The power of the personal computer is no secret. PCs and the Internet are often connected to give us unprecedented tools for helping to improve our lives. But the power of the PC can be used for evil as well as good. Among the wrongdoers may be the person staring back at you each morning in the mirror. Most of us, most of the time, try to do the right thing. With PCs, this can be easier said than done. Just because something isn't illegal doesn't make it ethical. Just because you don't get caught doesn't mean you're better off for it. To generate discussion about computer ethical issues, the Computer Ethics Institute several years ago developed the "Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics," and it serves this purpose well. 1. Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people. This catch-all encompasses the remaining nine commandments. 2. Thou shalt not interfere with other people's computer work. Sending an e-mail bomb -- thousands of messages to disable the recipient's e-mail in-box or server -- is an extreme example. Spreading false rumors online can also interfere with others' productivity. So can forwarding jokes without checking if recipients are receptive to them. 3. Thou shalt not snoop around in other people's computer files. The weak security built into Windows 95 and 98 makes it easy to open the work of co-workers by walking up to their PCs. Sometimes workers store rsums or tax forms on the network drive, which is accessible to others from their own PCs. 4. Thou shalt not use a computer to steal. A blatant example is hacking into a computer to loot a person's credit card number or a company's trade secrets. See commandments 6, 7, and 8 for more subtle, and widespread, transgressions. 5. Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness. Sending unsolicited, untargeted bulk e-mail messages, or spam, is bad in part because most spammers conceal their identity. Less nefariously, people sometimes hide their identity in online discussion groups to talk more freely. I've personally done this only to find it's too easy to cross the line into irresponsible messaging. It's no wonder that the most successful online forums require participants to use their real names. 6. Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid. Some organizations are tempted to buy one copy of a program and copy it onto many computers. Groups such as the Business Software Alliance go after such pirates tenaciously, and when caught they're hit with stiff fines and bad publicity. Individuals who pirate software are rarely nabbed. Using a shareware program long-term without registering it is also the equivalent of stealing it. I've done this in the past. Because so few people voluntarily register shareware, the authors of these programs have had to build in time limits for their use. 7. Thou shalt not use other people's computer resources without authorization or proper compensation. Some employees don't think twice about using their employer's computers or Internet connection for personal reasons. Organizations are getting more protective of their computer possessions. Recently Xerox Corp. fired about 40 employees for looking at pornographic Web sites at work. Once I was nearly fired for using my employer's computer for freelance work. Sometimes companies go overboard to prevent these kinds of abuses, compromising privacy. See commandment 9 for more on this. 8. Thou shalt not appropriate other people's intellectual output. The Internet makes it easy to copy others' words, artwork, music, and HTML. I've had this done to me, and like everything related to ethics, it's not fun when you're on the receiving end. 9. Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing. "Big Brother" programs let you capture the keystrokes or record the Web surfing of employees without their knowledge. Companies similarly can intercept any e-mail sent through their equipment. Morale can suffer if you don't inform employees of these practices beforehand. 10. Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans. This is another good catch-all. It's easy to preach to the wicked, harder to admit fault. All of us, guilty of human frailty, stray from the straight and narrow in small ways or large. Character is destiny. The Golden Rule remains the best guideline. Ask yourself: Would you want it done to you?
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/reidgold.