September 29, 2012    /    by

Digging Deeper Into Cyberspace: What Are The Ethical Problems?

Albert Einstein once said, "If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution." So how can we even begin to define cyberspace and take baby steps towards enabling the good and disabling the bad?

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.”

So how can we even begin to define cyberspace and take baby steps towards enabling the good and disabling the bad?  This is part two of a three part series on cyberethics. Last time, I described the need for regular online cyber check-ups, similar to visits to our dentists’ or doctors’ offices.

Moving on, and attempting to follow Einstein’s advice, let's try to articulate some of our ethical problems that need to be addressed as we navigate through cyberspace.

Back in January 2011, I was invited to the Luther College Center for Ethics and Public Life in Decorah, Iowa. It was an eye-opening and rewarding experience. I was excited to engage in conversations with students, and I was able to discuss various cybersecurity and cyberethics topics with the faculty at Luther College. There were several opportunities for open discussions and a Q/A session regarding my book. I was especially impressed by Dr. Sören Steding, who is an outstanding professor and thoughtful leader.

But the main purpose of my visit was to present an evening speech on the import role of cyberethics in the 21st century. Here's an excerpt, beginning with with this question:

How would you finish this sentence: “The Internet is…”

That is, how would you briefly describe the Internet, or cyberspace, or the World Wide Web? Here are some of the popular answers I’ve heard:

1. The Internet is the greatest invention since the printing press. Billions of users sending trillions times trillions of bits. It is now my new TV, my phone, and my must-have mobile device. Cloud computing lets me access information at anytime from anywhere on the earth with my smartphone. We’re heading for the Dick Tracy watch.

2. The Internet is a wonderful tool. It is infrastructure like a digital superhighway, a great multi-purpose communication device, quick access to specific news and sports, and more. It enables all of my new technologies to work together; it’s like a glue that packages my weather and social networks sites like Facebook or Twitter.

3. The Internet is fun—We can dream online. The Web offers global gaming and virtual worlds. I love Halo, World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike, and other games. My friends and I constantly find interesting and new things to do, and I’m never bored online. In virtual reality, I enter Second Life and travel to distant places without leaving my house. I can see things that I’ve only dreamed of where I live. I interact with exciting, fun people from around the world despite my tight budget.

4. The Internet is how We learn. 21st century education is about distance learning. I do all my research online. I take classes in Arizona while sitting at home in Michigan. Or, I just Google it. We multi-task. (PBS did a segment on how young people multi-task today and how that affects the brain. Teenagers typically do math homework, chat with friends, download Facebook pictures, and write term papers, and watch videos, all at the same time.)

5. Cyberspace offers new commerce. My friends love shopping online. We buy stuff from Amazon or Walmart.com. (Christmas sales were up over 15% this year.) We can search for jobs online and find new career opportunities on the other side of the country that we only dreamed about a decade ago. We can even shop for jobs.

6. The Internet is all about ministry. My church, or soup kitchen, or non-profit group, or mission team does so much online, and we reach out to other cultures. We communicate with others on the front lines in Africa or Vanuatu over the Internet. Our fundraisers or calls-for action can touch thousands of families globally and raise millions of dollars for the needy. We can tell amazing stories people need to hear.

But others might say — Hold on a minute. Is the Internet really only a force for good? What about Internet predators, child porn, plagiarism, identity theft, or other online crimes? Some are afraid of the Internet and online banking. Or, others worry about “big brother” and predict that the book 1984 is coming true.

Perhaps these people would finish the sentence:

7. The Internet is evil. I know people who are afraid of cyberspace, not because they can’t learn the technology or figure out how to use it, but because they fear the impact of being tempted, misled or even robbed online.

8. The Internet forces Information Overload: Too much data coming at me all at once, and we don’t know what to listen to or who to trust anymore. The Web is really people connected by computers. But do we really know these people and are they being honest? Are they being paid to say that? What are their motives? Which blogs should we read and which ones should we ignore? If you google: “When did Columbus discover America?” you will get different answers. Some viewed sources don't even believe that Columbus discovered America at all.

We could go on and on:

9. The Internet enables e-Government. We can reserve campground, renew my driver’s licenses or reserve a spot at a National Park campground online.

10. Cyberspace feeds my cravings for real-time sports and even fantasy sports teams.

11. Or the Internet takes up too much of my time. We can’t seem to turn it off or find work/life balance.

So how would I finish the sentence?

I believe the Internet is best described as an accelerator, like the gas pedal in your car. The World Wide Web is making almost everything go faster. While radio and TV played this role in the 20th century, the Internet is swallowing both—offering podcasts and videos on demand. Messages that took months to deliver centuries ago can now be delivered instantly. But in our brave new web, what is “viral” online today is often old news a week from now.

Like a gas pedal, the Internet is benign. Not a force for good or evil, but both good and evil now wage their battles online in the 21st century. It is our newest battle front. Just as the printing press vastly expanded the spread of ideas through books and enabled the Renaissance and Reformation, the World Wide Web is creating a new e-Renaissance in numerous areas.

As Americans, we worry about such hot topics as unemployment, wars overseas, rising levels of debt, local education, global warming, and perhaps Presidential politics. And yet, unless you’ve been the victim of cyber crime or published a book online, you probably haven’t thought very much about how cyberspace is impacting your life—in both positive and negative ways. The Internet both defines and reflects the culture we live in.

Which leads me to my second question: Why should society care about cyberethics? But before I answer that question, I want to provide a few basic definitions…

 »» Ethics are the rules or standards that govern conduct.

 How do I live my life and make my decisions? Everyone has ethics. One of the best ways of thinking about ethics is to take a quick look at what you believe and then think about how you would react when those beliefs are challenged. But to agree on ethics, we must agree on what is moral or the difference between right and wrong.

 So, if ethics is the study of behaviors and conduct and how what we believe affects how we live, then what is cyberethics? In cyberspace, what’s allowed on your network? What do we actually do? Are our actions different online than offline?

 These are vital topics in the 21st century because the norm is to have different ethical standards or boundaries for online life. We frequently hear, “It doesn’t count the same” or “People do or say things online anonymously that they would never to face to face with someone in real life.”

 Also: Who can we trust online and offline? Why? While many think cyberspace is separate or not as relevant as offline life, our online and offline lives are rapidly merging together as never before.

 How Can Society and Individuals Be Safe Online?

If the Internet is like the accelerator in your car, than cyberethics are the brakes. Our brakes help us maneuver through tough online turns and help reach the desired destination safely.

A teacher asked a class, “Why do we have brakes on a car?” A bunch of children raised their hands. One person blurted out, “To slow down!” Someone else said, “To stop!”

The teacher paused, smiled and said quietly, “We need breaks so we can drive faster without crashing. Brakes allow us to arrive at our destination safely and in one piece.”

The same is true of cyberethics. We need cyber brakes when we go online. Our cyberethics can inform and transform how we navigate through cyberspace.

Other Views on the Internet? 

 One respected researcher and colleague, Andris Ozols, answered the questions this way: "The Internet is a disruptor of time, space and linerarity.  It shifts and reorders traditional sequences and transforms the order of things." 

So how do you define cyberspace? What do you really like about the Internet, and what are the online problems that you worry most about? I'd really love to hear your thoughts.

 Next time, I’ll wrap up this mini-series with some action steps we can take regarding cyberethics at home and work.