Review of "CyberEthics", by Richard Spinello

Spinello believes that "morality must be the ultimate regulator of cyberspace that sets the boundaries for activities and policies". Unfortunately, finding the root of that morality is the key problem with ethics online. Spinello introduces the reader to a number of philosophical ideas that might assist with an attempt to define online ethics. He offers utilitarianism, contractarianism, natural law, moral duty or pluralism, and principilism.

Each of these schools of thought give us some guidance, but they are all flawed in some way. For example, Kant's pluralism is too rigid for general use, especially online. Pluralism states that if a maxim contradicts itself when made into a universal law, it is morally forbidden. This philosophy breaks when there is a lack of universal constants. Online, a maxim that could be always true in one country could break when applied to another country. The diversity of the cultures and ideas represented online inhibit universal morality.

Spinello tries to apply philosophical tracts to cyberspace by picking and choosing the best ideas from various schools of thought. On top of this, he adds Lawrence Lessig's four constraints that regulate behavior in cyberspace: law, norms, the market, and code. Thought at times one of these may influence people's behavior more than the others, all must be considered when attempting to understand user's behavior. Of these four, code (software and technology) is the most remarkable to Spinello. When considering free speech, intellectual property, privacy, and information security, code is what truly defines what is capable online.

Code has a great deal of power. It defines what users can do, but does not have to confine them to the rules of law, norms, or the market. A single programmer can introduce a new way of using the Internet just by having an idea and introducing it to others. When other software is limiting, someone will attempt to create new code that will enable a new feature or capability. Code can also be used to inhibit or restrict people's actions. Censorware is used to restrict what people can see or do online. Databases can be merged and programed to find correlations between diseparate sources of information leading to a potential loss of privacy. The ability to access, copy, or modify intellectual property is constricted by the software made available by corporations and individuals.

Laws can say people have rights to certain information or rights to limit personal information diseminated to others. Since code can be created independent of these laws, and since it is trivial to distribute that code to anywhere and anyone online, code can supercede law. For example, Microsoft Office, a businees productivity suite, is used all around the world. Though Microsoft does need to worry about local laws, norms, and markets to ensure their product will sell, the way information is created, modified, and exchanged is more strongly defined by their software. The workflow and way of thinking about a task for a person in one country can be the same as a person in another country, even where there are different laws, norms, or markets. People will change the way they work to conform to the way a popular software package runs.

Another example of code superceding other constraints lies with online filesharing. Copyright law is being argued and scrutinized because software became available to make online filesharing a trivial process. Parallel to this debate, the software also changed the way people collaborate and share all information (not just material that is subject to intellectual property debates).

Though the code for online filesharing has been very influential, there are still ethical issues that remain ambiguous. Intellectual property owners and consumers each have of rights under the law. Even so, the question of whether it is is right or wrong to use someone else's intellectual property in certain ways varies from culture to culture and from one philosophical school to another. Without an objective frame of reference for defining right and wrong, any attempt to apply laws to cyberspace will be undermined by other, conflicting laws and norms. Code will be the primary agent for that subversion.

New models of governence and lawmaking will have to be applied to the Internet if we wish to create universal laws, norms, markets, and code. As with each philosphy discussed by Spinello, different models of governence each have positive and negative aspects. It is important to note, though, that as with laws, norms, markets, and code, one size does not fit all, and different cultures or groups will have different requirements and morals than others. Any model of governence must take this into account and be flexible enough to accomodate small scale abberations.

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All contents Copyright 2004, Daniel Adinolfi.