Is an Ethical Internet Possible?

Is it possible to have an ethical internet? Is there even a problem that needs to be solved?
Christopher McFadden

Is an ethical internet possible? In short yes, but who will decide what is "right" and what is "wrong"?

History is filled with what Plato termed "philosopher kings" that have, in their wisdom, created more harm than good.


"The road to hell is paved with good intentions", as the saying goes.

If we collectively agree on some ethical standards for the internet we should look to history for inspiration and learn from mistakes.

In the following article, we'll explore what is meant by ethics and its application to the internet.

We can't promise to give you a definitive answer, and no-one else can either. In fact, man has been struggling with ethics for millennia. 

What is the difference between ethics and morals?

The terms "ethics" and "morals" tend to be used interchangeably, but there is a distinct if subtle, difference. 

Morality is generally defined as: 

"Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior." - Oxford English Dictionary.

The word morality is derived from the Latin moralis meaning 'manner, character, proper behavior'.

Ethics, on the other hand, are generally defined as: 

"Moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity." - Oxford English Dictionary.

The word ethics is derived from the Greek ethikos and/or ethos meaning custom or character.

That clears things up, doesn't it? 

As you can see, it is not easy to disseminate between the two. In general parlance, most people would consider morality as a personal set of values on what is "good" and "bad", whereas ethics tend to be concerned with an external body defining what is "right" and "wrong". 

Some might even define any of the above as "values". Yet others completely flip this around by defining "ethics" as a personal set of values and morality defined by some wider community. 

Frustrating to say the least. Many sites have interesting discussions on this very issue, is a good example.


If you are a member of a professional body for your work, you will likely have some form of "Code of Ethics" that you need to abide by. Ethical principles also tend to be the preferred course of action for disciplines like law, medicine, etc.

These tend to be hotly debated by members and revised as and when needed throughout time.

ethical internet words
Source: Pixabay

Morals, on the other hand, are not necessarily codified and can be a very personal philosophy. Your morals could, for example, be defined by your religion (or lack of), personal experience, and knowledge of philosophy, or a commonly agreed on behavior in a community.

But this isn't a clear cut distinction either. Any "Code of Ethics" has been drawn up by a group of individuals each with their own private set of morals or values. Each and every one of them is the product of their upbringing, nationality, and their local community. 

It would be intellectually dishonest to believe their own "morals" do not affect their views on "ethics". 

They are intangibly linked and it can be argued that any attempt to make a distinction is, at best, futile. Whether you call it "ethics" or "morals" might be considered irrelevant so long as the outcome is to strive for doing more "good" and avoiding activities that are "bad".

This is a deeply profound concept and one that has been the very center of Western Philosophy (and culture) since antiquity often with mixed and unexpected results.

On one hand, it led to the abolition of slavery, and yet on the other, it has led to the justification of many horrors throughout the 20th Century in the name of "equality". 

internet ethics rules
Source: Stock Catalog/Flickr

What are Internet ethics?

The internet has had a profound impact on society since its mass-adoption several decades ago. It, like many new inventions of communication, brought out the very best and the very worst of human nature. 


On the plus side, it has never been easier to access information or make friends, yet on the other, it may have divided communities more than unite them.

This is especially true with the development of social media that has made people more depressed, isolated, and radicalized especially with regards to things like politics. 

Intellectual property rights (copyright, public domain, fair use, Creative Commons licenses, etc), is one area where ethical principles are poorly defined and widely abused.

It is often also difficult to distinguish between plagiarism from copyright infringement, libel, public disclosure of private information, third-party contributions to your website, and the legal matters surrounding online collaborations. 

ethical internet
Source: Pixabay

Some basic standards, we shall use the term "morals" here, during public discourse is also a bone of contention on the internet. Social media, especially sites like Twitter, are widely blamed for a breakdown in normally "acceptable behavior" in online discourse.

Concepts like common decency and "manners" are thrown out of the window in the name of "being right" rather than listening to the other side's point of view. It is unclear whether this is a problem with wider society rather than because of the internet per se

All too often internet users can find themselves in "bubbles" where they may only get one side of any story. This is an almost unique problem of the internet as in real life you will be exposed to widely different points of view wherever you go.

But is this a problem that needs to be solved? Do we need some kind of codified internet ethics? 

We'll let you decide.

ethical internet ethics
Source: Pixabay

What does it mean to be ethical online?

Being ethical online should hold no distinction from being ethical in real life. Any ethical or moral principles you hold going about your daily life should dictate how you conduct yourself digitally.

But, like anything on this subject, this is a highly personal matter.

Yet, we do have some historical precursor that perhaps should be applied to the internet - The United States Bill of Rights.

This document was born out of the development of a philosophy called "liberalism" that developed from the 17th Century onwards. At its core, it defines the proper role of authorities, like governments and holds that personal liberty is of paramount importance. 

It also led to the development of the notion of the "non-aggression principle". 

Many prominent thinkers on the internet believe it may be time for an "Internet Bill of Rights" that would codify standards for things like property rights and freedom of speech for all. 

Freedom of speech is of vital importance to healthy discourse and should not be granted to one group and denied restricted to another. After all, as we have seen, your personal ethics and morals can differ greatly to another person or even everyone else in a community. 

Which one of you is right? They only way to find out is to allow open discourse to probe each other's views and, hopefully, find some common ground. 

When it comes to property rights, like copyright, ethical issues are a little harder to define. This is a highly litigious area and one that is constantly evolving especially with the rise of AI

Is an ethical internet possible? Yes, but whose ethics?

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