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Roger Clarke's 'Ethics and the Internet'

Ethics and the Internet: The Cyberspace Behaviour of People, Communities and Organisations

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

This paper was prepared to support a keynote presentation to the Sixth Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics, Old Parliament House, Canberra, 2 October 1999

Revised version published in Bus. & Prof'l Ethics J. 18, 3&4 (1999) 153-167

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1999

This document is at


The explosion in Internet usage has drawn public attention to the ongoing convergence among computing, telecommunications and robotics technologies, and to the dramatic impacts that they are having on society.

This paper evidences the breadth of information technology's ethical implications through consideration of the Internet behaviour of individuals, communities, corporations, government agencies and governments. Challenges to conventional regulatory mechanisms are outlined.

It is concluded that theoretical and professional ethicists need to give much greater consideration to the matter. But an entry fee has to be paid. Attempts to discuss Internet ethics are pointless unless and until the analyst has gained a deep grounding in the virtual realities of cyberspace, has become a practising netizen, and conducts some proportion of their discourse and debate through the Internet itself.


1. Introduction

This presentation is part of a plenary session that addresses the ethical implications of several aspects of 'Globalisation and the Market Economy'. The focus in this paper is on ethics and the Internet.

By the term 'ethics', I am intending to refer to moral philosophy, or the body of principles governing right and wrong. Many observers would be likely to interpret ethics as being confined to abstract judgements about good and evil. I interpret the position of the Association that is sponsoring this Conference to be quite different. It appears to adopt an alternative, instrumentalist approach to ethics, whereby bodies of principles are expected to have volitional or motivational power, and thereby influence actors' behaviour, e.g. "policy makers ... [must] understand the ethical problems of the impact of computer technology on the lives of people. This professional and applied strand must be underpinned by a philosophical examination which builds on the long history of the study of ethics" (Weckert 1999, p.ii).

This paper commences with an introductory segment that considers information technology generally. This leads into a discussion of the Internet, which is important both in its own right, and also because it is the primary instance of the notion of 'information infrastructure'. The concept of 'cyberspace' is introduced, as a means of appreciating what it is that people who use the Internet experience.

Building on this foundation, the presentation then briefly reviews ethical aspects of individual behaviour, communities, corporate behaviour, and governmental behaviour. A further section considers regulation, both by governments and through electronic community and Internet infrastructure.

2. Foundations

This section examines in turn the multiple elements that make up information technology, the infrastructure that is the Internet, and the shared construct that people perceive when they use the Internet, in popular parlance 'cyberspace'.

2.1 Information Technology

Information technology is the compound of computing, computing-related capabilities (such as storage, display and printing), local networks and telecommunications, and robotics. Each has made substantial advances. Moreover, the compound is far more than merely the sum of its parts. What has been variously called the marriage of, or convergence among, these technologies, has resulted in distributed networks of powerful computers, gathering, storing and distributing large quantities of data, and in some cases capable of taking direct action on their environments.

A stream of authors has warned of the enormous impacts that these technologies can have on individuals and society, both for good, and for seriously ill. As the impacts have increased in scale, new approaches have been needed, in order to ensure that their negative aspects are recognised in advance, and avoided or ameliorated. The multifarious lines of argument expressed in Clarke (1988a, 1988b, 1992, 1993, and 1994d) fell on deaf ears: little more care is taken in 1999 than was the case in 1969 and 1979.

Advances in technology haven't stopped. Current areas of rapid development include:

There is a widespread presumption that some kind of 'technological imperative' exists. Technical competence is regarded as a pre-requisite to participation in the information society, information economy and information age. Technical mastery (whether real or merely apparent) generates fawning respect. The technocratic element in management was directly addressed at this conference in Haidar & Pullin (1999).

Computer ethics as a field of study is addressed in Weckert & Adeney (1997), and its history in Bynum (1999). See also Weizenbaum (1976) and Roszak (1986).

2.2 The Internet as Information Infrastructure

During the 1970s and 1980s, relatively small number of computers in fairly close proximity to one another were linked using local area networks (LANs). Connections among greater numbers of computers over longer distances were supported by wide-area networks (WANs). Means were then established for interconnecting these proliferating networks; hence the inter-network, or Internet. For an introduction to the technology, see Clarke (1998a), and for a more substantial explanation, see Clarke et al. (1998b). For historical information about the Internet (1969-), see ISOC (1999). For a history of the Internet in Australia (1975-), see Clarke (1998h).

The Internet is merely an infrastructure, a suite of 'protocols' or standards, which provide a basis upon which valuable services can be built. Internet services include message-transmission (e.g. email and file transfer), information access (e.g. the World Wide Web), and transactions, including payments (Clarke 1997f, 1999f).

