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Internet Governance

Thinking About Ethics in the Internet Space!

On May 15, 2013, a workshop entitled “Ethics in the Information Society” took place as part of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) Forum, hosted by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The workshop was organized by Globethics.net, a “worldwide ethics network with the aim to ensure that people in all regions of the world are empowered to reflect and act on ethical issues”. Globethics.net has produced a discussion paper, entitled: “Ethics in the Information Society: the Nine ‘P’s”, which was also meant to be the focus of the workshop’s discussions.

As it normally happens, the discussion ended up being more general, instead of focusing on the Globethics.net discussion paper. (This blog post does not seek to comment on the discussion paper). The panel comprised of Dr. Stephen Brown of the World Association for Christian Communication, Mr. Walter Fust, President of the Board of Foundation of Globethics.net, Mr. Jonathan Leighton, an Ethicist and Communications Consultant, and myself and reflected on the role of ethics within the Internet space.

Each one of us came from a different background offering a different perspective, which indicated early on that views on ethics are as diverse as the Internet itself and that there are not ‘one-size fits all’ ethical considerations.

I am not an ethicist. The point that I made, however, is that it is perhaps premature to start discussing ethics considering that their subjective nature makes them a rather contentious issue. Ethics relate to political, legal and cultural considerations and, even if we agree on the fact that there can be an objective account of ethics that is premised on justice, fairness and equality, we are still faced with the subjective interpretation of what these standards mean. For such a realization, I think one does not need to be an ethicist. So, I turned to technology.

What I tried to convey to the participants what that the Internet technology and platforms are based on some ethical considerations: the fact that everyone should have access to the Internet, the fact that the Internet does not distinguish who participates in its social construction and technological evolution (equality of participation), the principle that there should not be any discrimination in relation to the services available to users (the end-to-end principle) and the Internet’s paradigm of open standards are invaluable principles, which reflect ethical propositions.

What makes this approach, I feel, more sustainable in the context of Internet ethics, is the fact that these considerations are not subjective – these are the principles under which the Internet was originally built. And, we are fortunate that the ethical standards of the Internet’s architects reflected such ideals that have subsequently been transposed to the architecture of the Internet.

So, I wouldn’t say that I am against ethics on the Internet. But given the existing cultural relativism, which is magnified in the Internet space and the close nexus ethics share with subjectivity, I think that, first and foremost, we should be drawing our ethical parameters from the way the Internet was constructed and designed. And, we will be pleasantly surprised to discover how technology can provide assistance to understanding and delineating ethical parameters.