To understand the issue of internet ethics, you must first have a basic understanding of how the internet actually works.
Although the internet actually came into being by the American military in 1969, it wasn't until 1989 that the World Wide Web was created in Switzerland. Today there are some 400 million people regularly using the internet for both personal and business matters.
The internet was originally designed as a closed network for military and then academic purposes and, because of this closed nature dealing with specific issues, the problem of online ethics was not foreseen.
Only the intellectual few were able to use the internet in its early days and as such, a set of values seen as inherent in these individuals was basically seen as the code of conduct. Therefore, acceptance of disagreement and aversion to restraint were seen as acceptable at that time.
The growth of the Internet has been incredible and more and more people are using it for increasingly longer periods to do more things. No longer is the internet the property of the intellectual few. In many societies, the internet can be accessed by almost all citizens. If they don't have the internet at home, it can normally be accessed through academic institutions or libraries.
Although the internet was first developed for Americans, it has long since ceased to be an American phenomenon although around two thirds of users are still Americans. At the moment, the debate is basically between the USA and Western Europe. However, as Internet growth continues, so does the need to accommodate a broader range of cultures and value systems.
Understanding the need for ethics on the internet requires a basic understanding of the nature of the internet and the services it provides.
The main forms of content are the World Wide Web, Email, Chat rooms, and Usenet newsgroups.
The World Wide Web which now consists of over one billion sites that range from the simple personal homepage that many people have today right up to the very sophisticated sites of professional businesses.
Email allows instant communication with other internet users worldwide. The implications of this ability in business are enormous.
There are around 40 thousand chat rooms online. These are generally focussed on a particular subject or group of people and allows people to communicate either one on one or in groups. This ability has certainly made the world a smaller place, particularly for those who have family and friends in other countries.
There are also around 40 thousand newsgroups that enable people to share articles about a range of different subjects. These can range from the technical to the bizarre. Sometimes the ethics of the more sexually bizarre can come into debate.
So how can a code of ethics be applied to services of the internet? There are a number of things that need to be considered but, particularly where there are children, parental supervision cannot be surpassed.
The internet is made up of many networks and this continues to grow. The services all have different characteristics that need to be treated differently so any ethics debate must take this into account.
There are many different people involved in the internet and these people all have different agendas. There are companies who specialise in internet infrastructure, Internet Service Providers, as well as those who provide content. Not all companies provide services to all chat rooms or newsgroups and so forth. Therefore, ethics can only be applied when it is known who has the control and responsibility for all of these services.
With the ever increasing populace of the internet, this call for ethics has become global and is not restricted to the specialists but to the general public who want solutions that are practical and focussed.
The World Wide Web needs to be seen as part of society rather than as a separate entity and, as such, it should be subject to the same values and ethics as we expect in offline business. It is a fundamental aspect of modern day business and should not be seen as a value free zone.
Issues such as copyright, child pornography, consumer protection, racial vilification and so forth need to be subject to the same laws and ethical standards as general society and more stringent controls put in place for the protection of the masses of people using the internet.
Failure to do so can only result in World Wide Anarchy via this medium of the internet. Is this the future we want for our children?
The Ten Commandments for online marketers
- There is one Internet. It is a shared resource. Any marketing strategy that relies on polluting the internet by pushing unwanted noise into community space is suspect. It is one thing to strategically place information scent that leads users to your site; it is another to spray that scent on every tree and fire hydrant.
- You shall use neither bots nor macros to create links, nor spread comments promoting your site. Spambots can not only cause your site to be banished by search engines, they leave a huge footprint across the web and can tarnish your brand with a stink that can't be washed off!
- You shall not allow your advertising and affiliate dollars to go to scrapers, scammers, nor spammers.
Advertising budgets are the fuel that drives the spread of blight across the internet. Make sure your money is not promoting blight even if you must forsake short term profits in favor of protecting your brand. While it is easy and tempting to pour money into any channel with a positive ROI, you may be cannibalizing your brand in the process. Even if your strategy is making money and your brand survives, you are funding parasites who devalue the communities that support your business.
- Honor your visitors. Do not sell impressions or links to companies you do not vet. As a publisher, you are endorsing your advertisers every bit as much as if you give them an editorial link. Caveat Emptor may be the motto of cut throat capitalism, but it is not a good strategy to protect your brand. If you are not satisfied with the moral and ethical practices of your advertisers, do not sell them advertising. Syndicated advertising networks offer an easy path to monetizing traffic in the short term but you risk associating yourself with the sites where you advertise.
- You shall not make use of sock puppet accounts for vote stacking, spamming friend requests, nor other schemes. Sock puppetry and false friending is so obviously a form of fraud that no one can argue it is an ethical practice. Do not succumb to the argument that others are doing it if you want to build a sustainable business.
- You shall not form cabals nor engage in elitist plots to disenfranchise people. Karma matters. If you treat others badly, they will eventually form a mob and come after you.
- You shall not grieve other users by spoiling their fun, troll, nor post flame bait to get attention. Acting up to gain attention only works for a short while, then you get banned, filtered, and ignored.
- You shall not scrape content, plagiarize, nor assist in the theft of virtual assets. Stealing content is stealing, simple as that. Scraper sites are the most prolific and pernicious form of Made For Advertising (MFA) sites.
- You shall not distribute badware, scumware, spyware, nor malicious bots. This point is so self-evident it shouldn't have to be mentioned, except that the proliferation of Malware is accelerating and the potential damage it can cause is frightening. Criminal activities ranging from identify theft, transaction fraud, click fraud, and distributed denial of service attacks are all being carried out by botnets that contain hundreds of thousands of compromised machines. Most of the global spam problem can be traced to these compromised computers as well. Despite the clearly criminal nature of malware, Google recently estimated that 1.3% of search result pages contained a link to a site that potentially could infect the user's computer. Most of these exploits are distributed via Iframe injection through advertising networks.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's traffic, nor engage in parasitic marketing. If somebody is doing well, give them a pat on the back instead of trying to pick their pockets.
The commandments represent what Internet users already expect. Unfortunately, many players rationalize their own breaches whenever a little cheating is profitable. We, the Internet community, need to take a stand against blight. Major online properties need a code of conduct to ensure that they do not contribute to the problem, and they also need best practices for controlling blight. Investors should ask managers what they are doing to protect the value of online assets. Everybody needs to worry when the next advance in black hat technology has the potential to turn billion dollar web properties into a slag dump.
Jonathan Hochman has two computer science degrees from Yale. He runs an Internet marketing consultancy and a web development shop. Jonah Stein, who contributed to this article, is Managing Director of www.AlchemistMedia.com, an SEO/SEM Agency and creator of www.VirtualBlight.com, a site dedicated to organizing Netizens Against Online Spam, Scams & Scoundrels.