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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What is Internet Ethics?

This article is a transcript of the video What Is Internet Ethics? In the video, Irina Raicu, director of Internet Ethics, discusses topics such as privacy, big data, net neutrality, and internet access.

Internet ethics is a really broad term. It basically refers to the analysis of the role that the internet plays in what philosophers call the development of the good life - the kind of life that we want for ourselves, for society over all, the kinds of people we want to be. Is the internet playing a positive role in the development of that kind of life or is it hampering us in some way?

And there are a lot of issues that fall under that umbrella. Everything from the role that social media plays in the creation of human relationships, to privacy, to net neutrality, to the whole question of who has and doesn't have access to the internet, to the development of the big data ecosystem, the kind of data that's collected, by whom and about whom, and for what purposes. There are a variety of questions that fall under that term and increasingly new questions because the internet has some connection to every aspect of our lives.


One of the most interesting ethical questions on internet ethics revolves around privacy online. Can the internet continue to be a medium that invites creativity and freedom of expression and freedom of sharing information across borders even as it's becoming a tool of mass surveillance, either from corporate entities or from governments or from both?

Increasingly we find that people are concerned that their personal data is being collected and stored and used in a variety of ways that they're not really aware of, that they don't want to have used against them, or in ways that they don't anticipate, and it's becoming really a problem for what had been a fantastic way to allow people to communicate.

Big Data

One of the phenomena that the rise of the internet has led to is the collection and analysis of big data, which raises fascinating ethical questions about who or what the data is being collected about, who's being left out of that kind of data collection, who makes the decisions about what is being done with that data, and how much we can rely on it. There's aan air of objectivity and completeness about this data that turns out to be misleading, and at the same time we are relying on it as this objective source of truth on a very widespread societal level.

We allow big data now to impact the decisions we make about who goes to prison, who gets bail, who gets a job, who gets insurance, what kind of majors people might go into in college. And it's fascinating to see a kind of maturing of the field and big data proponents and analysts themselves finding out that they have a much greater responsibility than they had initially realized.

Net Neutrality

One of the ethical principles behind the development of the internet has been net neutrality, the idea that the controllers of the pipelines of the internet will not be able to pick and choose between the kinds of content that's available, that everything will be able to flow freely.

And increasingly that's being challenged as the companies that really run those pipelines try to find ways to benefit or to encourage the consumption of some content more than others. And there are regulators getting involved and there are civil libertarians and civic groups trying to argue that we want to have this impartial, neutral, internet conduit.

That will be one of the really interesting issues to watch: whether the internet continues to be a sort of neutral playground for communication and transfer of information or whether some content is  favored in some way.  What does that mean for freedom and access to information in general?

Access to the Internet

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics is in the heart of Silicon Valley, and even here in Silicon Valley there are people who don't have access to the internet or who have very limited access only via their phones, or not through broadband. We hear stories about students having to sit in their cars outside of McDonald's or some other place that offers free Wi-Fi.

We need to ask whether internet access should be seen as a human right, especially in our society, in our culture. The fact that there are still vast numbers of people across the U.S. who have to struggle with this is an ethical imperative for the government and for corporations and for schools and for any other entities that deal with the broad public to consider.  We should stop assuming that we all have access to the internet and that we can all use those resources. It's simply not true.  The ethical question of how we create equality in a country where so much is dependent on the internet and so many people don't have access to it is really important.

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