The emergence of the Internet spawned a more grandiose notion of 'information infrastructure'. This is a generic concept, which could be satisfied through other means, such as more sensible applications of existing suburban coaxial cable than mere cable-TV.

Information infrastructure opportunities and issues were analysed in Clarke & Worthington (1994), and Clarke (1994f). The economic significance to nations was underlined in Clarke (1994f) and Clarke (1995b). Positive expressions about the promise of information infrastructure are in Clarke (1998g); and negative impacts, especially on equity and access, are considered in Clarke (1994c), Clarke (1994e), and Clarke (1994f).

By the late 1990s, every advanced western nations has an effective (if primitive) information infrastructure in place, and all are rushing to enhance the bandwidth (i.e. capacity) in order to support the transmission of more intensive data-formats, such as image, audio and video. Developing nations are actively competing, some of whom will struggle, and some of whose infrastructure may even overtake the less nimble among the developed nations, as new telecommunications technologies emerge and mature. Meanwhile, the less developed nations continue to wonder what it's like to be able to make a telephone-call ...

2.3 Cyberspace

The semi-technical discussion in the previous sub-section was essential, but only as a prelude to the real question of 'what's it for?'. The Internet has created new kinds of 'space', within which human actors are disporting themselves.

The first person to document this (and still one of the few to do so convincingly) was Rheingold (1994). In his seminal work, 'The Virtual Community', he described the patterns that arose in several pre-Internet information infrastructures (bulletin board systems - BBS, The Well and newsgroups), and in Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Multi-User Dungeons and Dragons gaming (MUDDs). Netizens of the late 1990s are more familiar with email, e-lists (sometimes called 'listservs'), web-chat and ICQ, as vehicles for electronic inter-personal communications.

What these various experiences of using the Internet have in common is that the participants indulge in a 'shared hallucination'. The term in most common usage for this is 'cyberspace'. Its use is testament to the pre-cognition of the artist: William Gibson, the sci-fi author who coined the term in 1983, was not a user of the (then very primitive) Internet, and indeed has only during the 1990s started using a PC in his work.

Internet technology, and the new kinds of virtual spaces it has enabled, really are very different from anywhere anyone had ever been before. To convey the sense of this, I like to use a quotation from a nearby literature:

"There was no analogy for the way in which Great A'Tuin the world turtle moved against the galactic night. When you are ten thousand miles long, your shell pocked with meteor craters and frosted with comet ice, there is absolutely nothing you can realistically be like except yourself" Pratchett (1988), p.13

3. Contexts

This section considers a range of ethical issues arising from the Internet. It does so by considering a succession of contexts, commencing with the individual, moving to communities of individuals, and then to the behaviours of organisations of various kinds.

3.1 Individual Behaviour

There are many very positive ways in which people have applied Internet services, both inter-personal communication capabilities, and information provision and access functions. The question of 'unreal friends' was directly addressed at this conference, in Matthews & Cocking (1999), and ethical questions at the interface between person and machine are addressed in Weckert & Scott (1999). See Adeney (1999) for a consideration of the pleasures of 'cybersex'. See also Turkle (1984, 1995) and Negroponte (1995).

Cyberspace also provides plenty of evidence of dysfunctional behaviour. These are catalogued in (Clarke 1995a). Some are fairly trivial, such as 'flaming' and rumour-mongering. Others are more serious transgressions, such as harassment, and its extension, electronic stalking.

The common Internet activity of role-playing presents much richer challenges to the ethics-analyst. Adopted personae and pretended personality characteristics are intrinsic to many activities in cyberspace, and they have many constructive applications. But they can also be used less pleasantly, as when a male acts like a female psychotherapist, and successfully engages in a one-on-one discussion about intimate women's business; or a male virtually enacts (in image-rich text) a rape of another actor (Dibbell 1993).

3.2 Behaviour in Virtual Communities
(1) Introduction

Virtual communities are groupings of people whose existence is enabled by the use of electronic tools. There may be a physical dimension to such a community, through meetings 'in the flesh', or, as netizens tend to put it, in 'meatspace'; but the primary locus is cyberspace.

Like any other form of community, a virtual community arises through some form of common interest. It may be based on physical proximity; but most virtual communities are more limited by lingual boundaries and value-sets than by the inability to meet in physical space, and hence the membership tends to be scattered.

In retrospect, early instances of virtual communities might have arisen through the use of party-lines during the first few decades of the telephone. The phenomenon's emergence is usually traced, however, to bulletin board systems (BBS) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which involved people with personal computers and modems dialling into a central point to fetch messages posted by others in the community, and to post their own.

The Internet was specifically designed to facilitate interactions within communities of computer science researchers. It subsequently migrated into other disciplines (Clarke (1994a).

