CNN Technology

Ethics issue emerges as computer literacy flourishes

On-line ethics: an oxymoron?

September 17, 1995
Web posted at: 1:45 p.m. EDT


From correspondent Dick Wilson

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The emerging field of computer ethics is attacking computerized snooping, stealing, and lying while trying to show the way to moral behavior in the on-line world.

Concerns are growing among some Internet users as they see how easy it might be for governments or individuals to pry into supposedly private material. "Unlike mail, there are no Geneva conventions that will stop someone (from) intervening between the origin and the destination, looking at that packet before it arrives," said New York University student T. Beads Land. Added fellow student Ilya Slavin, "If you violate someone's privacy by reading their mail -- electronic mail that is -- no one can you take to court. Is it ethical? I don't think so. But it's anybody's guess."

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Another ethical concern is "netiquette," or on-line politeness, and its opposite, "flaming." "You'll see long arguments where an intellectual discussion breaks down into a bunch of name calling. This is flaming," Land said.


Joshua Halberstam, a philosophy professor at New York University who has written extensively about ethics, lately has been focusing on information technology and how it is reshaping our sense of personal boundaries. "We are again developing communities, but these are not communities based on geography," Halberstam said. "My neighbor is not the guy next to me. It's the person that shares the same interests as I do."

To live peacefully with your "cyber-neighbor," there must be a strong sense of computer ethics.

While some people see primarily the potential for ethical abuses in cyberspace, Halberstam takes a wider, more positive view of the computer revolution and its future. "I think this is going to be a very exciting time, specifically for ethics, because I think the culture will now learn how to develop ties and nets and communities and tolerance in ways we haven't been able to do before." And Halberstam believes the attention being paid to privacy and politeness eventually will improve moral behavior both on and off the Internet.

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