What Are Digital Ethics?

What Users Need to Know About the Internet's Unwritten Code of Conduct

Robot hand on yellow background, holding a metallic red heart.

Gerd Leonhard/Flickr

Internet-connected digital services are now familiar enough to us that academics and industry leaders have started to zero in on the moral principles that should govern the conduct of users and companies in the digital sphere.

This (relatively) stable understanding of digital tools, catalyzed by the general public’s recently voiced frustration with some of them, has manifested in a cluster of discussions collectively referred to by some as “digital ethics.”

So What Are Digital Ethics?

Admittedly, digital ethics continues to take on new complexity as technology evolves. However, it's still important to develop an appreciation for their current state, as it allows users to shape the debate and make informed choices.

In a nutshell, digital ethics are the norms dedicated to ensuring the autonomy and dignity of users is respected on the internet. While traditional ethics concern relationships between individuals, and corporate ethics pertain to relationships between companies and customers, digital ethics blend these to apply to any two (or more) parties interacting online.

In this way, digital ethics prescribe how two individuals communicating online should behave, how two corporations should responsibly conduct internet commerce, and how companies should treat their users.

Digital ethics are still in their infancy, so there aren’t really accepted terms for subcategorization. For the purposes of exploring more specifics, though, we'll consider “personal digital ethics” and “corporate digital ethics.”

What Are Personal Digital Ethics?

Personal digital ethics encompass how individual users honor one another’s right to self-determination online. What makes these unique compared to the typical ethics guiding interpersonal conduct is that, given the nature of online infrastructure, communications is almost always mediated by some private interest or third-party.

For example, in the physical world, your location has little impact on how you should treat other people — whether you're on public or private property, the expectations of courtesy are essentially the same. By contrast, whether you're dealing with someone over email or on Facebook greatly changes the obligations you have to them.

But what exactly are these obligations? The primary duty users have is to act in a way that preserves other users’ choices in regard to their own privacy and safety.

There are obvious examples of what this entails. It is clearly wrong to “doxx” someone, meaning to reveal sensitive personal information (typically their home address) by which others could use to physically or psychologically harm them. But this principle also binds users in less obvious but equally important ways.

Here’s an application that illuminates this: You shouldn’t include someone in a photo who did not consent to being in it if you intend to share it online. It's generally polite not to take a photo of someone without asking, but this takes on new dimensions when social media enters the picture.

Firefox browser with article on etiquette of tagging people in photos uploaded online

Even if your photo subject doesn’t have a social media profile (especially in this case), by posting their image, you deny them the chance to choose where they appear. Furthermore, with advances in facial recognition, you're exposing them more widely than you may realize, as internet-wide face scanning is creeping closer to reality.

As with every discipline of ethics, digital ethics would have no raison d’etre if there were total consensus. Personal digital ethics, by extension, have their areas of heated debate. Before discussing current ethical quandaries, it should be stressed this treatment is not meant to pass judgment, but merely to identify the current state of moral reasoning surrounding digital technologies.

One topic of particular relevance in political discourse is whether shaming those who espouse offensive or dangerous ideas, and pressuring their employers to take action against them, is justifiable.

Some activists in the political arena are increasingly adopting a tactic of outing individuals they believe spread ideas that are hateful or threatening to certain groups. The rationale behind this is that if one advances a view harmful to particular groups, one should suffer reciprocal social and financial consequences.

Another point of contention in personal digital privacy is whether parents should post pictures of their children (especially infants and toddlers) online, since they inherently cannot give consent.

Article on theguardian.com about the ethics of posting photos of one's child on social media.

There is no settled standard in this regard. Some argue that parents may publicize their child’s image, as parenthood is a significant life moment that parents have a right to share. Others insist that one’s legal guardianship of a child should not merit an exception to the child’s ironclad right to choose when and how their image is displayed.

What Are Corporate Digital Ethics?

The flip side of the coin, and the area that garners far more attention, is “corporate digital ethics.” Again, because practically everywhere on the internet is “private property,” the rules these private sector players choose to impose on their users have far-reaching privacy implications.

Corporate digital ethics primarily revolves around the practices of online platforms like social networks collecting sensitive information about users. This collection is often necessary for platforms to deliver their product’s experience, but there is no uniform expectation for what can and should be done with this information.

Companies commonly take the attitude that if their user agreement, no matter how arcane, allows for the sale of user data, there is nothing wrong with selling any data to any “partner” for any reason. When privacy advocates challenge this, companies usually counter that offering a service for free has to generate revenue somehow, and that users should know better than to expect something for nothing.

Facebook's Data Policy webpage

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the sale of user data by private platforms allows government to circumvent legal limits on information it may collect about citizens. Government agencies can, in many cases, acquire the same information they could obtain with a search warrant, but with a legal order mandating far less judicial restrictions. On top of that, government agencies in most jurisdictions are not barred from purchasing data from digital platforms, just as other private companies do.

Just as with personal digital ethics, corporate digital ethics has its own dialog surrounding how to achieve more equitable outcomes. Much ink has been proverbially spilled on the merits of making corporations explicitly and clearly state what they do with user data. Rather than buried in the terms of service, data policies should be prominently displayed and easy to understand, proponents contend. The principle is gaining traction, but hasn’t been widely implemented yet in the absence of laws enforcing it.

Facebook's Terms and Policies webpage

Another subject is whether premium options, where services promise to accept payment to completely forego the sale of that user’s data, should be more prevalent. Currently, few online platforms offer premium tiers, and those that do rarely guarantee it as a complete alternative to the sale of data.

What Moral Obligations Do Digital Ethics Impose on Users?

While the above points deserve careful thought on all our parts, it helps to distill these concepts down to definite steps we can take to actually practice digital ethics.

As before, let’s break this down into navigating issues of personal and corporate digital ethics. In your dealings with other people mediated by an online service, you should always be mindful of how your choices impact others. Before you create a post, ask yourself if it will affect someone else, and whether you would be okay with your decision if you were in their shoes. Basically, as in real life, the golden rule applies online, with the caveat that your decisions online can ripple out further on account of the internet’s instant, global reach.

When it comes to corporate digital ethics, the onus on you, the user, is not so much to ensure you don’t harm others, but to ensure the services you associate with don’t harm you. The first thing you should ask when considering an online platform is how it makes its money. The adage, “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product” generally applies here. The next question you should pose is, if the company does collect personal data (and it probably does), do you trust that company with your data?