Ethical principles are very general in nature. InÂ putting ethics into practice, there are always exceptionsÂ and conflicts, so-called â€œethical dilemmas.â€
To illustrate the nature of an ethical dilemma,Â consider the following questions that relate to theÂ copying/selling/distribution of software:
- Is it acceptable to buy a software product, andÂ then to install it twice?
- How about if you install it, then give it to aÂ friend for personal use?
- Alternatively, what if you install it and use a CD writer to create 100 copiesâ€”and sell them forÂ 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 noÂ â€œcorrectâ€ answers to these questions. Legally, it dependsÂ on the jurisdiction where you live and work.Â Ethically, it depends on the specific cultural and socialÂ circumstances of the environment in which youÂ live and work.
The wide application of IT and the pervasive natureÂ of the Internet have created many opportunitiesÂ for activities that some people may judge to be unethical.Â Here are some more sample dilemmas from aÂ selection of application areas:
- Does a company have the right to read its employeesâ€™Â e-mail?
- Does a company have the right to monitor theÂ Web sites that its employees visit from companyÂ computers?
- Does an employee have the duty to its ownersÂ (stockholders) to use company resources only forÂ company purposes/business?Â
- Does an employee have the duty to report theÂ misuse of company resources?
- Does an individual have the right to data privacy?
- Does an individual have the duty to ensure thatÂ personal data held about him or her is at all timesÂ accurate and up-to-date?
- Does a software developer have the right to useÂ disclaimers to minimize or eliminate responsibilityÂ for software failures?
- Does an end-user have the duty to respect the intellectualÂ property vested in a productâ€”by notÂ decompiling and modifying it, even if the purposeÂ is to improve the product?
- Does a data subject (e.g., member of the public)Â have the right to access and to correct dataÂ records held by government agencies and departmentsÂ (e.g., police, anticorruption agencies,Â taxing agencies)?
- Does a data user (e.g., the government) have theÂ duty to ensure that it responds promptly to dataÂ subjectsâ€™ requests for access to that data?
From this selection of questions, two key issuesÂ emerge:
- The fact that rights must be balanced by duties
- The lack of concrete â€œcorrectâ€ answers, due toÂ legal and ethical differences in different societies
The appropriate relationship between rights andÂ duties is clearly critical. Any understanding of this relationshipÂ will be Â informed by social and cultural circumstances.Â For example, the concept of individualÂ privacy is more developed in Europe and in NorthÂ America than in Southeast Asia, where current culturalÂ (and political) systems favor the benefits to society
rather than the individual. Similarly, privacyÂ laws are far more developed in some jurisdictionsÂ (Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong)Â than in others (China, Mexico).
Issues that are generally considered to fall under theÂ umbrella of information technology ethics are theÂ following:
- Codes of ethics
- Intellectual property rights (primarily digitalÂ property, such as software, films and music, butÂ also trademarks, patents, blueprints, and books)
- Accountability (for actions or nonactions)
- Personal and data privacy (including â€œdataveillance,â€Â electronic monitoring, and data accuracyÂ and accessibility)
- Freedom of speech versus censorship
- Ownership of information