(2) Shared Experience, Shared Ethos

The essence of virtual communities is that they provide an opportunity for individuals to share experiences, and to build something greater than the sum of themselves. They have been, to date, primarily social in their orientations, rather than economic. Various aspects of community behaviour are investigated in Clarke (1996a), Clarke (1996e), Clarke (1996f), Clarke (1997d), and Clarke (1997e).

In successful, long-lived virtual communities, shared experiences result in the emergence of a shared ethos. Particularly during the period before the widespread popularisation of the Internet commencing in about 1995, this ethos was remarkably common across a great many virtual communities. It is a matter of ongoing speculation as to whether the surge of 'newbies' onto the net since then is resulting in the death of that ethos; adaptation of the ethos into something closer to mainstream, submissive consumer culture; or perhaps even an awakening among consumers, and absorption of virtual community culture into 'real life'.

Authoritative descriptions of netizen ethos are not easy to come by. (Indeed, the very idea of an 'authoritative description' would be argued by many to be unsympathetic and even antithetical to the object of study). It is easiest to grasp the sense of community values through consideration of a set of central aphorisms (Clarke 1997c):

In relation to information, the Internet ethos adopts a very distinctive approach. It denies the propertisation of information, and holds appropriation to be a good thing. In Clarke (1999i), I draw attention to a series of alternative metaphors that are more appropriate than a 'marketplace' as a means to depict the way in which information reticulates in cyberspace. These include 'barn-raising' (as distinct from 'horse-trading' - Rheingold 1992, 1994), a 'cooking pot' into which people place the day's catch, and sup on the resulting stew (Ghosh 1998), and 'bees around a honey pot' (Clarke 1999a).

Detailed consideration of the new economics is to be found in Lamberton (1971, 1996), Clarke (1994a), Barlow (1994), Dyson (1995), Romer (with a populist description in Kelly 1996), Clarke (1999a), Clarke (1999e) and Shapiro & Varian (1999).

(3) The Freedom Theme

One of the recurring elements in electronic communities is expectations of greater freedoms, reflected in the term 'electronic frontier' (Kapor & Barlow 1990). The kinds of freedoms that netizens expect are documented in Clarke (1997i).

One aspect that is particularly worthy of closer examination is the expectation of greatly enhanced freedom of access to information, summed up by the call-to-arms 'information wants to be free' Clarke (1999h). During the period 1995-99, the efforts of millions of people have resulted in an unprecedented volume of information being made available, readily discovered and easily and quickly downloaded to individuals' own machines, for display, analysis and printing.

There are signs, however, that this period of enlightenment may be about to be reversed, and that a new 'dark ages' may come about Clarke (1999i). The use and misuse of the public's right to know was directly addressed at this conference, in Spence (1999).

Another aspect that should be of significant interest to ethicists is the expectation of freedom to act anonymously (Clarke 1996j, 1999g). Although the threat of retribution is only one of the forms of accountability, the freedom to act anonymously brings with it a risk of uncontrollable anti-social acts, in physical as well as in virtual space. A great deal of energy is being expended by law enforcement agencies, in an attempt to defeat, or at least compromise, electronic anonymity. And an even greater (although less well organised) effort is being invested by technologists (in respectable companies as well as in home-garages) in order to ensure that anonymous electronic behaviour is sustained.

3.3 Corporate Behaviour

Corporations discovered the potential of the Internet only in 1994, but since then there has been an absolute feeding-frenzy. Among marketers, the concept of 'vision' has less to do with perceiving the future, and more to do with the quality of the graphic design. As a result, there has been a substantial failure to appreciate that mass-marketing techniques that were effective in the era of broadcast technologies (particularly radio and television), and the mass media that they supported, are inappropriate and ineffectual ways of influencing the very different net-consumer via the very different technologies of the Internet.

Moreover, the ethic that 'informations wants to be free' has tended to be corrupted into the expectation that 'information wants to be gratis' and hence the assertion that 'I don't like paying for information' (Clarke 1999h). This has created barriers for electronic publishers, who need to find new business models to support their empires and the authors on whose creative output they depend. The implications for the publishing industry are discussed in Clarke (1999c).

Leaving aside the special case of information-for-profit, consumer Internet commerce in physical goods has not enjoyed the meteoric growth-rates of other Internet metrics (although the anticipation that, sometime, somehow, it will break through, has resulted in ridiculously speculative valuations of Internet companies). With the exception of the leading market segments, pornography and gambling, there is good reason to expect that growth in trading volumes will remain constrained unless and until marketers change their ways.

Consumer protection issues are considered in Clarke (1996i), and the specific challenges of spam (unsolicited emails) in Clarke (1997a), and cookies in Clarke (1997b). Broader treatment of the lack of public confidence and trust is in Clarke (1999a). The (un)willingness of net-consumers to pay is examined in Clarke (1999e). Clarke (1998f) addresses the general topic of cyberspace invading personal space, the privacy implications of direct marketing practices are assessed in Clarke (1998b), and Clarke (1998i) considers specific needs in relation to marketing codes of practice. The ethical implications of current Internet market models were also directly addressed at this conference, in Kronenberg (1999).

