Ethical and Political Issues on the Electronic Frontier

We find ourselves today in the midst of a sweeping cultural transformation, fueled in large part by breathtaking developments in electronic digital communications media. The new electronic media offer new ways for people to deal with each other at the most basic levels of human interaction, and hence they offer ethical and political threats and opportunities that even the most imaginative science fiction writer can barely keep up with. With regard to the writing and reading of texts, hypertext promises (or threatens?) to change all the ground-rules of print culture. As I have observed elsewhere:
Hypertext challenges presuppositions of print culture such as: (1) authors can be distinguished from readers; (2) a text is the property of its author; (3) a text is (or should be) fixed, unchanging, unified and coherent; (4) a text should speak with a single, clear voice; (5) a text has a beginning and an ending, margins, an inside and an outside; (6) the center of a text, of a group of texts, or of anything else, is fixed, stable, and single; (7) a text is (or should be) clearly organized in a linear, hierarchical structure; (8) generally speaking, an author writes by himself, and a reader reads by himself; (9) the act of writing or reading is (or should be) ethically and politically neutral. (Fowler, 1994)

Hypertext undermines these assumptions, forcefully raising ethical and political questions left and right. The situation is in such flux, and the scope of this paper already too wide, to allow me to do more here than list some of the most striking areas of ethical and political concern on the electronic frontier./12/

(1) The inclination toward collaboration in cyberspace

The digital electronic media are networks connecting all who use them. Work in an environment permeated by electronic media tilts inevitably toward collaboration. Thus, labor in an electronic "information economy" takes on a new, intensely social character (unheard of since, perhaps, the days of primary oral cultures). The changing work habits of an electronic, information culture are attracting serious study across our culture. All segments of our culture now find themselves inextricably interconnected in the new "network culture" (Zuboff; Sproull and Kiesler).

(2) Creating and maintaining "virtual communities"

As persons connect electronically, we witness a new kind of community taking shape in the virtual reality of cyberspace. Excellent illustrations of this phenomenon are provided in Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, where he discuses his gratifying experiences with the WELL, the "Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link." In vast computer networks communities are being formed by people who share passions, commitments, or just common interests, but who do not (necessarily) share either a common physical place or a 'real' time of meeting. Who can began to imagine the ethical and political ramifications of a shift in emphasis from real to virtual time and space in the fostering of human communities?

(3) The fate of the author's moral claim to intellectual property rights and legal claim to copyright

The dominant assumptions about reading and writing, which are legacies of print culture, are disintegrating in the new electronic culture. Among them, the common assumptions about an author's moral and legal rights to control the dissemination of her intellectual property evaporate in the Electronic Age. As John Perry Barlow so pungently puts it, "almost everything we think we know about intellectual property is wrong" (Barlow:129). To consider only one angle on this issue, if the distinction between author and reader vanishes in electronic media, then how can the "author's" moral and legal rights be maintained over against those of the "reader"? When we scratch the surface of this moral and legal conundrum, we find the real issue just below: Money. That is, in cyberspace, how will authors get paid for their work?/13/

(4) Who will provide and who will receive services in cyberspace? Who will pay and who will profit?

Ithiel de Sola Pool's Technologies of Freedom: On Free Speech in an Electronic Age is helpful in giving us an historical perspective on the politics of communication media. Pool walks us through the modern legal history of print and electronic media, and demonstrates how arbitrary and capricious laws regulating the media have been (e.g., laws governing telephone systems differ dramatically from country to country). Today, as the electronic media melt together, we find that laws written decades ago in a different media environment are inadequate to cope with the new electronic environment. The basic questions of who will provide and who receive, who will pay for and who will profit from, who will have and who will not have communication services in cyberspace, are all wide open (Davis)./14/

(5) The ethics and etiquette of electronic communication

The explosive growth of the use of electronic mail (="email") has brought to attention a multitude of ethical and legal issues: the right to privacy, freedom of speech, the question of the ownership of email messages, and sexual harassment and other forms of abusive speech (i.e., "flaming"), etc. (Leslie; Saunders; Shapiro and Anderson; Wiener).

