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New computer technologies for gathering, storing, manipulating, and communicating data are revolutionizing the use and spread of information. Along the way, they are also creating ethical dilemmas. The speed and efficiency of electronic information systems, which include local and global networks, databases, and programs for processing information, force people to confront entirely new rights and responsibilities in their use of information and to reconsider standards of conduct shaped before the advent of computers.
The Importance of Ethics in Information Systems
Information is a source of power and, increasingly, the key to prosperity among those with access to it. Consequently, developments in information systems also involve social and political relationships-- and so make ethical considerations in how information is used all the more important. Electronic systems now reach into all levels of government, into the workplace, and into private lives to such an extent that even people without access to these systems are affected in significant ways by them. New ethical and legal decisions are necessary to balance the needs and rights of everyone.
Ethics Fill the Gap as Legal Decisions Lag Behind Technology
As in other new technological arenas, legal decisions lag behind technical developments. Ethics fill the gap as people negotiate how use of electronic information should proceed. The following notes define the broad ethical issues now being negotiated. Since laws deciding some aspects of these issues have been made, these notes should be read in conjunction with Legal Issues in Electronic Information Systems.
Ethical Issues Specific to Electronic Information Systems
Ethics include moral choices made by individuals in relation to the rest of the community, standards of acceptable behavior, and rules governing members of a profession. The broad issues relating to electronic information systems include control of and access to information, privacy and misuse of data, and international considerations. All of these extend to electronic networks, electronic databases, and, more specifically, to geographic information systems. Specific problems within each of the three areas, however, require slightly different kinds of ethical decisions. Networks, electronic information systems in general, and geographic information systems in particular are discussed separately below.
Networks as Sources of Power
Electronic networks were first established as a reliable means of communication and as a means for exchanging information efficiently, but they have become much more. Large networks represent new sources of power. In order to create reliability and efficiency in communication, networks were structured so that the movement of information would not depend on --and could not be controlled by--another person or computer. As a result, the larger networks have become anarchic. Ordinary people with relatively few resources can communicate ideas and information, however uncommon, unpopular, or politically sensitive those ideas or information may be, to millions of other people around the world. No government, no hierarchical system exerting either repressive or benign influence, not even the simple constraints of time and money, will have quite the same control they once had over the flow of information as long as the networks operate as they now do. For some people, the networks therefore contain exciting possibilities; for others they have become a threatening, even subversive, new presence.
Networks as Social Places
Networks have also become social places, where people discover friendships, discuss issues, find others who share unusual interests, argue, form groups, commiserate, proselytize, play games, and fall in love. These activities have brought comparisons with more traditional communities, villages, or places. One essayist, Ray Oldenburg, has referred to the networks as a new sort of "Third Place," where people gather for conviviality, apart from home and work (First and Second Places). He theorizes that the networks may replace opportunities for social interaction lost in the modern world of suburbs, express highways, and shopping malls. Other writers are more cautious and when talking about the sociability of the networks use qualified terms : virtual communities or virtual villages, for instance. Such terms acknowledge the differences inherent in the kinds of interactions that take place over computer networks. A lack of face-to-face contact, for instance, has a leveling effect. Race, class, gender, and physical appearance are hidden, allowing interaction that is relatively free from all the subtle biases that usually accompany more direct human relations. On the other hand, this virtual anonymity allows interaction without any sort of commitment; the sense of shared responsibility that people must have in a real community does not necessarily exist on the Internet.
New Funding Sources Mean New Ethical Issues
Nonetheless, the networks have attracted loyal participants who recognize the value of what has been created in this new form of human interaction and who put a great deal of thought into the future character and uses of the networks. Electronic networks are becoming more common and their influence more pervasive but they are also changing under the influence of people and institutions who are relatively new to the networks. Funding, once almost exclusively public, now comes increasingly from private, or commercial, sources, and this change in funding will also mean changes in ideas about the proper uses of the networks and the nature of interaction on them. Recognition of the power and potential of electronic networks has created some hotly contested issues. These range from relatively simple questions of proper behavior and use within them to more important questions of political power, control of communications, equality of access, and privacy.
On the Internet,several essays on the nature and possibilities of the networks have appeared. Here are just a few:
Issues of acceptable behavior in the networks include simple standards
of civility to questions of rights and responsibilities in distributing
information that have not yet been clarified in law.
