Ethics and the Internet

Nathaniel Centre Staff
Issue 6, April 2002

On February 22, 2002, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications released a document entitled "Ethics in Internet". A summary of this article is presented below.

The internet is the latest and in many respects most powerful in a line of media that have progressively eliminated time and space as obstacles to communication. The fundamental ethical principle is whether the internet is contributing to the integral development of persons.

The common good provides a second basic principle. Solidarity is the virtue that disposes people to protect and promote the common good. The internet can be used to break down the isolation of individuals and groups or to deepen it. It lends itself equally well to active participation and to passive absorption into a 'narcissistic, self-referential world of stimuli with near-narcotic effects'. It will help make every person everywhere 'a partner in the business of the human race' only if used in the light of clear, sound ethical principles. Already the internet has been used in aggressive ways.

To a great extent the new internet technology drives and supported globalisation by creating a situation in which commerce and communications are no longer bound by boundaries. Globalisation can increase wealth and foster development, but the benefits have not been evenly shared. Many people are experiencing globalisation as forced upon them.

A vision of the free exchange of information and ideas has played a praiseworthy part in the development of the internet but at the same time has supported a mindset opposed to any legitimate regulation. There are some who want the internet to be a place for every kind of expression and others who see it as a vehicle of untrammeled commercial activity.

Economic competiveness and the round the clock nature of internet journalism can also contribute to sensationalism and rumour mongering. Honest internet journalism is essential to the common good. The setting of standards requires international cooperation.

Some Areas of Concern

  • How to make the internet accessible to financially disadvantaged groups – the digital divide, a new form of discrimination.
  • Protection of women's rights in regard to internet access and other aspects of the new information technology.
  • Encouraging freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.
  • Attempts by public authorities to manipulate people either by blocking access to the internet or by propaganda and misinformation.
  • Because the new technology can help instill cultural values, care must be taken to avoid cultural domination or imperialism. This applies particularly to Western secular culture.
  • The sheer overwhelming quantity of information on the internet, much of it unevaluated as to accuracy and relevance.
  • The medium's implications for psychological development and health need continued study.
  • Parents should supervise children's use.
  • The existence of laws against abuses such as pornography and fraud. Industry self-regulation is best and prior censorship should only be used in the very last extremity.
  • Protection of the privacy of law-abiding individuals and groups while allowing law enforcement officials to exercise surveillance over criminals and terrorists.
  • Protection of copyright and intellectual property rights without limiting access to material in the public domain.

The Catholic Church, along with other religious bodies, should have an active presence on the internet and be a partner in the public dialogue about its development. When based upon shared values rooted in the nature of the person, the intercultural dialogue made possible by the internet can be a 'privileged means for building the civilisation of love' and make an enormously valuable contribution to human life.

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