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Chapter: Professional Ethics in Engineering : Global Issues

Computer Ethics is the Technological Background of the Society

Computers have become the technological backbone of society. Their degree of complexity, range of applications, and sheer numbers continue to increase.



Computers have become the technological backbone of society. Their degree of complexity, range of applications, and sheer numbers continue to increase. Through telecommunication networks they span the globe. Yet electronic computers are still only a few decades old, and it is difficult to foresee all the moral issues that will eventually surround them. The present state of computers is sometimes compared to that of the automobile in the early part of this century. At that time the impact of cars on work and leisure patterns, pollution, energy consumption, and sexual mores was largely unimagined. If anything, it is more difficult to envisage the eventual impact of computers because they are not limited to any one primary area of use as is a car‘s function in transportation.


It is already clear, however, that computers raise a host of difficult moral issues, many of them connected with basic moral concerns such as free speech, privacy, respect for property, informed consent, and harm.1 To evaluate and deal with these issues, a new area of applied ethics called computer ethics has sprung up. Computer ethics has special importance for the new groups of professionals emerging with computer technology, for example, designers of computers, programmers, systems analysts, and operators. To the extent that engineers design, manufacture, and apply computers, computer ethics is a branch of engineering ethics. But the many professionals who use and control computers share the responsibility for their applications.


Some of the issues in computer ethics concern shifts in power relationships resulting from the new capacities of computers. Other issues concern property, and still others are about invasions of privacy. All these issues may involve ―computer abuse‖: unethical or illegal conduct in which computers play a central role (whether as instruments or objects).


The Internet and Free Speech:


The Internet has magnified all issues in computer ethics. The most powerful communication technology ever developed, and a technology used daily by hundreds of millions of people, the Internet gained widespread use only during the 1990s. Its modest beginning, or forerunner, came from a simple idea of J. C. R. Licklider.2 Licklider was a psychologist who had wide interests in the newly emerging computer technology. In 1960 he conceived of a human-computer symbiosis in which the powers of humans and computers were mutually enhancing.3 The breadth of his vision, together with his administrative skills, led to his appointment a few years later as the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defence. He quickly saw that the variety of computer-involved military projects was becoming a Tower of Babel, and he wrote a revolutionary memo calling for a move toward a unified communication system. In 1969, ARPA funded projects in universities and corporations that created an ARPA network, or ARPANET.


In the 1980s, some universities developed their own communications networks, and their eventual merging with ARPANET became the Internet, which is now a global network of networks, initially using the infrastructure of the telephone system and now carried by many telecommunication systems by wire, fibre, or wireless systems. The World Wide Web (Web), which is a service run on the Internet, emerged from the Hypertext Mark-up Language and transfer protocol developed at the European particle physics lab and is used in a multimedia format of text, pictures, sound, and video. During the early 1990s, the Web was opened to business, e-mail, and other uses that continue to expand.


It is now clear to all that the Internet provides a wellspring of new ways to be in contact with other people and with sources of information. It has also created greater convenience in ordering consumer items, paying bills, and trading stocks and bonds. Like other major ―social experiments,‖ it also has raised a host of new issues. One set of issues centres on free speech, including control of obscene forms of pornography, hate speech, spam (unwanted commercial speech), and libel. In a wide sense, pornography is sexually explicit material intended primarily for sexual purposes (as distinct, say, from medical education). Obscene pornography is pornography that is immoral or illegal in many countries, and is not protected in the United States by the First Amendment rights to free speech. U.S. laws define obscenity as sexually explicit materials that appeal to sexual interests, lack serious literary, artistic, scientific, or other value, and are offensive to reasonable persons as judged by a community‘s standards. Needless to say, there is considerable disagreement about what this means, and the definition is relative to communities that might have differing standards.


At the same time, there is wide agreement that child pornography and extremely violent and degrading portrayals of women are obscene, and most local communities have attempted to control them. The Internet has made such control extremely difficult, as images and texts can be transmitted easily from international sources to a child‘s home computer. There are now hundreds of thousands of pornographic Web sites, with hundreds more created each day, many of which contain obscene material. Hate speech, unlike obscenity, is not forbidden constitutionally. Not surprisingly, then, the Internet has become a powerful resource for racist and anti-Semitic groups to spread their messages. Those messages were heard, for example, by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who massacred their fellow students at Columbine High School in 1999. And there is no question that this most powerful medium makes it much easier for hate groups to organize and expand.

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