Netiquette, or on-line civility, is a matter of common sense and of remembering the context of behavior. The Internet's emphasis on free expression, for instance, has meant that what might be considered rude elsewhere will often be tolerated on various networks in order to protect the principles of individual expression. Groups discuss every conceivable subject, obscenities flow on some parts of the Internet, pornography flourishes. Some people make a game of verbally hassling one another. Rather than squashing individuality with broad regulations, system administrators have so far tended to referee or negotiate specific situations in which conflicts occur. However, activities that would be questionable off the networks should be approached with some judgment and kept to the parts of the networks (in bulletin boards established for a specific purpose, for instance) where those who would be offended can avoid them.
Some Activities That Will Offend
Specific activities that do offend most network users usually occur when the capacities of computers for allowing rapid, efficient communication and for giving access to other people's systems are misused. So, for instance, sending a rambling message to everyone with an e-mail address at the local state university is not considered appropriate even though computers make sending such a message relatively effortless. Unsolicited advertising is especially resented and will get an equally unsolicited reaction. In one case, a law firm's efforts to advertise over the Usenet prompted one young man in Norway to launch a cancelbot, a message that automatically destroyed the firm's transmissions every time it sent out an advertisement. He was applauded by other Usenet participants, although his actions did raise concerns about wider use of arbitrary censorship.
Some simple guidelines to on-line civil behavior follow:
The networks that collectively form the Internet have different purposes, and they allow different kinds of traffic to pass through them. People who communicate across various networks must learn what they are allowed to do on each. Networks established for research and education, for instance, forbid most commercial activities. These restrictions now exist largely because research and education networks are supported with public funds. In the future, however, more and more of the Internet will be supported by private money. Commercial uses will become a more prominent feature of the Internet. Many researchers who now use the Internet worry about the change from public to private support. They see commercial activities, especially advertising, as intrusions on the time and attention of people at work. The level of hostility toward such activities runs high, so how commercial and research or education uses will mix is not yet clear even as public funding becomes uncertain.
Written Policies Outline Permissions and Restrictions
Various networks have produced written statements outlining what sort of traffic they permit. Many simply state the purpose of the network in question and restrict users to that purpose. Most explicitly forbid disruptive, frivolous, illegal, and obscene communications, along with any form of harassment. Others simply try to balance free exchange of information, in the spirit of the Internet, with concern about unfair uses of what they have so freely provided.
Policies from NSFNET and Others
The National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), which supports research and education in US institutions and which is funded through the federal government, currently has one of the strictest acceptable use policies on the Internet. In general, the NSFNET policy limits use to activities in "support of research and education." It specifically forbids for-profit use and personal or private business.
Electronic files can be sent around the world in seconds and without physical restriction, which might lead people to think that other restrictions on them do not exist. Yet export regulations from the U.S. Department of Commerce do apply in electronic networks. To make matters more complex, export restrictions vary for different destination countries. As a rule, the people transferring files over networks are responsible for knowing and applying legal restrictions. Unfortunately, people sending files across national borders often are left without clear legal guidelines for specific situations because export law has not kept pace with the movement of information across electronic networks. . Networks which allow people from remote locations to log-in and use information or computer systems stored on computers within the U.S. have created even more complex problems, and have left network operators with little clear guidance. There are, however, some general principles to follow.
Some General Principles to Follow
For the most part, information commonly and freely available from U.S. periodicals, books, conferences, libraries, or university courses falls under general license, which means it may be transferred to other countries without further permission. What is restricted in electronic information, which may include data, software, machine readable code, encryption code, and so on, is more difficult to define. The following examples, though hardly comprehensive, illustrate some of the difficulties encountered when export laws are applied to electronic networks.
In one case, the government ruled that a source code for an encryption device already published in a book--a book not restricted from export--could not be distributed across national borders through a computer network because the code in digital format represented a different form of information. The source code in the new format was partitioned into files which, the government stated, could be "compiled into an executable subroutine."
For more detailed information on the export of encryption codes, and
on the example summarized above, see the Cryptography
Export Control Archives.
When BITNET in 1990 decided to link into the Soviet Union, a letter from the U.S. Office of Technology and Policy Analysis reminded BITNET's operators that they could not allow open, international access to certain types of systems. The same letter pointed out that exporting certain kinds of software by file transfer over the network would require special licenses. A second letter informed the BITNET operators of their responsibility to maintain a vaguely defined "level of care" in making sure that the network's members were not exporting materials illegally while using BITNET.
