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.
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?