accelerates, opportunities widen to satisfy the human thirst for knowledge, as well as the desire to be the dominant species on the globe and in the universe. But the newly-found powers of computing come at a price - dependence. Information is now the life blood of society and its organisations, and our dependence grows daily with the advance of the global information net and multimedia.

In the eyes of society, we exist and our needs are addressed through digital icons which represent us in the computer. National insurance numbers, driving license numbers, bank account numbers and credit card numbers are all examples of these icons. We are reliant on such computerised icons to be able to function successfully. Without them, we become invisible "non-citizens" with little hope of opportunities for success or of help in times of need .

Information, as the new life-blood of society, empowers those who have it; but it also disenfranchises those who do not. Wealth and power flow to the "information rich", those who create and use computing technologies successfully. They are primarily well-educated citizens of industrialised nations. The "information poor" - both in industrialised countries and in the third world - are falling further and further behind.

This yawning "information gap" grows steadily wider as employment opportunities, education, medical care, shopping, voting, and other aspects of life move into cyberspace. The resulting inequality will lead to dissatisfaction and social turmoil.

The new research field of "computer ethics" examines the social and ethical impacts of information technology. In United States, where the computer revolution is most advanced, it is already well established. There are academic journals, conferences, research centres, textbooks and university modules. In the United Kingdom, De Montfort University in Leicester recently established the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, which hosted ETHICOMP95 in late March of this year. This international conference on computer ethics attracted scholars from 14 nations and placed the UK at the cutting edge of computer ethics research.

Such research underpins action that must be taken not simply to harness, in a socially sensitive way, the power of the information technologies, but to survive its revolution. Action must take place on various fronts and must involve people from all walks of life.

They can focus on three topics: ethical development, ethical technology and ethical application. These three were the main themes of ETHICOMP95.

Ethical Development considers the way information systems are developed. Ethical dilemmas surrounding any proposed system should be identified, debated and resolved. Professionals must be encouraged to involve their sponsoring clients and the users of the systems in the development activities. In the past, the methods and practices used in developing systems were primarily oriented towards technological and economic issues. In the future, such practices should be enriched by including societal and ethical considerations. Computer professionals must act in an ethical manner that promotes socially sensitive applications.

Mary Prior of De Montfort University, even suggested at ETHICOMP95, that all computer professionals should take a Hippocratic oath that commits them to work for the benefit, and not towards the destruction, of human society and the world it inhabits.

Ethical Technology is concerned with the actual technologies that we use to build the systems which transfuse the information lifeblood into organisations in the global community. The technologies must be scrutinised and each advance must be considered from an ethical standpoint before being applied to any business or societal problem.

Such action is no different from safeguarding actions of many other industries; for example, the pharmaceutical industry which is meticulous in considering the pros and cons of producing new drugs based on the latest medical advance. Why is this so? It is because an ill conceived medical application can be very damaging and even life threatening to the recipient. With the advance of information technology, it is not difficult to see that it too has the potential to be very damaging and even life threatening. So, those involved must ensure that it becomes "Ethical Technology".

Ethical Development and Ethical Technology are concerned with the building blocks of systems and the way those systems should be built. Ethical Application is concerned with the game-plan - with developing and implementing strategies which allow the technology to be applied in an ethically sensitive manner.

While small groups of individuals and organisations of all shapes and sizes can formulate strategies, it is probably the strategies adopted by those responsible for public policy and legislation which will have the greatest impact on Ethical Application. Strategies must be in place which address a growing number of public policy questions resulting from advances and application of Information Technologies. Here are some of the questions that need to be addressed:

Information technology concerns especially computer professionals who design and create new information systems and devices. Recently, national and international organisations, such as the International Federation of Information Processors (IFIP), the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Institute of Data Processing Management (IDPM), have recognised the need for new codes of ethics to inform and advise members about relevant social and ethical issues.

In the US, the ACM has established a new committee on professional ethics; and national accrediting bodies, like the Computer Sciences Accreditation Board and the Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology, now require that accredited university curricula in the computing sciences include mandatory instruction in the social and ethical effects of information technology.

In Europe and other industrialised parts of the world, Professor Jacques Berleur of the Facultes Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix, Belgium has been leading IFIP's efforts to establish a world-wide ethics code for computer professionals.

At the University of Kent in Canterbury, Duncan Langford has developed "a framework for the establishment of research ethics committees for computer science research and development." Such work is important in raising the profile of computer ethics among the professional community.

Computer ethics, however, should be the concern of everyone, not simply computer professionals. The future of society and the advancement of human values are too important to be left simply to technologists. Governments, public policy makers, organisations and private citizens must all take an interest and make their contributions. Current technology should be exploited in a socially and ethically sensitive way; and relevant strategies should be developed for future applications.

Perhaps the most radical view of the importance of computer ethics as a field of research is that of Krystyna Gorniak from the Research Center on Computing and Society at Southern Connecticut State University. She believes that computer ethics is the most important theoretical development in ethics since the Enlightenment 200 years ago.

Towering figures in ethics like Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant, she says, developed their monumental ethical systems in response to a world revolutionised by printing and industrial technology. Their new and powerful ethical systems emerged from prior technological revolutions and were very appropriate to the world at the time. Now, however, in a world of teleworking and virtual-reality meetings, of telemedicine and cybersex, a powerful ethical theory must emerge to provide guidance and decision making tools for the coming "cyber society".

Computer ethics, says Professor Gorniak, will likely be the birthplace of the next major advance in ethical theory.

If, as Professor Gorniak suggests, the ethical and social implications of information technology are so important, then why does the world at large seem to ignore them? One possible answer is that computing technology quietly seeps into our lives without being noticed. For example, in the Vatican City there is a library of magnificent illuminated texts. But it is not the manuscripts themselves which make the greatest impression on visitors, it is the multimedia computers that allow visitors to browse digital copies of these tomes.

Paradoxically, the physical artefacts have given way to their computerised icons. This is a vivid illustration of how we have become dependent on the power and potential of information technology to provide whatever information we require in whatever format we desire without realising it. This throws a veil over the vitally important issues in computer ethics.

The brave new world of the information society - with its robots and global nets, telemedicine and teleworking, interactive multimedia and virtual reality - will inevitably generate a wide variety of social, political, and ethical questions. What will happen to human relationships and the community when most human activities are carried on in cyberspace from one's home? Whose laws will apply in cyberspace when hundreds of countries are incorporated into the global network? Will the poor be disenfranchised - cut off from job opportunities, education, entertainment, medical care, shopping, voting - because they cannot afford a connection to the global information network? These and many more questions urgently need the attention of governments, businesses, educational institutions, public advocates and private individuals. We ignore ethics and computing at our peril!

SEPERATOR BAR

Simon Rogerson is director of the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility
at De Montfort University.

Terrell Ward Bynum is director of the Research Center on Computing and Society
at Southern Connecticut State University, United States.

They can be contacted on (+44) 116 257 7475
or
srog@dmu.ac.uk
or
bynumt2@southernct.edu

SEPERATOR BAR

Contact: CCSR Web Master Last update Mon Mar 8 1999