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Consequentialism / Deontology / Virtue ethics
Ethics of care
Good and evil | Morality


Medical ethics / Bioethics
Business ethics
Environmental ethics
Human rights / Animal rights
Legal ethics
Media ethics / Marketing ethics
Ethics of war

Core issues

Justice / Value
Right / Duty / Virtue
Equality / Freedom / Trust
Free will

Key thinkers

Aristotle / Confucius
Aquinas / Hume / Kant / Bentham / Mill / Nietzsche
Hare / Rawls / MacIntyre / Singer / Gilligan

Cyberethics, also referred to as internet ethics, is a branch of applied ethics that studies ethical questions and moral dilemmas brought on by the emergence of digital technologies and global virtual environments. With the advent of the internet, conflicts over privacy, property, security, accuracy, accessibility, censorship, filtering, and others have arose.

Rather than straightforward application of traditional ethical theories such as utilitarianism, deontological ethics (ethics of duty), and virtue ethics, ethicists often attempt to find sound ethical reasoning as contextualized discourse.

While laws are primarily defined within the boundaries of a nation-state as the legislative body, ethicists seek more universal grounds for moral good and justice. In particular, many cyberethicists carry on their discourses within multi-cultural environments, without falling into radical cultural relativism.


In the late eighteenth century, the invention of cameras spurred similar ethical debates as the internet does today. During a Harvard Law Review seminal in 1890, Warren and Brandeis defined privacy from an ethical and moral point of view to be "central to dignity and individuality and personhood. Privacy is also indispensable to a sense of autonomy - to 'a feeling that there is an area of an individual's life that is totally under his or her control, an area that is free from outside intrusion.' The deprivation of privacy can even endanger a person's health." (Warren & Brandeis, 1890).[1] Over 100 years later, the Internet and proliferation of private data through governments[2] and ecommerce is a phenomenon which requires a new round of ethical debate involving a person's privacy.

Privacy can be decomposed to the limitation of others' access to an individual with "three elements of secrecy, anonymity, and solitude" (Gavison, 1984).[3] Anonymity refers to the individual's right to protection from undesired attention. Solitude refers to the lack of physical proximity of an individual to others. Secrecy refers to the protection of personalized information from being freely distributed.

Individuals surrender private information when conducting transactions and registering for services. Ethical business practice protects the privacy of their customers by securing information which may attribute to the loss of secrecy, anonymity, and solitude. Credit card information, social security numbers, phone numbers, mothers' maiden names, addresses and phone numbers freely collected and shared over the internet may lead to a loss of Privacy.

Fraud and impersonation are some of the malicious activities that occur due to the direct or indirect abuse of private information. Identity theft is rising rapidly due to the availability of private information in the Internet. For instance, seven million Americans have fallen victim to identity theft in 2002, making it the fastest growing crime in the United States (Latak, 2005).[4] Public records search engines and databases are the main culprits contributing to the rise of cybercrime. Listed below are a few recommendations presented by some ethical philosophers to restrict online databases from proliferating sensitive personnel information.

  1. Exclude sensitive unique identifiers from database records such as social security numbers, birth dates, hometown and mothers' maiden names.
  2. Exclude phone numbers that are normally unlisted.
  3. Clear provision of a method which allows people to have their names removed from a database.
  4. Banning the reverse social security number lookup services (Spinello, 2006).[5]

Private Data Collection

Data warehouses are used today to collect and store huge amounts of personal data and consumer transactions. These facilities can preserve large volumes of consumer information for an indefinite amount of time. Some of the key architectures contributing to the erosion of privacy include databases, cookies and spyware.[5]

Some may argue that data warehouses are supposed to stand alone and be protected. However, the fact is enough personal information can be gathered from corporate websites and social networking sites to initiate a reverse lookup. Therefore, is it not important to address some of the ethical issues regarding how protected data ends up in the public domain?

As a result, identity theft protection businesses are on the rise. Companies such as LifeLock and JPMorgan Chase have begun to capitalize on selling identity theft protection insurance.


