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What are Online Ethics?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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The era of the Internet has introduced many new dimensions to the study and practice of ethics. Online ethics refers to patterns of behavior used when on the Internet, guided both by law and personal philosophy. The great capabilities of this communication medium allow for the potential of great harm, cruelty, and even crime. Major concerns in the field of online ethics include the protection of private information, the limits of a presumed freedom of expression, and issues of libel. Understanding legal ramifications and trusting personal philosophy used in other areas of life can help a person determine his or her online ethics.

Possibly one of the most alluring promises of the Internet is its ability to create anonymity. On discussion boards, blogs, and through various email addresses, a person can easily create dozens of personas, each accessible to different people. But one of the most pervading moral questions of online ethics regards the difference between protecting anonymity and deceiving others.

To a certain extent, withholding personal details is a wise idea on the web. Posting contact information or financial data is an unfortunate way to attract identity thieves or fraudsters, leaving the user and family members vulnerable to crime. Many social networking sites provide extensive privacy options that allow users to determine the amount of personal data visible. While protecting personal information is considered by many to be reasonable, anonymity can also shift from protective to abusive quite easily.

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A person going through a divorce, for instance, may use a false screen name or give vague details about circumstances when venting angry or hurt feelings on a discussion board for divorced people. In this case, the user may be protecting the anonymity of him or herself as well as other parties. If, however, a person uses the anonymity of the web to provide specific details about another person that could lead to possible harm, it becomes an ethical gray area.

Another major issue in online ethics is the prevalence and influence of online bullying. With social networking sites being a major part of many people’s Internet experience, an entirely new format for bullying or manipulation has arisen. In one famous news item in the online ethics age, grieving parents sought to bring charges against an adult woman for contributing to the suicide of a 13 year-old girl. According to news reports, the woman had befriended and then cut off contact with the girl through a social website under a presumed identity, purportedly to gain her trust and then hurt her feelings. Whether or not this type of action is criminal will be a question for legal systems in years to come, but whether it is ethical is hotly debated.

Generally, a commonly cited code of online ethics is to act the same way on the Internet that is personally acceptable in other areas of life. While the ability to conceal details can serve helpfully as a protective measure, when it is used to obtain or distribute information or bring about results that could not be managed without anonymity, ethical problems arise. This most basic of all online ethics conundrums dates back to Plato’s famous “Parable of the Ring,” which asks that if a person had the capability to become invisible and thereby get away with anything, would it be right to use the capability?

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Discuss this Article

iceberry6
Post 11

Online ethics wouldn't really be a problem if everybody minded their business and kept their business to themselves. People fail to realize someone always watching what you put online, so you must be careful and private.

anon956488
Post 10

You never know how bad ethical things online can be until you have already your information out for everyone to see. I think it would be smart if everyone kept their personal business to themselves until one's trust can be earned or they personally know that person who is telling them things.

anon348023
Post 8

You would never think of how dangerous the ethical online practices are, but you should be very private. On the other hand, maybe in the future this issue will be more prevalent.

anon347254
Post 7

I watched a video on a social website recently that showed how much someone can find out about you just by your Facebook or Myspace account. It showed in some cases where people got hold of credit card numbers and home alarm system codes. Be careful with these social networks. They can be fun but they can also be dangerous.

arod2b42
Post 4

To me it seems strange that internet ethics should be valued less prevalently than real world ethics. After all, much of the real world is on the internet, and there are real people on the other end of internet communications. If we could see their faces and recognize the effect that we have by our negative actions, people wouldn't be so quick to offend.

SilentBlue
Post 3

Online ethics training may become a necessary prerequisite to using the internet in the future. Banning hackers and competitive virus designers will become more and more important as transactions, home utilities, and even cars, are controlled by internet and satellite databases.

Renegade
Post 2

@BioNerd

Ethical issues on the internet will probably be solved once people start using audiovisual connections more often and can interact with people face to face from a distance. I think this will become more prevalent in the near future, and that netiquette will flourish under this kind of a setting.

BioNerd
Post 1

Unfortunately, it seems that ethical online practices are not followed very often, and people suffer from a phenomenon that is similar to driving. When someone is behind a keyboard or behind a wheel, they feel empowered and sometimes invulnerable. This allows their true nature to come out, since they are not in an open position. They feel like they can do away with common etiquette and insult others as they see fit.

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