Ethics and the Web

The study of ethics (sometimes called moral theory) has been going on since at least the time of the Ancient Greeks, and probably goes back much further than that. It is, essentially the study of what makes something right or wrong. Socrates, a philosopher of Ancient Greece, perhaps somewhat naively suggested that people do the right thing if they know what "the right thing" is, and that wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. If a criminal were aware of the full extent of the consequences of his or her crime for the victim of that crime, he or she would not commit, or even consider committing it. Socrates equated knowledge with virtue, and virtue with happiness. Idealistic as this seems, it does at least provide a starting point for a discussion of what is ethical and what is not.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the theoretical and philosophical arguments surrounding the question of ethics had become vastly more complex. Today we struggle with issues such as abortion and euthanasia, in which the perceived rights of the individual are often in conflict with the views of various religious and pro-life organisations and their supporters. There is also the question of what constitutes an "ethic". For the purposes of this discussion, it is probably reasonable to assume that if you are free to make a decision about what to do in a particular situation, then your choice is based on ethical considerations. The choice in business is often about whether of not to do the right thing by your clients, business partners, and other parties affected by your decision, or whether to act purely from self-interest. If you are bound by law to follow a particular course of action, then you are essentially relieved of the responsibility for doing the right thing (unless of course there is a conflict between the law itself and your personal code of ethics).

The fundamental difference between what is ethical and what is required by law is that the law can be enforced, whereas ethics cannot, at least not easily. This makes following an ethical code of conduct to some extent a matter of personal conscience, and indeed of personal interpretation of what is right or wrong. There may also be commercial, political, social, or even geographical considerations that influence the outcome of any decision making process. After all, even the application of law can become problematical when the environment in which an organisation or an individual operates is not governed by national boundaries. The temptation to pursue a course of action that will maximise the return on investment without regard to the ethical implications is particularly strong in the online environment of e-commerce, where many of the checks and balances of a more traditional business environment are conspicuous by their absence.

The potential benefits of the Internet, and of the Web in particular, are almost incalculable. As well as opening up virtually unlimited markets to commercial organisations, the Web represents huge opportunities in terms of education, entertainment, the arts, media, and new forms of social interaction. Unfortunately, the very accessibility of the Web, and its largely unregulated nature, make it both vulnerable and attractive to unscrupulous opportunists who wish to exploit its capabilities for their own ends. Whilst many of these individuals would undoubtedly take the view that if something is not actually illegal then it is perfectly OK to do it, many ordinary Internet users would contest that such conduct is detrimental to their user experience. Take the example of unsolicited e-mail, sometimes referred to as junk e-mail, or "spam". Whilst not generally harmful, the monotonous regularity with which one has to delete multiple e-mail messages before settling down to deal with legitimate mail can cause intense annoyance. Worse than this, however, is the implication that your email address has been traded around to all and sundry by some organisation or individual that you have at some point trusted to respect your privacy, and who has essentially solicited your email address under false pretences.

On the other hand, the very nature of the World Wide Web provides consumers with a unique opportunity to make their views known, and if necessary to publicly protest about unfair treatment, poor service, or any other issues about which they feel strongly. It also allows consumers to see online reviews of products and services in which they may be interested that have been posted by their peers, in order to make a more informed decision about a planned purchase or booking, whether the actual transaction will take place on the Web or in the High Street. As an example of consumer power, one could cite the events surrounding the legal battle between the Internet toy retailer, and the avant-garde Internet digital art group The legal wrangle involved eToys suing etoy for having a similar domain name to their own. The eventual outcome was that etoy won the right to retain their domain name when eToys dropped the lawsuit, but only after eToys had made a market capitalisation loss of 4.5 billion dollars, allegedly due in part to a successful e-mail campaign mounted by etoy and its supporters. Whether the loss could be wholly, or even substantially attributable to the public campaign is questionable. Whatever the truth of the matter, however, eToys' heavy-handed legal tactics only served to gain them a bad press, and had an adverse effect on their public image. The public relations fiasco is believed to have caused the value of the company's shares to plunge by 50% on the stock market during the period in which it was engaged in litigation against etoy.

The foregoing account serves to illustrate the point that, while the Web provides an opportunity to open up new markets and reach millions of customers, it also empowers small companies and even individuals to make their case very publicly at relatively little expense. In this respect, it may be seen as levelling the playing field, at least to some extent. The empowerment of the smaller players in this way may well encourage larger (and ostensibly more powerful) organisations to adopt a more ethical approach to the way they conduct themselves in the e-commerce arena, since their actions in this sphere will be far more subject to public scrutiny.

The use of personal Web space may be viewed by some individuals as a private matter, but the very nature of the internet means that, unless you take fairly stringent measures to limit access to your web pages to a known group of people, your personal Web space can be seen by the entire online community. In this respect, anything you put on your personal pages can be considered to be in the public domain. You are therefore to some extent responsible for the effect its content may have on those viewing it. Publishing pornographic materials in the UK (in whatever form) is an offence under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, which defines an obscene article as "tending to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, hear or see the material embodied in it". The issue here is not really one of ethics, therefore, since the publication of such materials within the UK would render the publisher liable to prosecution under the law. A similar situation pertains when dealing with racism. The Public Order Act (1986) covers the publication of criminally racist material, defined as "material likely to stir up racial hatred against a group of persons in Great Britain defined by reference to colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins".