Ethical debates have long included the concept of property. This concept has created many clashes in the world of cyberethics. One philosophy of the Internet is centered around the freedom of information. The controversy over ownership occurs when the property of information is infringed upon or uncertain.[6]

Intellectual Property Rights

The ever-increasing speed of the internet and the emergence of compression technology, such as mp3 opened the doors to Peer-to-peer file sharing, a technology that allowed users to anonymously transfer files to each other, previously seen on programs such as Napster or now seen through communications protocol such as BitTorrent. Much of this however, was copyrighted music, illegal to transfer to other users, which raises ethical issues regarding the transfer of copyrighted media.

Proponents of unrestricted file sharing point out that file sharing has given people broader and faster access to media, has increased exposure to new artists, and has reduced the costs of transferring media (including less environmental damage). Supporters of restrictions on file sharing argue that we must protect the income of our artists and other people who work to create our media. This argument is partially answered by pointing to the small proportion of money artists receive from the legitimate sale of media.

We also see a similar debate over intellectual property rights in respect to software ownership. The two opposing views are for closed source software distributed under restrictive licenses or for free and open source software (Freeman & Peace, 2004).[7] The argument can be made that restrictions are required because companies would not invest resources in development if there is no incentive for revenue generated from sales and licensing fees. Proponents for open source believe that programs can be developed by numerous contributors and the benefits can also shared by all.

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

With the introduction of Digital Rights Management software, new issues are raised over whether the subverting of DRM is ethical. Some champion the hackers of DRM as defenders of users' rights, allowing the blind to make audio books of PDFs they receive, allowing people to burn music they have legitimately bought to CD or to transfer it to a new computer. Others see this as nothing but simply a violation of the rights of the intellectual property holders, opening the door to uncompensated use of copyrighted media.


Security has long been a topic of ethical debate. Is it better to protect the common good of the community or rather should we safeguard the rights of the individual? There is a continual dispute over the boundaries between the two and which compromises are right to make. As an ever increasing amount of people connect to the Internet and more and more personal data is available online there is susceptibility to identity theft, cyber crimes and computer hacking. This also leads to the question of who has the right to regulate the Internet in the interest of security?


Due to the ease of accessibility and sometimes collective nature of the Internet we often come across issues of accuracy (e.g. who is responsible for the authenticity and fidelity of the information available online?). Ethically this includes debate over who should be allowed to contribute content and who should be held accountable if there are errors in the content or if it is false. This also brings to question of how the injured party, if any, are to be made whole and under which jurisdiction the offense lies.[8]

Accessibility, Censorship and Filtering

Accessibility, censorship and filtering bring up many ethical issues that have several branches in cyberethics. Many questions have arisen which continue to challenge our understanding of privacy, security and participation in society. Throughout the centuries mechanisms have been constructed in the name of protection and security. Today, the applications are in the form of software that filters domains and content so that they may not be easily accessed or obtained without elaborate circumvention or on a personal and business level through free or content-control software. Internet censorship and filtering are used to control or suppress the publishing or accessing of information. The legal issues are similar to offline censorship and filtering. The same arguments that apply to offline censorship and filtering apply to online censorship and filtering; whether people are better off with free access to information or should be protected from what is considered by a governing body as harmful, indecent or illicit. The fear of access by minors drives much of the concern, while many online advocate groups have sprung up to raise awareness and of controlling the accessibility of minors to the Internet.

