Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Cyberethics as an Interdisciplinary Field of Applied Ethics: Key Concepts, Perspectives, and Methodological Frameworks *

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Cyberethics as an Interdisciplinary Field of Applied Ethics: Key Concepts, Perspectives, and Methodological Frameworks *

Article excerpt

1. What Is Cyberethics? Some Basic Definitions and a Brief Historical Sketch

Cyberethics is a field of applied ethics that examines moral, legal, and social issues involving cybertechnology. As such, cyberethics analyzes the impact that cybertechnology has on our social, legal, and moral systems. It also evaluates the social policies and laws that have been framed in response to issues generated by the development and use of cybertechnology. Thus an adequate analysis of cyberethics requires an understanding of what is meant by the term "cybertechnology."

Cybertechnology refers to a wide range of computing and communications devices, from stand-alone computers to "connected" or networked computing and communications technologies.1 These technologies include, but need not be limited to, electronic hand-held devices, personal computers (desktops and laptops), mainframe computers, and so forth. Networked devices can be connected directly to the Internet or they can be connected to other devices through one or more privately owned computer networks such as LANs (Local Area Networks) and WANs (Wide Area Networks). Unlike privately owned WANs and LANs, the Internet-i.e., the network of interconnected computer networks- is generally considered to be a "public network." It is public in the sense that much of the information available resides in "public space" and is thus available to anyone.2 Although Internet-related technologies are perhaps the most common and well-known examples of cybertechnology, it is important to reiterate that cybertechnology includes the entire range of computing systems- from stand-alone computers to privately owned networks to the Internet itself. Thus, cyberethics analyzes moral, legal, and social issues affecting all of these technologies.

The field of cyberethics has evolved significantly from its informal and humble beginnings in the late 1940s-a time when some analysts confidently predicted that no more than six computers would ever need to be built. Although still a relatively young field, cyberethics has matured to a point where scholarly articles about its historical development have recently appeared in books and journals.3 We can briefly sketch the evolution of the field in terms of four distinct technological phases.4 In Phase 1 (1950s and 1960s), computing technology consisted mainly of huge mainframe computers that were "unconnected" or stand-alone machines. One set of ethical and social concerns that arose during this phase could be catalogued under the heading "privacy threats and the fear of Big Brother." For example, some citizens feared that the U.S. government would set up a national database in which extensive amounts of personal information about its citizens could be stored as electronic records. Some also feared that the government would use that information to monitor and control the actions of ordinary citizens. Although net- worked computers had not yet come on to the scene, work on the ARPANET- the Internet's predecessor-had begun in the mid-1960s.5

In Phase 2 (1970s and 1980s), communications devices were integrated in computing machines, which resulted in an era of computer/communications networks. In this phase, mainframe computers, minicomputers, microcomputers, and personal computers could be linked together, or connected, by way of one or more privately owned computer networks (e.g., LANs and WANs). As a result, information could readily be exchanged between and among databases accessible to networked computers. Ethical issues associated with this phase of computing included concerns involving personal privacy, intellectual property, and computer crime. Computer-related privacy concerns were exacerbated in Phase 2 because electronic records containing personal and confidential information, which were be stored in computer databases, could now be easily exchanged between two or more commercial databases. Concerns about intellectual property emerged because personal computers could be used to duplicate proprietary software programs (including computer games, word processors, etc. …

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