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Ethics in the Digital Age

Ethics class

Ethics class (Photo credit: aditza121)

Copyright © Adam Wood, 2013

Whenever a new technology arrives, laws are created to prevent abuses and to ensure fair play among users. The effect of new inventions on society is sort of like the old Wild West. Freewheeling technology users do just about anything they can, and change comes fast. Consumers spend much time and energy mastering their new toys, while companies are mostly concerned with innovation and growth. Ethical issues might be raised but the laws to enforce them come later. This is because new technologies raise novel, complicated questions that require careful consideration.

Think of the automobile. Licensing wasn’t always mandatory in the US and, in the beginning, drivers made their own license plates out of ceramics. These days, practically every country demands certain skills and, of course, paying a government fee to obtain a driver’s license and vehicle plate.

Vonage V-Portal retreiving IP Address

Vonage V-Portal retreiving IP Address (Photo credit: K. Todd Storch)

Other examples can be found with computers and the internet. New laws are being written right now to protect intellectual property, from trending pop tunes to the latest software coding. And recently, the idea of willing your email or social media accounts to another person before your natural death is gaining popularity. Google’s Digital Will allows grieving relatives to remove a loved one’s internet account after they’ve passed, provided the accounts have been willed to them. In the past, some have sued internet-based companies to ensure that a deceased person’s account goes offline.

Human relationships can pose additional ethical dilemmas in the digital age. Imagine two lovers who plan to spend their lives together. But the man deceives and suddenly leaves the woman. He seems happy to be free while the woman is devastated. She asks him to stop emailing her and leave her alone so she can move on. He finds a new partner while she remains single. Despite this, he continues to visit her blog and she sees his IP address through her blog stats. The man knows she can see his IP address, so could his behavior could be taken as a type of attention seeking and possibly emotional abuse?

This might seem to be pushing it. But let’s consider the problem another way. Let’s say the man doesn’t visit the woman’s blog. Instead, he drives to her home every few days and, each time, leaves a signed note in her mailbox saying “I was here.”

Image via Tumblr

How would this be viewed by the law? Would the man be guilty of stalking? If so, the woman could pursue a restraining order to keep him at a psychologically safe distance.

The previous example of the IP address showing up after the man visits her blog isn’t too different. It has a similar psychological effect. But what legal recourse would the woman have to prevent the man from digitally ‘dropping by’ and reactivating the harmful emotions triggered by his lying and abandoning her?

Until laws are drawn up for these subtler forms of emotional abuse, unethical internet users will probably continue to satisfy their own needs at the expense of others who have no legal recourse to stop them.

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