Professional Computing Ethics
Controversies surrounding ethical computing are numerous. The debates have been raging on even as the Australian Computer Society outlines standards for ethical practices with regard to computing. The Australian computer society has clear and understandable code of ethics which stipulates what it considers as ethical behavior, however, this has not stop the computer industry from attracting controversies and ethical debates. The current plans of the federal government of Australia to legislate laws governing internet censorship is one such issue that is brought about as a result of ambiguity of the code of ethics set out by the Australian computer society. The ethical debate generated by internet filtering and whether it is beneficial or not, is a matter that has captured the interest of many scholars and policy-makers alike around the world. This paper examines the ethical issues of internet censorship with regard to the standards of behaviors set out by the Australian Computer Society. It explores further the potential beneficiaries and losers of internet filtering in Australia and finally it concludes with an examination of the implications of such policy to implementers and users of internet.
The issue of internet censorship has generated much heat and debate not only in Australia but across the global. Although, the Australian government could be harboring good intentions for its citizens and internet users in general, the controversy surrounding this policy has been centered on ethical issues of information flow and responsibility. The Australian Computer Society clearly spells out in its code of ethics regarding values and morals governing its members, these clauses in the ACS code of ethics has been contradicted and rendered ambiguous by certain case of hacking by individuals who claim to be acting unethically for the general good. One particular case dubbed “A Harmless Prank” is a good example of how the ACS codes have failed to define what constitutes ethical behavior (Spinello, 1997). The government saw this ambiguity and failure of the ACS codes to resolve whether accessing private content in the name of ‘doing good’ is ethical or not and has embarked on legislating laws to guide internet access and use.
The consideration of introducing internet censorship may have emanated from the failure of the ACS codes to ease decision making process in respect to ethical issues. This failure is in part due to the vagueness of the code of ethics themselves. Ethics may be defined as set of moral values or standard of behavior for a particular group of people or society. As such they are social constructs and therefore may differ from one group to another and members of the group may also differ when it comes to interpretation of ambiguous clauses. The ACS code of ethics were formulated to set guidelines for ethical decision making, but the ambiguity within the codes themselves has alerted the government to step in and provide security for certain information. The ACS starts by warning that:
“The list of standards is not necessarily exhaustive and should not be read as definitely
demarking the acceptable from the unacceptable in professional conduct” (ACS Code of
The codes further states that, when faced with an ambiguous situation or contentious ethical question, the professions should take into account “the spirit of the Code of Ethics”. These two statements illustrate the loopholes in the ACS codes of conduct. It leaves the issue of making ethical decision to the discretion of the professionals and therefore what ones deem good to profession computing in certain ambiguous and contentious ethical issues is better decided by the individual. For example, in the case of Mackey who hacked into the Riverview College’s administrative network and gained access to some confidential payroll files (Spinello, 1997), breached the ACS code of ethics clause 4.10.2 that says that “I must not knowingly engage in … dishonest and fraudulent practices” (ACS Code of Ethics, 1994). This behavior was therefore unethical, but Mackey argued in defense that he intended to alert the university about the vulnerability of its information and network. In line with this argument, Mackey upheld clause 4.5.2 of the ACS codes of conduct, which says “I must endeavor to preserve the integrity and security of the information of others” (ACS Code of Ethics, 1994). In essence, the intention of Mackey was to protect the university’s network from hackers with ill intentions. It is such ambiguity that has alerted the Australian government about the need to have the internet censorship.
Winners and Losers
Currently the world is fast becoming a global village. With improvements in modern technologies, access to information and communication has been enhanced as never before. There are a number of homes that can now access internet and equally larger number with more than one computer connected to internet. The Australian government intention to censor internet contents would rub others the wrong way but definitely would be beneficial to others. According to the Lohman (2010) the current government plans to implement the ISP-level filtering could drive small ISP companies in Australia out of business. The implementation of such a policy would negatively impact the smaller ISPs in terms of costs for managing the implementation of the ISP-level filtering. Costs associated with such a program are huge and can be detrimental to the smaller ISPs and would consequently, threaten their operation and continued existence. On the other hand, the bigger ISPs like Optus and Telstra are believed to be the bigger beneficiaries of such a program (Lohman, 2010). Although, they may not reap a lot of benefits in terms of huge profits, the ISP-level filter would certainly wipe out some competitors making the business landscape plainer for them.
