Ethical Issues And Dilemmas In Information Technology Management

Ethical principles are very general in nature. In putting ethics into practice, there are always exceptions and conflicts, so-called “ethical dilemmas.”

Ethical Dilemmas

To illustrate the nature of an ethical dilemma, consider the following questions that relate to the copying/selling/distribution of software:

  • Is it acceptable to buy a software product, and then to install it twice?
  • How about if you install it, then give it to a friend for personal use?
  • Alternatively, what if you install it and use a CD writer to create 100 copies—and sell them for profit to anyone who wishes to buy?
  • What about making the software available on a Web site for others to download?
  • What about trading software on the Web (consumer to consumer)?

You may be surprised to discover that there are no “correct” answers to these questions. Legally, it depends on the jurisdiction where you live and work. Ethically, it depends on the specific cultural and social circumstances of the environment in which you live and work.

The wide application of IT and the pervasive nature of the Internet have created many opportunities for activities that some people may judge to be unethical. Here are some more sample dilemmas from a selection of application areas:

  1. Does a company have the right to read its employees’ e-mail?
  2. Does a company have the right to monitor the Web sites that its employees visit from company computers?
  3. Does an employee have the duty to its owners (stockholders) to use company resources only for company purposes/business? 
  4. Does an employee have the duty to report the misuse of company resources?
  5. Does an individual have the right to data privacy?
  6. Does an individual have the duty to ensure that personal data held about him or her is at all times accurate and up-to-date?
  7. Does a software developer have the right to use disclaimers to minimize or eliminate responsibility for software failures?
  8. Does an end-user have the duty to respect the intellectual property vested in a product—by not decompiling and modifying it, even if the purpose is to improve the product?
  9. Does a data subject (e.g., member of the public) have the right to access and to correct data records held by government agencies and departments (e.g., police, anticorruption agencies, taxing agencies)?
  10. Does a data user (e.g., the government) have the duty to ensure that it responds promptly to data subjects’ requests for access to that data?

From this selection of questions, two key issues emerge:

  1. The fact that rights must be balanced by duties
  2. The lack of concrete “correct” answers, due to legal and ethical differences in different societies

The appropriate relationship between rights and duties is clearly critical. Any understanding of this relationship will be  informed by social and cultural circumstances. For example, the concept of individual privacy is more developed in Europe and in North America than in Southeast Asia, where current cultural (and political) systems favor the benefits to society
rather than the individual. Similarly, privacy laws are far more developed in some jurisdictions (Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong) than in others (China, Mexico).

Ethical Issues

Issues that are generally considered to fall under the umbrella of information technology ethics are the following:

  • Codes of ethics
  • Intellectual property rights (primarily digital property, such as software, films and music, but also trademarks, patents, blueprints, and books)
  • Accountability (for actions or nonactions)
  • Personal and data privacy (including “dataveillance,” electronic monitoring, and data accuracy and accessibility)
  • Freedom of speech versus censorship
  • Ownership of information