Censorship and filtering occurs on small to large scales, whether it be a company restricting their employees’ access to cyberspace by blocking certain websites which are deemed as relevant only to personal usage and therefore damaging to productivity; or on a larger scale where a government creates large firewalls which censor and filter access to certain information available online frequently from outside their country to their citizens and anyone within their borders. One of the most famous examples of a country controlling access is the Golden Shield Project, also referred to as the Great Firewall of China, a censorship and surveillance project set up and operated by the People's Republic of China. Another instance is the 2000 case of the League Against Racism and Antisemitism (LICRA), French Union of Jewish Students, vs. Yahoo! Inc (USA) and Yahoo! France, where the French Court declared that “access by French Internet users to the auction website containing Nazi objects constituted a contravention of French law and an offence to the ‘collective memory’ of the country and that the simple act of displaying such objects (e.g. exhibition of uniforms, insignia or emblems resembling those worn or displayed by the Nazis) in France constitutes a violation of the Article R645-1 of the Penal Code and is therefore considered as a threat to internal public order.” (Akdeniz, 2001).[9] Since the French judicial ruling many websites must abide by the rules of the countries in which they are accessible.

Freedom of Information

Freedom of information, that is the freedom of speech as well as the freedom to seek, obtain and impart information brings up the question of who or what, has the jurisdiction in cyberspace. The right of freedom of information is commonly subject to limitations dependant upon the country, society and culture concerned.

Generally there are three standpoints on the issue as it relates to the Internet. First, some argue that the Internet is a form of media, put out and accessed by citizens of governments and therefore should be regulated by each individual government within the borders of their respective jurisdictions. Second, some argue that, “Governments of the Industrial World… have no sovereignty [over the internet] … We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, … You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear” (Barlow, 1996).[10] A third party believes that the internet supersedes all tangible borders such as the borders of countries, and so authority should be given to an international body since what is legal in one country may be against the law in the other.[11]

Digital Divide

An issue specific to the ethical issues of the Freedom of Information is what is known as the digital divide. This refers to the unequal socio-economic divide between those who have access to digital and information technology such as cyberspace and those who have limited or no access at all. This gap of access between countries or regions of the world is called the global digital divide.

Sexuality and Pornography

Sexuality in terms of sexual orientation, infidelity, sex with or between minors, public display and pornography have always stirred ethical controversy. These issues are reflected online to varying degrees. One of the largest cyberethical debates is over the regulation, distribution and accessibility of pornography online. Hardcore pornographic material is generally controlled by governments with laws regarding how old one has to be to obtain it and what forms are acceptable or not. The availability of pornography online calls into question jurisdiction as well as brings up the problem of regulation.[12]


Main article: Gambling

Gambling is often a topic in ethical debate as some view it as inherently wrong and support prohibition while others support no legal interference at all. Between these two positions, there are a multitude of complex factors and opinions. (McGowan, 2007).[13] Due to its controversial nature, gambling is either banned or heavily controlled on local or national levels. The accessibility of the internet and its ability to cross geographic-borders has lead to illegal online gambling, which are often operated offshore.[14] Over the years online gambling, both legal and not, has grown exponentially which has lead to difficulties in regulation.

Organizations Related to Cyberethics

The following organizations are of notable interest in the cyberethics debate:

 International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) IFIP • Association for Computer Machinery, Special Interest Group: Computers and Society (SIGCAS) • Ethical and Professional Issues in Computing (EPIC) Electronic Privacy Information Center • Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Electronic Frontier Foundation • International Center for Information Ethics (ICIE) • Directions and Implications in Advanced Computing (DIAC) • The Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (CCSR) • Cyber-Rights and Cyber-liberties

Codes of Ethics in Computing

Information Technology managers are required to establish a set of ethical standards common to their organization. There are many examples of ethical code currently published that can be tailored to fit any organization. Code of ethics is an instrument that establishes a common ethical framework for a large group of people. Four well-known examples of Code of Ethics for IT professionals are listed below:

RFC 1087

In January 1989, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) in RFC 1087 defines an activity as unethical and unacceptable if it:

  1. Seeks to gain unauthorized access to the resources of the Internet.
  2. Disrupts the intended use of the Internet.
  3. Wastes resources (people, capacity, computer) through such actions.
  4. Destroys the integrity of computer-based information, or
  5. Compromises the privacy of users (RFC 1087, 1989).[15]

The Code of Fair Information Practices

The Code of Fair Information Practices is based on five principles outlining the requirements for records keeping systems. This requirement was implemented in 1973 by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

