The time when many people considered the Internet to be nothing more than a flash-in-the-pan fad, which is of little to no significance to the way society develops, has long gone, and now even those who are still reluctant to embrace it recognize that the technology profoundly influences everyone’s life. Education is no exception. Unfortunately, the new informational domain remains unconquered for many young learners, especially those living in rural and poverty-stricken communities. In order to close this connectivity gap, which reduces the ability of some students to access books, articles, and other educational materials, in 2013, the American government launched a program, ConnectED, aimed at bringing broadband Internet to public schools and libraries (Faulkner).
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According to Faulkner, the Internet is used in more than 93 percent of Canadian schools and at least 99 percent of educational facilities in the United States. However, even though this digital divide has been eliminated, educators and advocacy groups are now faced with a challenge to protect minors, who are arguably the most voracious consumers of digital content, from inappropriate materials. To this end, schools and public libraries install filtering software that shields minors from exposure to obscene images that are rife on the web. Unfortunately, the product performance of such software is nowhere near perfect: very often it restricts access to legal information that can be consumed by both children and adults.
The aim of this paper is to conduct an ethical analysis of a scenario in which I am being asked to install filtering software that has a downside of blocking many legal materials on the inner-city library’s computers. I will argue that using such software within the library setting infringes on people’s right of access to information; therefore, it should not be installed. The paper will also defend my position from ethics of purpose, and ethics of principle, and just consequentialism.
An Ethics of Purpose
The ethics of purpose can be used as a starting point for the ethical analysis of the value judgment applied to the scenario described above. This ethical approach necessitates the identification of the agent, which in the scenario under discussion is the American government that has issued the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requiring “schools and libraries to block or filter Internet access to pictures and material that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors” (Faulkner). The government’s purpose in this scenario can be described as the protection of children from exposure to information presented on objectionable websites. It should be mentioned that this external purpose has occurred as a response to the use of the Internet as “a prime communication medium for racist groups, political propaganda, the promotion of illegal drug use, libel, and violent images” (Faulkner) among others. However, an agency that is being used to realize this purpose is extremely flawed. Moreover, it can be argued that actions that are being performed in order to achieve the purpose are faulty to a degree at which the intended purpose itself is being defeated.
Libraries exist in order to enhance their patrons’ access to information. American Library Association espouses this ideal and continuously advocates the virtue of universal access to information (Faulkner). However, a software that I am being asked to install prevents the library personnel from maintaining control over websites that the library visitors are allowed to access. Moreover, its performance is outright spotty: numerous webpages that do not contain contentious materials are being filtered. Therefore, it can be argued that even though the purpose of installing the software is good, the agency that is being used to realize it, is faulty.
It should be mentioned that librarians go through a laborious process of examining materials that might be deemed illegal or inappropriate for perusal by their patrons. While the process of culling is fraught with complications, the use of filtering software that does not work effectively and eliminates access to valuable information is even more troublesome. Librarians that rely on blanket selection choices of filtering software are absolving themselves from the responsibility to exercise their own judgment during the process of evaluation of the suitability of the information. Moreover, the procedure that has been chosen for achieving the goal of protecting digital consumers from content on objectionable websites can be considered an attempt to introduce government-imposed censorship. Taking into consideration the fact that the agency betrays the purpose, it is impossible to justify installing filtering software according to an ethics of purpose.
An Ethics of Principle
It is also necessary to evaluate the decision to filter contentious websites at the risk of denying access to certain information to two-thirds of library visitors according to an ethics of principle. The ethics cover the act, the agent, and the principle. As has been established in the previous sub-section of the paper, the agent is the American government, which through the enactment of CIPA seeks to perform the act of restricting minors’ access to potentially harmful information on the Internet at schools and libraries. The implicit principle that can be recognized in this particular situation is that one can restrict freedom of information of another person if they believe that this freedom might come at the cost of another person’s wellbeing. In other words, the government can deny adults’ access to the legal information in order to minimize the risk of exposure of children to obscene and objectionable materials on the web. Having established the three essential components of ethics of principle, a critical analysis of the situation can next be undertaken.
