Cyber Ethics - What Are Ethics? ...


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Cyber Ethics 101: What Are (Is) Ethics?

By Guest Writer Winn Schwartau

I clearly remember the first time I really lied to my mom.

I was about six, maybe seven years old. We lived on the 7 th floor of a tall apartment building in Manhattan. For some insane reason, I decided it would be great fun to write dirty words on pieces of paper, fold them into airplanes and send them sailing out to the window. I must have watched fifty paper airplanes float hundreds of feet down the block or dive straight to the ground.

Later, my mom came home and asked me what I had been up to. I was watching TV and coloring. "What else have you been doing?" I got nervous.

"Nothing," I lied. "Are you really sure?" she asked in a more menacing tone.

Then she asked me directly: "Were you, by any chance littering the street with dirty words?" I figured I had disguised my handwriting, so I swore to her that I hadn't done that awful thing.

Then, furious beyond belief, she handed me one of the airplanes. "Is this yours?" Again, I denied it.

As she unfolded the airplane and turned over the sheet of paper, I realized my fatal mistake: I had used her business stationary with her name, address and phone number on it. Snagged didn't quite cover it.

While she was upset that I had done something so incredibly stupid, she was much more angry that I had repeatedly lied to her face. "Mistakes are OK," she said. "Lying like that is unacceptable. It is not ethical to lie."

Ethics is really simple: It is how you behave, "right" or "wrong". Deciding how to behave, though, is not always so simple.

Most of the time when you play, go to school, work or just hang out, you're not doing anything "wrong". But, as we grow up, we learn from parents, teachers and friends that some things are just "wrong".

Sometimes you just know that something is "wrong" like I knew I was wrong with those silly airplanes, but I did it anyway. Making mistakes is part of growing up, however, all of us are supposed to keep learning throughout life, aren't we? Parents and teachers, too, have to keep on learning, especially about the rapidly changing technical environment we all live in.

We all learn our values and morals from our families and friends, from books, church, TV, the movies and the Internet. Inside, most of us tend to know what's right or wrong. How we choose to act, though, is sometimes the ethical problem. The movies and comics often show a little Angel and little Devil sitting on the shoulders of a person faced with a decision on what to do. They represent those "little voices" in our head when we have to make an ethical choice.

  • "Sure, go ahead, do it. You won't get caught!"

  • "You know better than doing that."

  • "Don't listen to him/her! This will be a lot of fun and no one will get hurt."

  • "It is still wrong, and you know it. Do what your heart tells you."

    Then we make our choice. That is ethics.

    Ethics on computers and the Internet is called cyber-ethics, but technology doesn't change the fact that we all have to make ethical decisions every day. The Internet and computers changes the medium or how far-reaching our decisions can be: they can affect thousands of people, an entire country or an economy.

    Ethics is ethics: cyber-ethics is just a different way of looking at ethics through the eyes of computers, technology and the Internet.

    Ethics Is Not The Law

    If you walk across the street on a red light you are breaking a law that is meant to protect you. If you steal a candy bar you are both breaking the law and more than likely, ignoring the ethics you were taught at home.

    The Right and Wrong of Ethics is not the same as breaking the law. Many laws, though, are based upon the "ethos" or the "ethical culture" of a society or a country. Our laws are supposed to be based upon a set of morals - or beliefs - as to what is right and wrong.

    For example, killing a person is illegal. Most cultures believe it is ethically wrong, too. However, some terrorist-like religious and political extremists around the world believe that killing people is ethically acceptable if it helps their cause.

    But, once the murderer is caught, is it right or is it wrong to kill the killer? Is the death penalty an ethically acceptable answer to murder? Not everyone agrees. Different states and different countries have different means of dealing with murderers.

    The law has no influence over those little voices in your head. What the voices tell you and how you choose to behave is entirely up to you. A key concept to keep in mind in any ethical or cyber-ethical choice is:

    Just because something can be done does not mean it should be done.

    Ethics is about understanding how your actions affect other people, knowing what is right and wrong and taking personal responsibility for your actions - even if they are legal.

    Winn Schwartau is the award-winning author of "Cybershock," "Information Warfare," and "Time Based Security." He is also President of Interpact Inc., a computer and Internet Security firm. 'Cyber Ethics 101' is adapted from his latest book, "Internet & Computer Ethics for Kids (and Parents & Teachers Who Haven't Got a Clue)" [ISBN 0962870056 --available at]

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