Every advancement in information technology is accompanied by at least one ethical quandary. From Facebook to email updates, computer users are unaware of the fine balance between ethics and profit struck by providers. Software developers, businesses and individuals must think about the rights and wrongs of using information technology every day. The fundamental issues underlying the world of information technology are the end user's expectation of privacy and the provider's ethical duty to use applications or email responsibly.
Data mining covers a wide range of activities that turn numbers, words and other data into distinguishable patterns. In the hands of a responsible agency or business, data mining can determine a probable next step for a terrorist cell or determine buying patterns within demographic groups. This practice has been assailed in the post 9/11 world as part of a widespread pattern of invasions of privacy carried out by America's intelligence experts. The practices of the Total Information Awareness Progress in particular were thought to pry into the day-to-day lives of innocent people by IT ethics experts and civil libertarians.
The social networking craze may allow people around the world to speak with each other but it has also brought up several IT ethics issues. Facebook initiated a program called Beacon in 2007 to turn each user's personal information into an advertisement, allowing a greater amount of connectivity between the website's members. Facebook's developers failed to create an opt-in system that gave willing users the chance to participate of their own accord. Beacon came under fire for pulling information from Facebook profiles and breaking down privacy boundaries common in the real world. Another ethical issue for social networking websites is the amount of security they should use when registering members. Several abductions in recent years have been connected to MySpace, bringing up concerns that social networking sites aren't doing enough to protect young users.
Spam is defined broadly as emails with commercial or profane messages that are sent blindly to hundreds and thousands of users. Aside from the content of spam email, the major ethical issues for service providers and individuals alike involve identifying spammers. Email programs through AOL and Yahoo! may identify some spammers who are brazen enough to send out millions of emails but their spam programs rely largely on user feedback. While some users will identify legitimate spammers carrying viruses and pornographic messages, there is the potential for users to identify legitimate companies as spammers.
Intellectual Property and Information Technology
The merger of intellectual property rights and information technology has been rough going since the 1990s. The advent of Napster, Limewire and other peer-to-peer downloading networks brought the issue of infringing on artistic property to the fore. NBC's exclusive rights to the 2008 Olympic Games were challenged by bloggers and online pirates who placed footage on YouTube. The ethical issue that arises when dealing with intellectual property in the virtual world is the length to which content producers should pursue permission to reprint images and articles. While lifting entire articles for a term paper is clearly unacceptable, there are questions from ethicists about the practicality of seeking out unknown artists and writers for something as minor as a blog.
Filtering Online Content
Comcast has come under fire in the past two years for blocking downloads from Bit Torrent. The Internet service provider (ISP) has claimed that "throttling down" downloads via Bit Torrent is a reasonable element of maintaining high-speed service. Religious groups, adult websites and others have banned together in an unusual alliance to fight Comcast's effort to filter content. The major ethical debate raged between ISP, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and end users is whether Internet service should be content-neutral.
- Photo by Darren Hester (Flickr)