  1. There must be no personal data record-keeping systems whose very existence is secret.
  2. There must be a way for a person to find out what information about the person is in a record and how it is used.
  3. There must be a way for a person to prevent information about the person that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without the person's consent.
  4. There must be a way for a person to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about the person.
  5. Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuses of the data (Harris, 2003).[16]

Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics

The ethical values as defined in 1992 by the Computer Ethics Institute; a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance technology by ethical means, lists these rules as a guide to computer ethics:

  1. Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.
  2. Thou shalt not interfere with other people's computer work.
  3. Thou shalt not snoop around in other people's computer files.
  4. Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.
  5. Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.
  6. Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid.
  7. Thou shalt not use other people's computer resources without authorization or proper compensation.
  8. Thou shalt not appropriate other people's intellectual output.
  9. Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.
  10. Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans (Computer Ethics Institute, 1992).[17]

(ISC)2 Code of Ethics

(ISC)2 an organization committed to certification of computer security professional has further defined its own Code of Ethics generally as:

  1. Act honestly, justly, responsibly, and legally, and protecting the commonwealth.
  2. Work diligently and provide competent services and advance the security profession.
  3. Encourage the growth of research – teach, mentor, and value the certification.
  4. Discourage unsafe practices, and preserve and strengthen the integrity of public infrastructures.
  5. Observe and abide by all contracts, expressed or implied, and give prudent advice.
  6. Avoid any conflict of interest, respect the trust that others put in you, and take on only those jobs you are qualified to perform.
  7. Stay current on skills, and do not become involved with activities that could injure the reputation of other security professionals (Harris, 2003).[16]

See also


  1. Samuel Warren, 1998, "Privacy, Photography, and the Press." Harvard Law Review. 111(4): 1086-1103.
  2. Privacy, Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved February 10, 2009.
  3. Gavison, R. 1984. "Privacy and the Limits of the Law," The Yale Law Journal, 8:421
  4. Latak, A (2005, February). Identity Crisis: To make its players safe the NFL is tackling schemers and scammers. Legal Affairs. Retrieved February 10, 2009.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Spinello, Richard (2006). Cyberethics: Morality and Law in Cyberspace, Third Edition. Sudbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers. ISBN 0763737836. 
  6. Intellectual Property Policy and Programs, Computer Crime & Intellectual Property Section, United States Department of Justice. Retrieved February 10, 2009.
  7. Freeman, Lee and Peace, Graham (2004). Information Ethics: Privacy and Intellectual Property. Hersey, Pennsylvannia: Information Science Publishing. ISBN 1591404916. 
  8. Richard O. Mason, Four Ethical Issues of the Information Age, Management Information Systems Quarterly, Volume 10, Number 1, March, 1986. Retrieved February 10, 2009.
  9. Akdeniz, Yaman (2001, November). [ Case Analysis of League Against Racism and Antisemitism (LICRA), French Union of Jewish Students, v Yahoo! Inc. (USA), Yahoo France, Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris (The County Court of Paris), Interim Court Order, 20 November, 2000].
  10. John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 1996. Retrieved February 10, 2009.
  11. Stevens Clift, Cross-Broder Jurisdiction over Internet Content/Use, July 11, 2001 12:28:40. Retrieved February 10, 2009.
  12. James Vicini, Online pornography law appeal denied. Reuters, Wed Jan 21, 2009 2:13pm EST. Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  13. Richard A. McGowan, Ethics of gambling, The Boston Globe, September 2007. Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  14. Matt Richtel, U.S. Steps Up Push Against Online Casinos By Seizing Cash, The New York Times, May 31, 2004. Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  15. Network Working Group. Ethics and the Internet, Network Working Group, 1989. Retrieved February 11, 2009.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Shon Harris, CISSP Certification Exam Guide. (New York: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2003. ISBN 0072229667)
  17. Computer Ethics Institute (1992). The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics (PDF). Computer Ethics Institute. Retrieved February 23, 2009.

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