In recent years, there has been a trend in cyberspace ethics towards the emergence of intra-net mechanisms and self-regulatory systems. In particular, in many European countries, information service providers have started to introduce voluntary self-limitation.
For instance, in the UK, there is an independent Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), whose representatives develop rating systems for Internet resources, by maintaining constant monitoring to collect information that infringes moral and legal standards on websites, and – where necessary – block access to them.
A solution to the problem of the quality of information provided on the Internet can probably come from traditional media, which in recent years have been increasingly committed to acquiring an electronic version of their print or radio and television editions.
Moreover, exclusively online newspapers and magazines have already emerged which, thanks to their serious and cautious approach, have won the online public’s trust. These publications can play an extremely important role through widely applied survey protocols; evaluation of electronic publications; maintenance of the virtual media’s reputation; and supervision of the implementation of the basic rules and principles of professional journalistic ethics on the Internet.
Furthermore, the ethical conflict between the author (owner) of an information product and the Internet public has to be considered, i.e. the analysis of the contradiction between the desire for public accessibility of newly created information and the need to protect copyright.
The emergence of the “copyright” concept (dating back almost three hundred years: the first law on the subject is The Statute of Queen Anne, which was enacted in 1709 and came into force on April 10, 1710) is due to the need to strike a balance between the interests of the creators of original works and societal needs.
Therefore, it is based on two non-coincidental and sometimes even contradictory moral principles: disposing of the fruits of labour is a natural matter, on the other hand there is the principle of universal free access to knowledge, which ensures the progress of science and art and encourages the free use of any information and ideas without restrictions.
Modern communication technologies create almost unlimited possibilities for personal possession and reproduction of information and this greatly complicates copyright protection. As a result, previous international laws and agreements on the protection of intellectual property are inadequate and traditional ideas on copyright need to be revised.
How should current legislation be changed to meet modern realities? There are two conceptual approaches to solve this problem. The generally accepted trend to improve national and international information law rules is to broaden the scope of copyright and extend it to electronic types of information.
At the same time, it should be emphasised that copyright arises from the fact of creating a work, and does not depend on the nature of the medium. Hence the problem lies in the need for proper interpretation of the legislation in force and in the implementation of the existing rules to the new conditions.
However, the opposite viewpoint – whereby compliance with copyright on the Internet slows down the web development and interferes with its active content – is increasingly expressed. The most radical proponents of this view argue that – since the free exchange of knowledge and ideas is the basis of information ethics – copyright categories are in principle not applicable to it, and therefore the Internet should be perceived as a public information space in which the value of a specific copyright text is levelled off.
These ideas have found their most complete embodiment in the hackers’ ethical principles. Bear in mind that the word “hacker” is meant in its original and positive meaning: a person who uses his/her computer skills to explore the details of programmable systems and experiments with how to extend their use to everyone. The derogatory use that some people make of the word does not reflect and pertains to its full morality.
In line with this viewpoint, it is proposed to limit or even remove some rules from the conceptual foundations of copyright, e.g. to authorise the fair and proper use of original works and ultimately relinquish the idea of intellectual property altogether.
It is clear that the origins of this approach should be sought in the ideas of freedom on the net, based on the principle that information should not be encumbered by legal and/or authorization schemes. In fact, even those who support the abolition of intellectual property are not ready to completely relinquish the rights to their works and remove their names from titles and, especially, from revenues and fees. The origins of this approach are to be found within the net and this system of opinions seems legitimate in both directions.
It is therefore clear that the primary task in formulating modern information legislation is to maintain a balance between the interests of software producers and information resources on the one hand, and the interests of their consumers on the other. Otherwise, the development of new communication technologies will contribute to deepening information inequality in modern society, and to further dividing society between the well informed and the less informed.
A further right – the right to privacy – is one of the most fundamental rights: it reflects the natural human need for privacy, confidentiality and autonomy, as well as for the protection of one’s own “personal sphere” from outside intrusion, and the ability to make decisions without being spied on and to remain oneself and maintain one’s own individuality.
It is no coincidence that in all international documents declaring human rights and freedoms, as well as in all codes of ethics related to the sphere of information, privacy is proclaimed as a fundamental moral value, which constitutes the foundation of human freedom and security, and therefore requires respect and protection.
It is interesting to note that, unlike other human rights formulated in the 18th century, the right to the inviolability of private life has only recently received protection and be recognized in legislation, i.e. in the mid-20th century. This can be explained precisely by the development of information and communication technologies, under the influence of which intrusion into the individual person’s private sphere has become much easier.
In particular, despite the declared anonymity of Internet surfing, there are technologies that allow to collect information on the users’ behaviours on the web. The collection of such information cannot be considered reprehensible, but only if some rather strict requirements and conditions are met. Information must be obtained in good faith, with the knowledge and consent of the data subject (the person to whom the information relates).
It must be collected for well-defined purposes that do not infringe the law and be used in strict compliance with the stated purposes. It must be protected from unauthorised access and not be redundant or associated with personally identifiable data about the user without his or her permission.
In practice, however, these rules are not always complied with. This requires appropriate solutions to be found, thus enabling the Internet users’ privacy to be effectively protected from unauthorised interference by both governmental and commercial agencies.
As a rule, it is published on the home page of the website and includes a detailed description of the purpose for the collection of information and practices: I talked about it – expressing many doubts – in one of my previous articles.
The reason for my doubts is very simple: whoever is interested in spying on third parties pays the creator of the appropriate software more than the international or governmental organization, or the single private agency, which envisages very low fees for the creator of software that should protect citizens’ privacy. Those who are better paid have obviously more incentives to develop spy-software than the technician with a permanent job and a fixed salary. This is the immoral logic of capitalism.
Such examples clearly show that self-regulation is extremely effective on the Internet – as long as it lasts, for the above stated reasons. Therefore, hopefully Internet users will realise the importance of privacy as a social and moral value.
Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is a world-renowned Italian economist and international relations expert, who serves as the President of the International World Group. In 1995, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dedicated the Giancarlo Elia Valori chair of Peace and Regional Cooperation. Prof. Valori also holds chairs for Peace Studies at Yeshiva University in New York and at Peking University in China. Among his many honors from countries and institutions around the world, Prof. Valori is an Honorable of the Academy of Science at the Institute of France, as well as Knight Grand Cross and Knight of Labor of the Italian Republic.