Computer ethics

Computer ethics

Computer Ethics is a branch of practical philosophy which deals with how computing professionals should make decisions regarding professional and social conduct.[1] Margaret Anne Pierce, a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computers at Georgia Southern University has categorized the ethical decisions related to computer technology and usage into 3 primary influences:

  • 1. The individual's own personal code.
  • 2. any informal code of ethical behavior that exists in the work place.
  • 3. exposure to formal codes of ethics.[2]



To understand the foundation of computer ethics, it is important to look into the different schools of ethical theory. Each school of ethics influences a situation in a certain direction and pushes the final outcome of ethical theory.

Relativism is the belief that there are no universal moral norms of right and wrong. In the school of relativistic ethical belief, ethicists divide it into two connected but different structures, subject (Moral) and culture (Anthropological). Moral relativism is the idea that each person decides what is right and wrong for them. Anthropological relativism is the concept of right and wrong is decided by a society’s actual moral belief structure.

Kantianism is the belief that people’s actions are to be guided by moral laws, and that these moral laws are universal. Kantianism is the name given to the ethical theory of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He believed that in order for any ethical school of thought to apply to all rational beings, they must have a foundation in reason. Kant split this school into two categorical imperatives. The first categorical imperative states to act only from moral rules that you can at the same time will to be universal moral laws. The second categorical imperative states to act so that you always treat both yourself and other people as ends in themselves, and never only as a means to an end.

Utilitarianism is the belief that if an action is good if it benefits someone and an action is bad if it harms someone. This ethical belief can be broken down into two different schools, Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Act Utilitarianism is the belief that an action is good if its overall affect is to produce more happiness than unhappiness. Rule Utilitarianism is the belief that we should adopt a moral rule and if followed by everybody, would lead to a greater level of overall happiness.

Social contract is the concept that for a society to arise and maintain order, a morality based set of rules must be agreed upon. Social contract theory has influenced modern government and is heavily involved with societal law. Philosophers like John Rawls , Thomas Hobbes , John Locke , and Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped created the function foundation of social contract .

The conceptual foundations of computer ethics are investigated by information ethics, a branch of philosophical ethics established by Luciano Floridi. The term computer ethics was first coined by Dr. Walter Maner, a professor at Bowling Green State University. Since the 1990s the field has started being integrated into professional development programs in academic settings.


The concept of computer ethics originated in 1950 when Norbert Wiener, an MIT professor and inventor of an information feedback system called "cybernetics", published a book called "The Human Use of Human Beings" which laid out the basic foundations of computer ethics and made Norbert Wiener the father of computer ethics.

Later on, in 1966 another MIT professor by the name of Joseph Weizenbaum published a simple program called ELIZA which performed natural language processing. In essence, the program functioned like a psychotherapist where the program only used open ended questions to encourage patients to respond. The program would apply pattern matching pattern rules to human statements to figure out its reply.

A bit later during the same year the world's first computer crime was committed. A programmer was able to use a bit of computer code to stop his banking account from being flagged as overdrawn.[citation needed] However, there were no laws in place at that time to stop him, and as a result he was not charged. To make sure another person did not follow suit, an ethics code for computers was needed.

Sometime further into the 1960s Donn Parker , who was an author on computer crimes, led to the development of the first code of ethics in the field of computer technology.[citation needed]

In 1970, a medical teacher and researcher, by the name of Walter Manner noticed that ethical decisions are much harder to make when computers are added. He noticed a need for a different branch of ethics for when it came to dealing with computers. The term "Computer ethics" was thus invented.

During the same year, the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) decided to adopt a professional code of ethics due to which, by the middle of the 1970s new privacy and computer crime laws had been put in place in United States as well as Europe.

In the year 1976 Joseph Weizenbaum made his second significant addition to the field of computer ethics. He published a book titled "Computer power and Human reason" which talked about how artificial intelligence is good for the world; however it should never be allowed to make the most important decisions as it does not have human qualities such as wisdom. By far the most important point he makes in the book is the distinction between choosing and deciding. He argued that deciding is a computational activity while making choices is not and thus the ability to make choices is what makes us humans.

At a later time during the same year Abbe Mowshowitz ,a professor of Computer Science at the City College of New York, published an article titled "On approaches to the study of social issues in computing". This article identified and analyzed technical and non-technical biases in research on social issues present in computing.

