Computer Ethics: A Global Perspective

Kai K. Kimppa (Department of Information Technology, University of Turku, Finland)

Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society

ISSN: 1477-996X

Article publication date: 4 April 2008

463

Keywords

Citation

Kimppa, K.K. (2008), "Computer Ethics: A Global Perspective", Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 90-92. https://doi.org/10.1108/14779960810866837

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Most books introducing computer ethics to students and the general public currently come from the USA. Thus, it is very refreshing to see a book coming from Europe that is easily approachable. The topic is very relevant to society as computing technologies pervade our daily tasks, and range from personal computers to RFID tags, from mobile phones to ambient intelligence. This scope is reflected in the book by the author dividing it to specifically ethical issues on the one hand and social impact on the other – showing that the ethical issues raised are not just academic questions, but do have implications to our every day life.

The book is organised into four parts: an introductory chapter explaining computer ethics, Part A, comprising Chapters 2‐5 that address the ethical issues, Part B handles the social impact of computers and the ethical questions (Chapters 6‐11) and finally the appendices list four codes of ethics for computer societies.

The book starts (Chapter 1) by introducing the history of computer ethics from Wiener to Moor; many of the most important articles and books in the field are introduced. Next, the very relevant question of whether computer ethics is just another applied field of ethics is pondered, although as in the field itself, no real answer is found. After this the most commonly applied ethical theories are introduced. This includes (Lockean) liberalism, (Kantian) deontology, consequentialism (or utilitarianism) and surprisingly, Aristotelian virtue ethics – surprisingly, as quite a few modern philosophers have further developed virtue ethics (for example, Anscombe, Williams or MacIntyre might have been more relevant for today, see also ethics of care or Nietzschean virtue ethics, e.g. at “Virtue ethics” by Athanassoulis (2008), at www.iep.utm.edu/v/virtue.htm).

In the section on the ethical issues, the author starts with the central ethical problems discussed in computer ethics field. According to Stamatellos, they are: privacy and anonymity, intellectual property, computer crime, security and control, computer reliability, integrity of data, freedom of information, equality of access, authenticity, dehumanisation and centralisation of data and the dependence of humans on machines. These issues are handled in the following four chapters to various degrees; some more, others seem to be more or less forgotten or handled only very briefly. It is correctly pointed out that the issues are interrelated. However, I would have wanted to see such central topics as gender issues, and the issue of disabled users handled more thoroughly (the opportunity to do this would have been in the part on equal access). Some of the issues seem not to be about ethics. For example, many of the issues handled in Chapter 2, “Computer crime and security” are not true moral problems but just clearly wrong and thus require only compliance with the law, not ethical pondering. On the other hand, issues such as hacking or illegal copying are presented as clearly wrong, and the ethical aspects, such as one can see, for example, in Weckert and Adeney's (1997) book Computer and Information Ethics on the justifiability of intellectual property rights (IPRs) is not presented at all. Even though various views are briefly presented, none of them are really considered when handling the ethical question in relation to intellectual property; the status quo is accepted as is – i.e. the laws are right and those breaking them are wrong. The same applies to the Chapter Section 2.4, on “Hackers and hacking.” Hacker ethics as a field of study on freedom of information is more or less by‐passed and hacking is presented only as something to build security for Legalism (of which Johnson (2001), in her Computer Ethics warns us, although then succumbs to it herself in the chapter handling IPRs) is prevalent through the chapters regarding ethics. All in all, Part A which includes the ethical issues in regard to computer ethics is considerably too short for a book called Computer Ethics (especially with the additional line of A Global Perspective) as it is only 50 pages.

In the handling of the social impact aspect more recent and interesting issues are presented. Unfortunately this part is even shorter than the previous at only 37 pages. As the author points out in the preface “[t]he material for this book was first developed as a postgraduate module of Computer Ethics.” The book does present itself, especially in Part B, as course material rather than a book about computer ethics aimed (again from the preface):

[…] to provide a short introduction to computer ethics, […] to engage students and non‐experts in a philosophical enquiry on the social impact of computers in the information society; and […] to discuss the ethical issues that emerge from the widespread use of information technology at the local and global level.

