Ethical Problems in the Digital Era: Problems We Didn’t Even Know We Had

A couple years ago I was asked to give a talk to a group of professionals who work in various online media about “emerging issues in online ethics.” I was skeptical about whether the topic was too abstract to be of interest to communication practitioners, but I was wrong – I received a lot of feedback from news,  advertising, and public relations professionals people telling me that indeed these issues were surfacing in their worlds.

Here are seven emerging ethical problems, leveraged by digital technology that may soon blink on you radar:

1 Digital records can live forever, requiring proactive ethical decisions about their lifespan. As an example, think about the huge difference in impact of the digitization of a newspaper’s archives, which makes for a profoundly different ethical issue than the mere existence of some old paper copies in the storage room. There are hundreds of new dilemmas that could spring from this premise: For example, if Prisoner X is cleared of his crime by a DNA test after spending five years in jail, do we go back and correct all of the stories in the archive? Or make annotations to the old stories? Or remove the stories altogether? Even videos become immortal once they are cast around the ‘Net. A bad television commercial will be reincarnated on YouTube and other video-posting services, as will bad Karaoke recorded with a cell-phone.

2 The speed of digital communication exponentially increases the chance for error. Speed — and the expectation of speed in the age of the eternally hot connection — not only causes error but magnifies it. Add to that the pressure-cooker effect of digital communication, which affects almost everyone in every line of work. Think about how the acceleration of your working life due to the demands of your email and your Blackberry affects your performance and your state of mind.

3 Data is dangerous when unsecured, creating an ethical obligation to play it safe. Several high-profile incidents have demonstrated that plain old slipshod handling can precipitate information-age debacles. Companies have left sensitive data unsecured, unencrypted, in a cab, or on a lost laptop. And this problem doesn’t relate only to keepers of vast databases: Think about the possible consequences related to answering one of your emails if you hit the “reply to all” button when you meant to reply only to the sender.

4 We’re all engaged in cross-cultural ethics. The cliché about digital communications shrinking the world became a sudden reality in recent months when the fact that major U.S. Internet firms censor their content to gain entrée to the vast Chinese market showed up on Congress’ radar screen. By whose rules do we play when engaged in international communication?

5 We are what we link to. Online news publications, in particular, face ethical dilemmas related to linking. You may choose not to show a violent incident, or something that is patently offensive, but can you compromise by linking to it? It’s a problem that has little ethical precedent and needs some hard thought and discussion.

6 Search results are presumed to be honest and impartial, but are they? This is a complex question. Some sites’ search engines elevate certain results because they are paid to do so by advertisers seeking prominent placement. Most of the major independent search engines don’t have “pay to place” search results, but that doesn’t guarantee that their results can’t be cooked from the other end by webmasters using various tricks to score higher in the rankings. There’s a slippery slope between healthy self-promotion and dishonest skewing of search results.

7 Technology enables rampant plagiarism. The Internet is the world’s greatest copy machine, and the problem of ownership of ideas incredibly complex. If you are preparing a print ad, how far can you go in copying a design element? Is cutting and pasting a report from a mosaic of many sources still plagiarism?

Do you see an emerging problem that I’ve missed?

Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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