Ethical IT Behaviour as a Function of Environment

Article excerpt

Background

At the 2003 Informing Science conference in Pori, Finland, a South African and an Australian researcher first met and started a conversation about a topic that they are mutually interested in, namely ethical behaviour in the world of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). During the exchange of information about their respective countries and cultures, the topic of the security and crime situation in South Africa took centre stage. When told that South African airport officials search passengers returning from other countries for illegal copies of music CD's and brand name goods as they enter the country, the Australian researcher exclaimed: "It is ironic that, in a country where people are murdered, hijacked, raped and viciously attacked by the hour, there is still room to worry about ethical issues such as the illegal copying of music CD's!"

A philosophical question was posed as to what extent ethical IT behaviour might be a function of environment and to what extent the country of origin and residence might influence ethically bound decisions. This question was then specifically related to ethical decisions made by IT students at the universities represented by the two researchers. At that moment a collaborative research project was conceptualised, and now after a visit to Australia and South Africa respectively, this idea will be put into practice with an investigation in both the South African and Australian context.

Introduction

South Africa and Australia are in many ways quite similar; they both have multi-cultural populations, are both in the southern hemisphere, both were ruled by Britain for many years, the weather, seasons, plants and flowers are very similar and people from both countries love sport, the outdoors and good food and wine.

Yet, in many other respects, the two countries are worlds apart and this is especially true with their respective safety and security situations. Australia, it must be remembered, was colonised predominantly by British convicts sent to the 'Australian penal colony' in order to overcome the problem of Britain's overcrowded jails, with scant regard given to its existing indigenous population. But whilst still having its own share of crime and violence, these levels pale into relative insignificance when compared to the current levels of crime and violence in South Africa. South Africa has become a country where security companies and security villages in which people are fenced in to keep criminals out, flourish. Vehicle hijacking is common with victims regarding themselves as 'lucky' if they escape from the ordeal alive, but nevertheless remaining highly traumatised. As far as ethics and morality are concerned, South Africa is a 'rudderless ship' where action plans are urgently necessary to prevent further degeneration (Hilliard & Ferreira 2000). In this environment in which Hilliard and Ferreira (2000) suggest that some people seem to find difficulty distinguishing between ethical and unethical behaviour (moral ambiguity), corruption has become a problem and they believe that the high crime rate is testament to a lack of morality in the country.

One of the main problems in the area of computer ethics is that the general public has not realised the value of ethics and IT security, even though they concern everyone involved in computing (Siponen & Kajava 1997). In order to reap the benefits of global IT processes such as ecommerce, not only must there be an agreed level of legal certainty and uniformity, as any legal framework can only complement the trust relationship that is at the heart of all commercial transactions (Farhoomand & Lovelock 2001).

"A code of ethics is necessary to good business in that it allows business transactions to take place in an atmosphere of mutual trust". (Stearns, 1981, p26).

In his work discussing the relationships between international meta-teams Fernandez (2003) suggests that ultimately it is not important what levels of trust exist between various organisations, but that it is important to balance trust against the controls that must be imposed within those relationships. …