Considering the way in which the book is written it would be more suitable for first year students rather than post graduate students, who should already be capable of some critical thinking. The “answer giving” in the book is evident through‐out, but becomes especially so in Part B, where “accepted truisms” abound. For example, in the section on computer games (Chapter 10, “Computers and entertainment,” Section 10.2 “Computer games”) there is a statement “Violent computer games produce an increase in real‐world violence” –which is contested by many studies and supported by others; and in the same chapter (Section 10.3 “Internet pornography”) it is implied as a “fact” that (internet) pornography, per se, would be an evil – even though the thought is contested by many ethical norms as well as legal traditions. It is also claimed that most internet pornography is “related” to child pornography. What does “related” in this context mean? That pornography is always related to child pornography, as both have the word pornography in them? If not this, what? The scope of the term needs clarifying. Also, the fact that the Carnegie Mellon research which is cited by the author is made through an article by Richard A. Spinello (did the author check the original Carnegie Mellon study? If so, he does not provide the information that he did) and no mention of other studies is made, together with the prevalent attitude that pornography per se is bad, the credibility of the argument is shaky at best. Similar problems, albeit not quite as clear, are visible through‐out Part B.

At the end of the book selected ethical codes are introduced and their central points are presented in the Appendices A‐D. The ACM, IEEE, DPMA and ICCP codes are presented. Surprisingly, however, a wider range of codes that in some cases are very different to the ones presented, such as those from the BCS, ACS, GI, FIPA or the proposed IFIP code of ethics, are not introduced or mentioned.

The book is also supposed to offer study questions, and indeed does so. However, there is only one page (p. 99) with nine questions for the reader to ponder. The book presents no cases or scenarios for the students, as do for example, Johnson's (2001) Computer Ethics (3rd ed.) or Spinello's (1995) Ethical Aspects of Information Technology, nor questions related to the chapters (as does the latter book). In this respect, it does not provide a lecturer with the kind of teaching material available elsewhere. Neither does it reach even half of the 200+ pages of the two books just mentioned which, moreover, try to answer fewer questions than this one. The book is more akin to an update on Forrester and Morrison's (1990) book Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing (to which many of the references and direct quotes also point) but with more contemporary issues presented. Thus, a more thorough reading of Johnson's or Spinello's books as a model for this one would have been advisable. Also, when handling issues such as intellectual property, Weckert and Adeney's (1997) book Computer and Information Ethics would have been a good model on how to tackle the issue from ethical, rather than legalistic point of view and carry the analysis of the ethical question through to the actual issues.

Fortunately, there are better books available in the field. For example, the books by Johnson or Spinello – and as pointed out in a previous review by Buchanan (2005) in this journal, also the book Ethics and Technology: Ethical Issues in an Age of Information and Communications Technology by Tavani (2007) – serve especially a post graduate course far better than this book. Hopefully in the next edition, the topics will be extended and clarified, sources checked more thoroughly, and extraordinary claims such as “most internet porn is related to child pornography” or “computer games cause violent behaviour” will not be taken at face value, but critiqued in an academically appropriate way.

References

Athanassoulis, N. (2008), “Virtue ethics”, available at: www.iep.utm.edu/v/virtue.htm (accessed 8 January 2008).

Buchanan, E.A. (2005), “Book review of Ethics and Technology: Ethical Issues in an Age of Information and Communications Technology”, Journal of Information, Communication & Ethics in Society, Vol. 3 No. 1, pp. 513.

Forester, T. and Morrison, P. (1990), Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Johnson, D.G. (2001), Computer Ethics, 3rd ed., Prentice‐Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Spinello, R.A. (1995), Ethical Aspects of Information Technology, Prentice‐Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Tavani, H.T. (2007), Ethics & Technology: Ethical Issues in an Age of Information and Communication Technology, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.

Weckert, J. and Adeney, D. (1997), Computer and Information Ethics, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.

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