During 1978, the Right to Federal Privacy Act was adopted and this drastically limited the government's ability to search bank records.

During the same year Terrell Ward Bynum, the professor of Philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University as well as Director of the Research Center on Computing and Society there, developed the first ever curriculum for a university course on computer ethics. To make sure he kept the interests of students alive in computer ethics, he launched an essay contest where the subject students had to write about was computer ethics. In 1985, he published a journal titled “Entitled Computers and Ethics”, which turned out to be his most famous publication to date.

In 1984, the Small Business Computer Security and Education act was adopted and this act basically informed the congress on matters that were related to computer crimes against small businesses.

In 1985, James Moor , Professor of Philosophy at DartMouth College in New Hampshire, published an essay called "What is Computer Ethics". In this essay Moor states the computer ethics includes the following: "(1) identification of computer-generated policy vacuums, (2) clarification of conceptual muddles, (3) formulation of policies for the use of computer technology, and (4) ethical justification of such policies."

During the same year, Deborah Johnson, Professor of Applied Ethics and Chair of the Department of Science, Technology, and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences of the University of Virginia, got the first major computer ethics textbook published. It didn't just become the standard setting textbook for computer ethics, but also set up the research agenda for the next 10 years.

In 1988, a librarian at St. Cloud University by the name of Robert Hauptman, came up with "information ethics", a term that was used to describe the storage, production, access and dissemination of information. Near the same time, the Computer Matching and Privacy Act was adopted and this act restricted the government to programs and identifying debtors.

The 1990s was the time when computers were reaching their pinnacle and the combination of computers witch telecommunication, the internet, and other media meant that many new ethical issues were raised.

In the year 1992, ACM adopted a new set of ethical rules called "ACM code of Ethics and Professional Conduct" which consisted of 24 statements of personal responsibility.

3 years later in 1995, Gorniak Kocikowska, a Professor of Philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University, Coordinator of the Religious Studies Program, as well as a Senior Research Associate in the Research Center on Computing and Society, came up with the idea that computer ethics will eventually become a global ethical system and soon after, computer ethics would replace ethics altogether as it would become the standard ethics of the information age.

In 1999, Deborah Johnson revealed her view, which was quite contrary to Kocikowska's belief, and stated that computer ethics will not evolve but rather be the our old ethics with a slight twist.

Internet Privacy

Internet Privacy is one of the key issues that has emerged since the evolution of the World Wide Web. Millions of internet users often expose personal information on the internet in order to sign up or register for thousands of different possible things. This act has exposed themselves on the internet in ways some may not realize. In other cases, individuals do not expose themselves, but rather the government or large corporations, companies, small businesses on the internet leave personal information of their clients, citizens, or just general people exposed on the internet. One prime example is the use of Google Streetview and its evolution of online photography mapping of urban areas including residences. Although this advanced global mapping is a wondrous technique to aid people find locations, it also exposes everyone on the internet to moderately restricted views of suburbs, military bases, accidents, and just inappropriate content in general. This has raised major concerns all across the world. See Google Streetview Privacy Concerns for further details.[3][4]

Another example of privacy issues with concern to Google is tracking searches. There is a feature within searching that allows Google to keep track of searches so that advertisements will match your search criteria, which in turn means using people as products. If you are not paying for a service online, chances are instead of being the consumer, you may very well be the product. See an article called What They Know for further details.

There is an ongoing discussion about what privacy means and if it is still needed. With the increase in social networking sites, more and more people are allowing their private information to be shared publicly. On the surface, this may be seen as someone listing private information about them on a social networking site, but below the surface, it is the site that could be sharing the information (not the individual). This is the idea of an Opt-In versus Opt-Out situation. There are many privacy statements that state whether there is an Opt-In or an Opt-Out policy. Typically an Opt-In privacy policy means that the individual has to tell the company issuing the privacy policy if they want their information shared or not. Opt-Out means that their information will be shared unless the individual tells the company not to share it. [5]

In reference to Computer Ethics, there is a lot to be said about Internet Privacy. For more discussion see also: Internet Privacy