3.4 Governmental Behaviour

The Internet has been recognised by government agencies as an additional service delivery channel, and an opportunity to reeduce costs, while sustaining the image, and even perhaps the reality, of service (Clarke 1999f).

It has also been recognised as an additional source of data for social control, and as a means of achieving increased intensity of data trails about citizens. Major initiatives are in train among law enforcement agencies and national security communities to harness Internet technologies to the location of people (Clarke 1999k). This would enable them to stretch their surveillance budgets, monitor more people more intensively, and automate the collection of both intelligence and evidence.

There are some potentially very aggressive applications of technology in the areas of identification, particularly smart cards, digital signatures and public key infrastructure (Greenleaf & Clarke 1997, Clarke 1998d). In an area closely related to public key infrastructure, the (primarily U.S.) national security community spent five years trying unsuccessfully to preclude the widespread availability of strong cryptography (Clarke 1996c), which is the technical means whereby the contents of messages can be protected from prying eyes. Finally, in September 1999, they accepted the inevitable, and changed their strategy.

4. Regulation of Internet Behaviour

In some respects, the law has coped quite well with challenges created by the Internet. For example, some instances of pornography, malicious harm, stalking, and fraud have been uncovered and prosecuted. Moreover, the creation of statutory 'computer crimes' has rendered criminal, particular acts that previously were not prosecutable.

There are, however, many instances of ill-fitting laws. In the civil law arena, for example, there are continuing doubts about the efficacy of existing laws relating to signatures and documents in the electronic context (Clarke 1999d). And in the criminal jurisdiction, possession offences, particularly in the extreme case of child pornography, have shown the law to be a serious affront to logic as well as to personal dignity, e.g. Clarke (1998e).

Enforcement of the law is seriously challenged by technical aspects of the Internet (Clarke 1996h, Clarke et al. 1998a, Clarke et al. 1998b).

In addition, the limitation of law enforcement agencies to specific geographic jurisdictions creates serious challenges for them when they investigate activities that can be readily contrived to be extra-jurisdictional (i.e. occur somewhere else), trans-jurisdictional (i.e. occur across two or more areas), or are supra-jurisdictional (i.e. occur somewhere that no agency has jurisdiction over). One effect of the Internet has been to lower the cost of 'tax-havens' and regulatory arbitrage, such that they are no longer restricted to corporations and wealthy individuals. See Clarke (1997c).

Two primary areas in which regulation has been attempted are pornography Clarke (1996b) and gambling (Clarke et al. 1998b). Additional areas include fraud, unfair marketing practices, and 'cyber-squatting' (a vogue term for the acquisition of domain-names that seem likely to command a premium at some future time). In some other areas, notably privacy, and aspects of consumer protection, there has been a marked reluctance by governments, especially in the U.S.A. and Australia, to take action. See van den Hoven (1999).

Regulation by geographically limited governments still has a role to play, but needs to be complemented by other means. International collaboration and harmonisation might help. Another important consideration is community self-regulation. A further approach is enhancements and adaptations to the architecture of the Internet. Attempts are being made through such mechanisms as PICS (Clarke 1996d), P3P (Clarke 1998c) and a new standard for cookies Clarke (1997b). For discussions of more fundamental change, see Greenleaf (1998, 1999).

For discussions of a range of specific issues arising in relation to the regulation of Internet behaviour, see Clarke (1999b) and de Zwart (1999). In relation to the specific matter of privacy, see Clarke (1994b), Clarke (1996g), Clarke (1997g), Clarke (1997h) Clarke (1998b) Clarke (1999j).

5. Conclusions

There are many factors underlying the contemporary tendency away from nations as the primary loci of political power, and towards the internationalisation of activities. Information technology in general, and the Internet in particular, are among the most important of those factors.

In September 1995, I tried to motivate greater attention to rights and liberties in the context of the information infrastructure (Clarke 1995c). That call met with regrettably limited success. Four years later, I submit to this, somewhat different community, that the ongoing explosion in cyberspace activity, and the wide variety of behaviours it exhibits, demand attention by both professional and theoretical ethicists.

A warning is in order, however. After my earlier warnings about technocracy and spurious technological imperatives, it may seem curious that I should argue this way. But it is simply pointless pontificating about a technology's implications, and its regulation, unless you have a strong understanding of the technology and its use. Don't bother getting involved unless you're prepared to use the Internet, to participate in Internet services, to examine the engineering that underlies it, and finally to communicate with netizens on their own terms.


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