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On its surface, the Internet is nothing more than “a vehicle for disseminating information” (Kurlantzick 22). Despite the fact that it becomes increasingly complicated technology, at its core, it remains just a tool for communication. According to Brey, “social interaction in cyberspace is often authentic in that it is often sincere and involves earnest interaction between real people” (21). It can be argued that by restricting adults’ freedom of access to information in order to protect minors from potentially harmful digital content, the government impinges on another important freedom—freedom of speech. It should be mentioned that freedom of speech is recognized as a human right and should not be violated regardless of a medium used to express it.
In order to proceed with analyzing the issue in the domain of ethics of principle, it is necessary to accept that exchange of information on the Internet is no inherently different from the same act performed with the help of any other medium such as oral communication or writing. According to Feng, the majority of social scientists recognize that technologies are value-free or value-neutral tools (209). Therefore, what should be of concern to anyone evaluating the issue at hand is the desire of the American government to control the value-neutral Internet with the help of ham-fisted techniques and methods. The essential normative standard that lies at the core of ethics of principle is universality. If one were to make the principle of the act a universal law, they would immediately recognize that such a law impinges on the fundamental human right—freedom of speech. Therefore, it is impossible to justify installing filtering software within a framework of an ethics of purpose.
An Ethics of Consequence
By making the utilitarian principle a starting point in the analysis of the issue according to an ethics of consequence, it is possible to assess who is affected by the act and in what manner. The ethical evaluation of the act of installing the filtering software in the library requires examining its benefits and harms in order to determine whether the greatest good for the greatest number of people will be achieved as the result of the action. While often it is impossible to determine what constitutes the greatest good in a certain situation, it is generally recognized that regardless of “what kinds of things people consider to be good” they “need ability, security, knowledge, freedom, opportunity, and resources in order to accomplish their projects” (Moor 66).
Furthermore, “the goods of autonomy” (Moor 66) are essential to the pursuit of happiness. Applied ethicists stress that the ability of an individual to do whatever they want is “not necessarily any less valuable than happiness or even life” (Moor 66). There are people who are firm in their belief that life without freedom is not worth living (Moor 66). Yet others are willing to sacrifice their comfort and happiness in the pursuit of knowledge, which ranks the highest on their individual scale of values. In order to be ethical people should not subject others to unjustified harm. Taking into consideration the fact that the pursuit of happiness is not possible without having a high degree of autonomy, it can be argued that the unjustified restriction of one’s autonomy has to be regarded as the infliction of harm; therefore, it is evil or immoral.
The restriction of freedom of information can be equated to the restriction of autonomy, which is an unethical act. Having established that the restriction of autonomy constitutes harm, it is necessary to evaluate the situation at hand in order to determine the groups of people affected by the act. It is clear that only two groups will be affected by the consequences of the act—adults and minors. Given that this analysis is informed by the utilitarian principle, which holds that only those actions are good that help maximizing well for the greatest number of people, it can be argued that the act of installing the software that restricts the autonomy of two-thirds of library patrons is unethical.
The ethical analysis of the scenario, in which I am being asked to install filtering software that has a downside of restricting access of two-thirds of the library patrons to legal information, shows that it is unethical to proceed with the act. Moreover, the analysis reveals that the action is unethical in the frameworks of ethics of purpose, ethics of principle, and ethics of consequence.
Brey, Philip. “Evaluating the Social and Cultural Implications of the Internet.” Computers and Society, vol. 35, no. 3, 2005, pp. 19-32.
Faulkner, Marcel. “Filter Schmilter: Libraries and Internet Filtering Software.” Web Junction. 2012, Web.
Feng, Patrick. “Rethinking Technology, Revitalizing Ethics: Overcoming Barriers to Ethical Design.” Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 6, no. 2, 2000, pp. 207-220.
Kurlantzick, Joshua. “The Web won’t Topple Tyranny: Dictatorship.com.” The New Republic, vol. 16, no.1, 2004, pp. 21-25.
Moor, James. “Just Consequentialism and Computing.” Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 1, no. 1, 1999, pp. 65-69.