As an electronic prosthesis or "extension" (McLuhan, 1964) of the human entity, email and online chatting reveal persons at their best and worst. For example, persons can use email and Internet Relay Chat to flirt, to fall in love, and (in some sense!) to make love to an online significant other; the media can just as easily be used to stalk, to harass, and (in some sense!) to rape./15/ This is to say that virtual reality would seem to be as ethically ambiguous-open both to relationships of authentic mutuality and of dominance and abuse-as 'ordinary' reality./16/

(6) The question of human identity and the human/machine interface

The question of human identity is as old as our species; the question of what is now called "the human/machine interface" is surely almost as old. The electronic revolution thrusts the matter upon us with new urgency. To illustrate: (1) The computer on my desk responds to my (admittedly simple and pre-established) voice commands, and it can 'talk' back to me in a quasi-human voice. (2) I know several people whose heartbeat is regulated by a "Pacemaker," a small electronic device surgically implanted in their body. (3) Not long after reading William Gibson's science fiction novel Neuromancer, in which the protagonist "jacks into" cyberspace directly via electrodes permanently implanted in his body, I picked up the morning newspaper and read of a new technique to stimulate the auditory nerves in some deaf persons by implanting an electrode in the skull. In short, science fiction is hardly fiction anymore. What is a "human"? What is a "machine"? Is there a difference anymore? Is Donna Haraway right to say that "we are cyborgs"?/17/

(7) Sex and gender in cyberspace

I have already mentioned cyberspatial sexual relations, which grabs headlines and titillates the public. Not to be overlooked, however, is the serious way in which online communication serves as a laboratory for exploring all manner of postmodern theory, including gender theory. In MUDs and MOOs persons regularly invent their own identities, including choosing the gender role they wish to act out. 'Cross-dressing' is common and its purposes vary: some women use a masculine pseudonym while online simply to avoid unwanted sexual advances ("male-mail"?). There's no end to the twists and turns possible here, as two characters in the "Doonesbury" comic strip discovered. Over the course of several installments, the two characters found themselves developing an intimate relationship through online chatting. In the end one was disappointed to learn that the other was married and hence (he inferred) heterosexual; the other would have been shocked if he had discovered that his new friend was male and gay. Neither ever learned that they already knew each other in 'real life'!

Of course, if traditional gender roles are unsatisfying, in cyberspace one can always invent and inhabit an imaginary world in which everyone is androgynous, or neuter, or of a species other than human. A cartoon in The New Yorker shows two dogs sitting in front of a computer. One says to the other: "On the Internet no one knows you're a dog." Indeed.

(8) Civil liberties in cyberspace

In the new media environment, constitutional rights to privacy and free speech are by no means secure. To begin with, it is not clear what "privacy" and "free speech" mean in cyberspace (Kapor). Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (URL: and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (URL: actively lobby Congress for legislation that will preserve civil liberties in cyberspace, and they provide a valuable information service, keeping the online community informed of up-to-the-second political developments.

In recent months there has been a storm of controversy in the online community over the "Clipper Chip" proposal backed by the FBI and other federal agencies, including the Clinton White House. The Clipper Chip is a computer chip that encrypts data. Most experts agree that encryption is the key to guaranteeing one's privacy in cyberspace-sooner or later we will probably encrypt our email messages so that only people to whom we have given an electronic 'key' can de-code and read them. This worries the FBI, for if drug dealers and other bad guys start encrypting their telephone communications, then the FBI will not be able to wiretap as easily as they can now. Hence the creation of the Clipper Chip, which does encrypt the data but leaves a 'back door' open, so to speak, so that the 'proper' public authorities, with the 'proper' legal warrants, can bypass the encryption and read the transmissions.

As critics of the proposal noted, this would be like allowing us to lock our houses, but requiring us to deposit a spare key at the local police station, just in case the police ever need to sneak in to catch us in the act of breaking the law. Many folks were unhappy about this proposal, claiming that it violated fundamental constitutional rights to privacy. As I write this, the Clipper Chip proposal has been revised and hedged about with safeguards against governmental abuses, but it is still alive, and some version of the legislation may yet pass Congress this fall.

The lesson here is that constitutional rights long taken for granted in American life may need to be fought for and won all over again, in new forms suitable for the new media environment.

(9) The electronic media: force for totalitarianism or democracy? for control or freedom?

Dystopian portraits of the future, such as Brave New World and 1984, have abounded in the twentieth century. The computer as malevolent enemy or mischievous trickster has been a common motif in science fiction and the movies (think of "Hal" in 2001: A Space Odyssey or "Joshua" in War Games.). Television has been scathingly portrayed as banally evil (Network) or simply as vacuous (Being There). Thus, it comes as a bit of a shock to find evidence that networked, digital, electronic communication media wield a powerfully "antihierarchical and democratic" force (Landow). In recent years we have witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the crumbling of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany, and the dissolution of Apartheid in South Africa. A strong case can be made that these momentous, liberating transformations were precipitated, in large measure, by the omnipresent electronic eyes and ears of the global village (Clarke; Martin).

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