Ethics, law and the internet.

The question of how the law should be applied to activities and content on the Internet seems to be an undertaking that has enjoyed a greater degree of success than any attempt to apply standards of ethical behaviour. There have been, throughout the history of the service numerous legislative precedents that illustrate the fact that many activities on the Internet are already subject to conventional legislation. Laws regarding child pornography, gambling, theft and fraud have all been regulated in similar ways both off and online. However as the net is an international entity the application of law can be very different depending on the country in which the action is brought. This applies especially to areas of defamation, free speech and indecency. In America for example section 230 of the communications decency act provides immunity for service providers online from legislation regarding  defamatory content provided by a third party. This has been upheld on numerous occasions most recently in Milgram v. Orbitz (2010) In the UK however, following Keith Smith vs Williams (2006) and Godfrey vs Demon (2001) ISP’s have to prove that they were unaware of any offensive content or be held accountable as publishers. Free speech is like wise an extremely contentious issue depending on your location when posting. Although protected under Article 19 of the the international declaration of human rights numerous countries including China, Singapore, Iran Tunisia and Saudi Arabia employ both legislative and code based systems to prevent access to information and prosecute authors regarded as having distributed information counter to governmental concerns.

Another concern of Internet law is that of copyright. Most information contained within a web page is considered intellectual property and is therefore protected by law. Issues of copyright online are governed by the Berne convention and an international organization called the World Intellectual Property Organisation financed by the UN. This international basis for legislation avoids the confusion exhibited in other forms of law depending on the location of the infringement. In terms of website content, links, text graphics, audio and video as well as unique HTML markup sequences are protected. Logos can also be considered trademarks and are therefore also included. Interestingly including trademarked names in metatags is not an infringement of copyright. Protection is automatic through displaying of the work with the international copyright symbol “©” the name of the owner and the date. In the UK the term of copyright is the lifetime of the author plus fifty years from the publication of the creation. The WIPO also provides support in association with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers against “Cyber Squatting”, the practice of registering a domain name for profit without actual use and contributed on the release of the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy that provides a means of resolution for domain name disputes. It also initiated the treaty that formed the basis for the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. This act was decisive in the closure of services such as Napster in the 1990’s but has had limited success in reducing distribution of copyrighted material due to its vague handling of links to copyrighted materials and the increased decentralisation of file serving in clients such as BitTorrent. The current American administration is seeking to remedy this with the introduction of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) a move that would require Internet providers to block access to site deemed to be in distributing suspect material, this move has been heavily criticised as “draconian” and a threat to freedom of speech.

Protected under article 8 of the European Convention of human rights in the UK, the Information Technology Act in India and the Electronic communications privacy act in the US, privacy is another area of law is increasingly relevant to the Internet.There is rising concern regarding the use to which information collected from tracking cookies, search engines and social network sites is put especially when the information is used to created a profile of an individual. The 2007 case of Lane vs Facebook highlighted the irresponsible handling of such information after the social networking site began to publish personal information regarding Lane’s shopping habits without his consent. Google street view has also been criticised for distributing photos of individuals which have in some cases led to problems in their private lives. Threats to privacy on the Internet have also come from official sources. The FBI back in 2001 introduced the Magic Lantern trojan, a worm that logged keystrokes and in 2009 the UK home office instigated a plan to allow police access to individuals computers without a warrant. Any information found can then be used as evidence in court. These policies have drawn severe criticism from human rights campaigners. In a recent turn around thousands of governmental diplomatic documents have been posted online on the wikileaks site causing a furious response from politicians

Attempts to regulate ethics on the Internet seem to be successful only when behaviours encroach on matters of law as described above. That hasn’t however stopped a few organisations from trying. In 1989 the Computer ethics institute published a memo titled “Ethics and the Internet RFC 1087”. This was an attempt to protect the us government’s investment in the Internet from being “used irresponsibly”. They have since drafted the “Ten commandments of computer Ethics” which are as follows.

1. Thou Shalt Not Use A Computer To Harm Other People.

2. Thou Shalt Not Interfere With Other People’s Computer Work.

3. Thou Shalt Not Snoop Around In Other People’s Computer Files.

4. Thou Shalt Not Use A Computer To Steal.

5. Thou Shalt Not Use A Computer To Bear False Witness.

6. Thou Shalt Not Copy Or Use Proprietary Software For Which You have Not Paid.

7. Thou Shalt Not Use Other People’s Computer Resources Without Authorization Or Proper Compensation.

8. Thou Shalt Not Appropriate Other People’s Intellectual Output.

9. Thou Shalt Think About The Social Consequences Of The Program You Are Writing Or The System You Are Designing.

10. Thou Shalt Always Use A Computer In Ways That Insure Consideration And Respect For Your Fellow Humans.

As mentioned before many of the above in some way relate to the statutes already in place regarding privacy, copyright, decency and defamation. The rules have been adopted by many educational and professional institutions including the Systems Security Certification Consortium (CISSP) if not, perhaps, by the majority of Internet users.





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