The cost of managing and implementing the ISP-level filtering are estimated to be too high and only bigger ISP firms may be able to remain afloat when such a program goes underway. According to Lohman (2010) the filtering equipments can be very cheap and affordable to all ISPs, but it is the cost of maintenance that would definitely cause worries to some ISPs. The cost of maintenance related to customer enquiries about filters, and complaints about certain contents that should have been filtered but were not; something that should be done by the Australian Communication and Media Authority would be quite expensive to some smaller ISPs. Moreover, the implementation of ISP-level filtering would mean that ISP firms contending with some changes in customer care relations.. The firms would have to invest in call centre training, customer relationship management systems and upgrading, and would also have to effect changes in their billing systems. The smaller ISP firms would also have to deal with other costs related to filtering services operation which may be difficult to quantify. Such costs may be related to the impact of the service on the brand value considering that the process of filtering is such an erroneous issue and also a performance related service (Lohman, 2010).
Furthermore, the smaller ISP firms would not have enough in-house technical expertise required to set up as well as maintain all the filtering solutions. This therefore means that they would have to outsource such services at a cost that may threaten their continued operations. But perhaps the greatest beneficiaries would be the parents and children of Australia. It is intended to bring about cyber-safety and protection of internet users especially children against certain undesired and damaging contents. Parents and teachers would not have to worry of their children and students being exposed to pornographic materials, violence and hate crimes, and other addictive sites like Facebook, and MySpace.
However, despite the celebration by teachers and parents, internet filtering would greatly affect access to certain important information that would be blocked at the discretion of the government. Every one in Australia would suffer as there would no free flow of information. The greatest concern is that the political leaders would use internet filtering to censor information and ideas that are not popular with the political elite. This would lead to discrimination in terms of access to information and further cause restriction as well as suppression of non-conforming expressions. In effect, this would greatly hamper the citizens’ intellectual freedom.
Considering the ethical implications of internet filtering and the potential beneficiaries and losers of such policies, the implementation of the whole program can be a challenging one. Taking into account these challenges, an implementer must consider the opposing views and the general good of the project on society. With the ACS codes only proving ambiguous and vague as far as ethical decisions are concerned and many Internet Service Providers opposing the implementation of internet filtering, it would be wise for an implementer to take into consideration not only the general good filtering would have but also the opposing views on this controversial issue.
There is no doubt that the society is being eroded by certain damaging contents of the internet and everybody agrees that there is a need to create a cyber-safety. But the contention is how the much needed cyber-safety should be developed and implemented. Considering the opposing views and the controversies generated by internet filtering debate, it is importance that implementers of filtering policies come up with programs that ensures free flow of information while leaving the decision on whether to filter or not to the users. Since any filtering would not give the users an opportunity to assess the content being censored or blocked, the process denies people access to information and other vital materials that could be of importance. With its all good intentions, internet filtering leaves it the government and implementers to decide on what is right or wrong for user consumption. And because the issue of what is ethical and what is not is a matter of social construct, the implementers may not be in a better position to decide on the right content for the users. As an implementer therefore, I would leave the users to make decision on which contents they would prefer and which ones they would not.
Introducing the PC-based filters would just solve these problems. It would allow individual users to filter for themselves materials they find helpful for their own use and for their children. Introduction of such filters must be accompanied by public education on how they are used as well as on their benefits. There should be also initiatives that involve parents in education and counseling of children on the various contents of the internet so as to create awareness among them on the dangers and benefits of the internet.
Internet use and control has become a global issue debated by various concern groups. On one side are those who advocate for censorship, while on the other are those who cite freedom of expression and access to information as some of the fundamental human rights that cannot be taken away. However, despite these opposing views all agree on the need to create a cyber free from harmful and damaging information. But how to go about creating a safe internet seems to be the problem. Just like any other ethical issue, the issue of internet filtering would remain a controversial one for a long time. Coupled with the vested interests of beneficiaries and losers, resolving the issue may not be an easy task in Australia.
Australian Computer Society Code of Ethics, 1994. Values and Ideals Subscribed to by Society
Members, Retrieved on August 19, 2010, from http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:uZJF9w4wwecJ:courses.cs.vt.edu/cs3604/lib/WorldCodes/Australia.Code.html+Australian+Computer+Society%E2%80%99s+Code+of+Ethics&cd=3&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ke&client=firefox-a
Lohman, Tim. 2010, April 19. Big ISPs to Benefit from Mandatory Internet Filter, retrieved on
August 19, 2010, from http://www.computerworld.com.au/article/343576/big_isps_benefit_from_mandatory_internet_filter_academic/
Spinello, Richard A., 1997, “A Harmless Prank”, Case Studies in Information and Computer
Ethics, Sydney: Prentice Hall