Other issues may be less clear cut with regard to the law, and in many instances, the issues are fairly obviously ethical rather than legal. For example, consider the notion of personal web pages, published by an individual with the best of intentions, which purport to be educational in nature. The author is publishing information on their chosen topic for public consumption, presumably with the intention that others will read and make use of the information as part of a course of study. There is no obligation on the part of the author to ensure that the information provided is up to date, complete, or even accurate. Whereas printed matter that has been produced by a publishing organisation is by no means guaranteed to be completely accurate, the author will be a known entity with proven credentials, and the content of the publication will have been proof-read by at least one other person with some domain-specific knowledge.

The credibility of sources of information found on the Web is often more difficult to establish. Even popular and relatively well-regarded sources of information on the Web such as Wikipedia should be viewed with caution, simply because there are no real restrictions on who can contribute to the materials published in them. Indeed, Wikipedia has only recently been in the media spotlight because of allegations of deliberate misinformation being inserted into some of its pages. The online encyclopedia's democratic approach to the dissemination of information is intended to ensure that all points of view are fairly represented, but the very openness of this approach leaves it vulnerable to the deliberate inclusion of biased or inaccurate information by those who wish to promote their own agendas. Nevertheless, information found on the Web, whether published as part of an online encyclopedia or as an offering on a personal homepage, will usually be received by students and other seekers of knowledge in good faith. It would not be unreasonable to hope, therefore, that an ethical approach to the publication of such information is adopted by the author, and that that such faith is justified.

The other side of the coin, obviously, is concerned with the infringement of copyright and plagiarism. The UK government has announced its intention that every child should have access to the Internet to ensure that no child is unfairly disadvantaged. Presumably the thinking behind this strategy is that children with access to the Internet will use its resources in the course of their studies. From personal experience, however, I suspect that the issue is more complex. Universal access to a resource such as the Internet is obviously desirable, but the skills required to make the best use of such a resource also need to be developed, together with the requisite learning ethic. After all, public libraries were freely available to everybody long before the Internet or the World Wide Web were even thought of, but not every child was encouraged by their parents to make use of this priceless resource.

That the Web will be used by the majority of schoolchildren and students for study purposes in the future I have no doubt. I have on many occasions, however, received assignment submissions from students that are clearly plagiarised from Web sources found using Google or some other search engine. Some are more cleverly disguised than others, but are nonetheless obviously not the student's own work. When asked to explain something they allegedly wrote themselves following diligent research, the student is usually forced to admit that they cannot. The electronic format of Web documents and the sophisticated cut-and-paste and formatting facilities of the average word processing package means that students do not even have to read the material they submit, let alone write it themselves. The ethical issue here is not really one of copyright (since this is covered by the relevant laws), but of how such plagiarism should be dealt with, and how it can be discouraged.

Social networking sites have also been in the media recently for all the wrong reasons, particularly with regard to the potential dangers they present to young people. Unscrupulous sexual predators have been known to pretend to be children themselves in order to "groom" potential victims. Such activity is perhaps not an ethical issue, since there are laws that deal with it. The level of parental supervision, however, and the degree to which the providers of Internet social networking services should accept responsibility for ensuring that their legitimate users are safe, may well constitute the basis for ethical debate. Microsoft controversially announced the decision to shut down their online chat rooms in late 2003 on the grounds that they were not safe for children because of online predators, although many service providers disputed whether the move would improve child safety, claiming that it would simply force children to find other, perhaps less well regulated online chat facilities. Other criticisms included the accusation that Microsoft's decision was based on economic considerations (chat room services do not generate significant income, and moderation of chat rooms, even if feasible, would incur considerable expense).

It is perhaps in the field of e-commerce that the question of ethics is most to the fore, since most web sites on the Internet are commercial in nature, and the number of people now buying goods and services online has increased from approximately 10% of computer users in 1999 to almost 50% of computer users today, with the number still rising. There are obviously many benefits for consumers to shopping online, such as the ability to compare prices from a wide range of vendors and service providers, the availability of online discounts (made possible because of the lower overheads associated with online sales and distribution), and the sheer convenience of being able to shop for a huge range of products and services from the comfort of your own home. Some of the more negative aspects of e-commerce relate to the tactics used by some companies to increase their online profile and improve sales, which include the sending of unsolicited advertising materials via e-mail (commonly referred to as "spam"), the collection of information about consumer preferences by highly unethical means (such as tricking users into downloading and installing spyware), and the use of unethical search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques.

The use of questionable tactics for increasing the rankings of a page in search engine listings has been going on for some time, and the search engine operators are well aware of many of the commonly used tricks of the past, such as repeated use of the same meta-keyword, or the inclusion of keywords likely to increase rankings, but which are not actually relevant to the contents of the page being "optimised". Most search engines have adapted their ranking algorithms to take account of such tactics, although the more unscrupulous SEO services are very inventive when it comes to thinking up new tricks.

There is a body of opinion that tends towards the theory that sharp practice in e-commerce, like sharp practice in more traditional business scenarios, is ultimately self defeating, as those companies that build a reputation for being fair and honest in their dealings will fare better over time than those who are simply out to make a fast buck. The future of e-commerce as a whole will depend, to an extent, on consumer confidence. It is up to individual members of the e-commerce community to ensure that they adopt ethical business practices and respect the rights of consumers, even though the transactions that occur between vendor and customer are no longer face to face, and may transcend national boundaries. It is probably safe to say that the online businesses that prosper will be those that not only offer value for money and a good standard of service, but those who develop a reputation for treating their customers fairly and honestly, and behaving in an ethical manner.