Internet Control

With an explosion internet popularity, the power struggles of the world have easily transferred onto the internet. Independent users, businesses, search engines, any possible source of information is trying to control, manipulate, bias, censor their information on the internet whether they realize it or not. This gives public view to certain issues or events that may be modified or not modified at all, which could easily bend opinion in frightening ways. International news could easily spread across the globe in very little time. Moreover, internet could easily be controlled by companies trying to get the public to buy-in to certain things. This broad topic of internet control is still expanding and showing signs that information spam or censoring has gone from paper and TV to internet and computers.[6] [7]

Computer Reliability

Identifying issues

Identifying ethical issues as they arise, as well as defining how to deal with them, has traditionally been problematic. In solving problems relating to ethical issues, Michael Davis proposed a unique problem-solving method. In Davis's model, the ethical problem is stated, facts are checked, and a list of options is generated by considering relevant factors relating to the problem. The actual action taken is influenced by specific ethical standards.

Some questions in computer ethics

There are a number of computers based ethical dilemma that are frequently discussed. One set of issues deals with some of the new ethical dilemma that have emerged, or taken on new form, with the rise of the Internet and Social Networking. There are now many ways to gain information about others that were not available, or easily available, before the rise of computers. Thus ethical issues about storage of personal information are now becoming an ever increasing problem. With more storage of personal data for social networking arises the problem of selling that information for monetary gain. This gives rise to different ethical situations regarding access, security, and the use of hacking in positive and negative situations.

Situations regarding the copyright infringement of software , music, movies, are widely becoming discussed, with the rise of file sharing programs such as Napster , Kazaa , and the BitTorrent (protocol) . The ethical questions that arise from software piracy are : is it immoral or wrong to copy software, music, or movies?

The use of Internet as a tool for abuse; spreading child porn, harassment of others, and other challenges as a result of kids use of this media for both consumption and producing. A second set of questions pertaining to the Internet and the societal influence that are becoming more widely discussed are questions relating to the values that some may wish to promote via the Internet. Some have claimed that the Internet is a "democratic technology”. Does the Internet foster democracy and freedom of speech? What are the ethical implications of this process on the world? Does the digital divide raise ethical issues that society is morally obligated to change and spread the ability to access different forms of electronic communication?

Ethical standards

Various national and international professional societies and organizations have produced code of ethics documents to give basic behavioral guidelines to computing professionals and users. They include:

See also


  1. ^ Bynum, Terrell Ward. "A Very Shory History of Computer Ethics". Southern Connecticut State University. Archived from the original on 2008-04-18. Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  2. ^ Margaret, A, & Henry, J. Journal of business ethics. Computer Ethics: The Role of Personal, Informal, and Formal Codes, 15(4), 425, Retrieved from
  3. ^
  4. ^ Source: CSC300 Lecture Notes @ University of Toronto, 2011. For more information on this topic, please visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center website.
  5. ^ Source: PHIL241 Lecture Notes @ Guilford College, 2011
  6. ^
  7. ^ Source: CSC300 Lecture Notes @ University of Toronto, 2011


  • Bynum, Terrell Ward. "The Foundation of Computer Ethics," Computers and Society, June 2000.
  • Stephen Haag, Maeve Cummings and Donald J. McCubbrey. Management Information Systems: For the Information Age, 4th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
  • Deborah G. Johnson, Computer Ethics, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.
  • Per Arne Godejord, "Getting Involved: Perspectives on the Use of True Projects as Tools for Developing Ethical Thinking in Computer Science Students," International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction 4.2 (2008):22-34.
  • Luciano Floridi. "Information Ethics: On the Theoretical Foundations of Computer Ethics", Ethics and Information Technology 1.1 (1999):37-56.
  • Martin, C. Dianne and Weltz, Elaine Yale, "From Awareness to Action: Integrating Ethics and Social Responsibility into the Computer Science Curriculum," Computers and Society, June 1999.
  • Herman T. Tavani. Ethics & Technology: Ethical Issues in an Age of Information and Communication Technology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2004.
  • Giannis Stamatellos, Computer Ethics: A Global Perspective, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007.
  • Michael J. Quinn. Ethics for the Information Age, 4th ed. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, 2011.
  • Barbara MacKinnon. Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues, 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co, 2011.
  • Short History of Computer Ethics - A condensed history of computer ethics

External links

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