The Ethics of Computing


How do you decide if something is morally right or wrong? People grow up with basic ethics instilled in them in that they understand when things are right and wrong, even if they ignore it. Is it possible for a computer to understand the difference between right and wrong? How can it learn to judge right and wrong when it has no intuition at all? Humans know that snooping into another person’s computer files is inherently wrong, but the computer has no concept of this. They are simply acting according to the commands of their users.

Over the past 30 years, computers have become an integral part of life. Many people don’t go an entire day without using a computer for something, whether it’s email or games or even looking up recipes. Yet, the Internet is mostly unregulated, which makes enforcing any kind of ethics very difficult in today’s world. The Brookings Institution, which is a US-based think-tank, has begun to compile discussions about computer ethics and came up with ten easy ways to define what constitutes as “acceptable computer usage.”


Written by the Computer Ethics Institute:

  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 ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.

The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics are very similar to the Biblical commandments. The Computer Ethics Institute came up with the first three right off the bat, namely, thou shalt not use your computer to harm others, interfere with another’s work or snoop in someone else’s files. There are also commandments barring using computers to lie, steal or appropriate software illegally. You are not to use someone else’s computer without authorization, and you are not to steal their work off it. The last two are interesting. You are to consider the social consequences of any program you design (think viruses), and you are to always use your computer in ways that are respectful of fellow humans.

Computer Ethics in Laymens Terms

So what exactly do “computer ethics” refer to? At its heart, computer ethics refers to the values that humans place on the right and wrong uses of a computer. A lot of harm can come from the misuse of a computer. Some people lose their jobs, some people get their identities and bank numbers stolen, some people become victims of fraud, and some people have their intellectual property stolen. Improper computer use can truly be devastating. There have always been laws in place to protect people from these things in the “real” world, so extending these same laws into the cyber-world is just a natural progression.

Computer ethics encompasses business, speech privacy, criminality, privacy, and intellectual property issues. Many businesses have their own guidelines for acceptable computer use so what’s acceptable at one company may not be condoned elsewhere. Some companies only allow email to be used for work, and there should be no surfing the web aimlessly. There is usually no downloading of anything, especially pornography, and to enforce these rules, the companies monitor computer use. Some argue that this is an invasion of privacy, which adds another facet to the ethics of computer use. In many cases, school computers are used to commit plagiarism or download music and software, which leads to strict rules from school districts. Illegal file sharing is one of the most scrutinized ethics issues surrounding computer use in today’s world.

Laws, Rights and Privileges, and Further Resources

The four ethical questions that need to be answered are: how to make sure that computer information is accurate, how accessible it is, who owns the information, and what can be done to ensure the information is private. With more and more sophisticated identity stealing programs, how safe is it to reveal certain information online? Should someone be able to force you to reveal said information? If something is created on the Internet, who owns it as intellectual property? Where is the line between a privilege and a right when it comes to computers? The answers to these questions often changes as quickly as the technology, which is why the law has such a hard time keeping up. Until the law catches up with the technology, many users feel free to interpret their own computer ethics, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worst.