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What is Internet Ethics?

Irina Raicu, director of Internet Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, explores the role the internet plays in the development of the good life. She addresses privacy, net neutrality, access, big data, and other topics.

Irina Raicu

What do we talk about when we talk about "Internet ethics"?

We talk about the role that the Internet plays in what philosophers describe as the good life.

We talk about justice, rights, consequences, the balancing of good and harm, virtue, and the common good-as they manifest themselves in the digital part of our world.

We talk about old questions (Does anonymous communication hurt or help society?), new questions (Is Internet access a human right?), and old questions applied to new contexts (Is it wrong to use a neighbor's unprotected wi-fi without permission?).

We talk about privacy, big data, bots, social media, net neutrality, surveillance (both mass and not), search engines, energy use, cyberbullying, the "right to be forgotten," sexuality, online comments, cybersecurity, democracy, community, apps, gender, commerce, hacking, encryption, selfies, databases, law, law enforcement, civics, smart cities, spam, accountability, "slacktivism," the cloud, emoji, gamification, sentiment analysis, crowdfunding, hashtags, APIs, crowdsourcing, research, culture, code, recycling, MOOCs, and cookies.

We talk about decisions made about the building, maintenance, and governance of the Internet.

We ask, "Yes, you can, but should you?"

We ask, "It may not be illegal, but is it the right thing to do?"

We ask how we should figure out what the right thing to do is, and we look for ways to make better decisions.

We ask, "Will this produce the most good and the least harm?" "Does this respect the rights of all of the relevant stakeholders?" "Does this treat people fairly?" "Does this serve the community as a whole, not just some of its members?" "Does this lead me to act as the sort of person I want to be?"-and we apply all of those questions to Internet-related matters.




Video Transcript: What is Internet Ethics?

Internet ethics is a really broad term. It basically refers to the analysis of the role that the internet plays in what philosophers called 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. Because there's this 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 pipelines, 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.

But there are pressures against that and 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 really favored in some way and what does that mean for freedom and access to information in general.

Access to the Internet

The Markkula Center 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. And 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. So 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 school and for any other entities that deal with the broad public to consider, and to stop the assumption that I think a lot of people have now that we all have access to the internet and we can all use those resources. It's simply not true, and 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.

Irina Raicu is Internet Ethics director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Follow her on Twitter at @IEthics

May 1, 2015