Teaching Computer Ethics to our Youngsters

The concept of “etiquette” seems obsolete today. This quaint word conjures images of a Victorian ball, where gowned ladies in white gloves synchronously swirl with dandied dates to the strains of Strauss. Can a word with such anachronistic connotations have any relevance today?

Webster’s pithy definition of etiquette is “the rules indicating the proper and polite way to behave”. Its full definition is “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life”. Etiquette is based on ethics, a set of moral principles which govern the conduct of an individual or a group.

While often used synonymously, “morals” and “ethics” actually have slightly different shades of meaning. Webster tells us that morals denote personal, subjective values, whereas ethics denote universal values of fairness and whether a behavior is responsible. Ethics can also be used to describe rules of correct behavior in a narrow field, like in cyberspace. This brings us to the word “netiquette”, a term coined to describe the rules of proper behavior in cyberspace.

Emily Post’s Etiquette book has been cited as an arbiter of proper behavior in the United States since it first appeared in 1922. Now in its 19th edition, it has kept in step with the cyber times. In a section for 11-14-year-olds, the book talks about appropriate behaviors in cyberspace for emailing, texting, and engaging in social media. Cyberbullying and sexting are called out as forms of harassment which can have serious consequences. A general section on online communications covers such topics as being mindful about what you send to others, protecting your privacy, and sharing devices and bandwidth. This is not my mother’s Emily Post!

As parents and teachers, we model the behaviors we want our children to adopt. The games we play with them teach valuable life lessons about sharing, following the rules, and showing empathy. We encourage positive behaviors by giving kids choices skewed to correct outcomes. Given one cupcake and two kids, it’s always wise to let one child cut, and the other choose. We raise our youngsters in cultural and spiritual contexts — at home and elsewhere – so they develop their own moral codes and understand ethical behaviors. As they grow to adulthood, our kids increasingly rely on these values to make their own decisions.

Late in the twentieth century – but before the Internet had fully emerged — the computer scientist Ramon Barquin framed the ethical rules for computers in a Christian context. Hypothesizing that the ethical values of Christianity could be extended to define acceptable computer behaviors, Barquin formulated The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics:

1. Thou Shalt Not Use A Computer To Harm Other People.
2. Thou Shalt Not Interfere With Other People’s Computer Work.
3. Thou Shalt Not Snoop Around In Other People’s Computer Files.
4. Thou Shalt Not Use A Computer To Steal.
5. Thou Shalt Not Use A Computer To Bear False Witness.
6. Thou Shalt Not Copy Or Use Proprietary Software For Which You Have Not Paid.
7. Thou Shalt Not Use Other People’s Computer Resources Without Authorization Or Proper Compensation.
8. Thou Shalt Not Appropriate Other People’s Intellectual Output.
9. Thou Shalt Think About The Social Consequences Of The Program You Are Writing Or The System You Are Designing.
10. Thou Shalt Always Use A Computer In Ways That Insure Consideration And Respect For Your Fellow Humans.

Such simple rules make computer ethics look easy. It’s not. Computer ethics is a complicated subject, contextualized by philosophical debates about humans versus machines, scientists’ responsibilities to humanity, and the realizability of fictional dystopias. At the end of the day, however, all the issues seem to boil down to getting humans to use computers and the Internet for good, instead of evil.

So how do we teach kids about the ethics of computers? It’s really very easy. We need to tell them to follow just one non-denominational, cross-cultural maxim: The Golden Rule. By always treating others as you want to be treated, kids are on their way to embracing the netiquette we’ve been looking for all along.