The fluidity of information on the networks has caused some confusion about how copyrights and intellectual property rights apply to electronic files. In the relatively small world of the original network users, an emphasis on free exchange of information and a common understanding of intellectual property allayed most potential conflicts over use of information. Now, as the networks grow larger and attract a broader range of people, some clarification of how electronic files may be used is becoming necessary. The ease with which electronic files can be distributed and the nature of some electronic information create problems within existing copyright law: either the law does not address the peculiarities of electronic information or the law is too easily subverted by the ease with which files can be copied and transferred. Similar problems have arisen with photocopy machines, VCRs, and tape recorders. To make matters more complex, other countries may have different copyright laws, so information made available globally through a network may not have the same protections in other places.
Existing U.S. Copyright Law Provides Some Guidance
While the law does not always provide clear guidelines to rights and responsibilities even within the U.S., a familiarity with basic existing copyright principles should keep most network users on ethical grounds.
Any work with a copyright, therefore, should not be distributed or reproduced on networks without permission of the author. This application of copyright law is fairly straightforward, but the question now becomes, who is responsible for enforcing copyright protection on the networks? The federal High Performance Computing Act of 1991 holds the National Research and Education Network (NREN) responsible for protecting the copyrights of materials distributed on that network. But NREN administrators point out that the requirement is unenforceable. The network does not provide information, rather it provides links between networks and routes or relays information packets. The people at NREN propose instead that their role as carrier and the role of information services should be separated in the law, with responsibility for copyright protections going to the information services. They suggest that technical means, such as digital markers identifying the holder of a file copy and subscription fees to information services, be used to regulate the distribution and use of materials with copyrights.
How is Work Created on a Network Protected?
The principles of copyright laws apply easily to work not created in an electronic file. But what about "original work" that is created within a network? The law applies in sometimes surprising ways, and users should think about copyrights before distributing or reproducing work created by another person. For instance:
E-mail is protected by copyright. Information received in e-mail may
be discussed, but the specific contents of e-mail have copyright protection.
Usenet postings may also be protected. These may be read and discussed
by however many people have access to the Usenet, but they cannot be reproduced
and distributed in any way that may diminish the author's ability to profit
from the original work--however farfetched such profit may seem. One author
has brought up an interesting question concerning network postings. John
Coate asks, "does the fact that anything you say in an on-line system
can be downloaded and printed out by anyone who happens to read it create
a different class of reproduction than quoting without permission from
a commercial publication? If a journalist quotes something from an on-line
system and they don't obtain permission, did they steal it, or did they
overhear it in a conversation?" Coate's answer is that whatever seems like
"fair use" probably is, but he also points out that actual control of such
use is impossible and that good manners are "critically important."
Computer programs, which might appear to be ideas, procedures, systems, or devices, may be registered as "literary works" under the law, and therefore receive copyright protection.
One of the major issues in electronic networks is the question of access: who will have access to the networks, and what kinds of information will be accessible. These questions are important because networks offer tremendous economic, political, and even social advantages to people who have access to them. As the networks become a larger presence in society, conflicts may arise between information "haves" and "have-nots." Conceivably, network communication could create greater equality by offering common access to all resources for all citizens. Already, in a few places scattered around the country, experiments with "freenets," network connections established through local libraries or other municipal or local organizations specifically for people who otherwise would have no way to use the networks, have shown that those people will, for instance, participate more in local government issues. They therefore have a greater voice in whatever happens with local government. Conversely, if access is not evenly distributed, it threatens to perpetuate or deepen existing divides between the poor, who cannot afford expensive computer systems, and the better-off.
Three key aspects of the issue are in debate.
Countering questions of rights to access are questions of privacy. The degree of control that people have over what other people can find out and distribute about them has dropped markedly with the growth of electronic databases and network communications. The amount and kinds of personal information available as a result of both technologies is startling: financial, medical, educational and employment histories; driving records, insurance records, buying habits, hobbies, pets, family and associates, travels, phone usage--where and when, income, marital status, criminal records, address changes, and so on, can all be accessed through electronic networks. In 1986, the Electronics Communication Privacy Act (ECPA) passed by Congress gave some protection from electronic violations of privacy, but a great deal of room for abuse persists. Individuals, companies, and the government have all pushed existing barriers to what they can know about other people, even at times bringing into question the protections of the American Bill of Rights. New laws may eventually add some protection, but are not the only answer. Some people, such as Curtis Karnow, point out that laws often do not fit the fast-moving cyberspace culture, and often cannot be enforced since infringements may not be detectable or even stoppable. People like Karnow suggest instead that evolving social norms and technological shields will offer better protection as the networks grow and become more powerful.
Challenges to Privacy by Government: Access to Databases
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be used to create data mosaics
and so may share some of the potential problems of other database systems.
But GIS also have specific capabilities and characteristics which come
with their own ethical dilemmas. As well as their database functions and
mapping features, GIS can perform spatial analysis and so create entirely
new sets of data. The data gathered and created by public agencies have
become increasingly valuable and attractive to a wide range of people and
businesses. Because GIS are often operated by local, state, and federal
agencies--organizations with the resources to run such costly systems--conflicts
have arisen over rights to access. Three types of existing conflicts are
outlined below. The first provides the general terms of the majority of
conflicts over access; the last two examples point out more specialized
cases of conflicting interests.
GIS are used extensively by local, state, and federal agencies. Often government agencies share a Geographic Information System in order to also share costs, to prevent redundancies in storing information, and to make the system overall more useful. These agencies must find a balance between effectively sharing information and preserving the integrity of any private records they hold.
Access to Public Information vs. Privacy
This required balance between effective access and preservation of privacy has become an even greater problem when the demands of private citizens or companies enter the equation. Government agencies are publicly owned, and they are required by law to give open access to the information they hold. The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (FOIA) mandates public access in order to ensure accountability and prevent corruption. While it makes some allowances for preservation of privacy and for national security, the FOIA, along with the Open Records acts of the various states, contains a series of rules which prevent agencies from creating obstacles to access. The ability to preserve privacy of citizens, and of companies who have some involvement with governmental agencies, becomes increasingly difficult as the ability to manipulate and store information grows. Complicating the picture is the ability of systems like GIS to create entirely new data out of old information, which may then indirectly reveal information that is supposed to be private.
Access to Public Information vs. New Demands on Public Agencies
The GIS operated by governmental agencies, meanwhile, have become so powerful and the information they produce so valuable that ever greater demands are made for the information they hold. The intent of the FOIA and Open Records acts was specifically to ensure governmental accountability; but the nature and volume of demands for access to public records held in public Geographic Information Systems as well as other powerful electronic formats, is creating a burden on public agencies for purposes of private profit. People or corporations who find information held by public agencies economically valuable will demand access based on Open Records or FOIA statutes. At the same time, not all citizens have the means or training to use digital formats, which may create obstacles to their access. And to make matters even more complex, some private companies make their living from "value-added" information, from manipulating, arranging, or analyzing data in such a way that it becomes more valuable for specific kinds of information users. These companies find dissemination of value-added information by publicly-funded agencies to be unfair and in conflict with their private interests. The inability of laws like the FOIA, which were created before the advent of intangible computer records, to cope with electronic information has thus created a myriad of problems, even as computers have become essential new tools. Some of the problems already encountered by federal, state and local agencies are outlined below:
What's a public record? What are agencies required to provide?
What's a reasonable search?
The FOIA states that agencies must only make "reasonable" searches for requested information, in order to prevent burdensome requests; but what is a reasonable search? The definition of reasonable becomes broader with the efficiencies of electronic information, but by how much? The answer must balance traditional rights to access with the burden that would be placed on public agencies should the definition of "reasonable" be made too broad.
May user fees be charged?
How should agencies balance their traditional mandates with meeting the requirements of the FOIA and Open Records acts? Electronic searching for requested information under FOIA rules raises new staffing and budgetary problems. Staff must be trained in computer skills, for instance, or an agency with particularly valuable information may find itself overwhelmed with requests for public information. User fees are generally considered an obstacle to access; so where do agencies draw the line on providing information? Some agencies may simply stop creating particularly useful information systems in order to avoid the problem, and so concentrate on their own mandates.
Must agencies provide records on paper or in digital format?
Some people cannot use information in digital formats; some records have no practical use when provided on paper--too much data is needed to be handled on anything but a computer, for instance. How can the government legislate which records must be provided in which format? As with all of the conflicts listed above, government agencies must find ways to preserve traditional rights and to maintain traditional responsibilities as new technologies create fundamental differences in how information is treated.
Some of the sources for the section on GIS and Electronic Databases are listed below.
Last revised 2000.3.27. LNC.