Computer ethics is a sub-field of practical ethics that studies the moral behavior of humans as it applies to computers. Computer ethics has many sub-categories, each with its own set of questions and concerns. For example, there are several issues surrounding privacy rights in web transactions. There are also serious concerns about how people's medical records are handled by computer programs. The general topic of "computer ethics" can be broken down into these smaller fields for more specific study:

  • Privacy rights
  • Data ownership
  • Copyright laws regarding software piracy
  • Networking technology standards (for example, WEP or 802.11i)

The idea behind computer ethics is to teach people the right way to use computer systems so they don't inadvertently do something morally wrong. For instance, it's a plain fact that people can use Microsoft Word to format their resumes for a job search without violating any copyright laws. However, if they format the resume with program code or a "canned" letter from a template, then they're technically pirating software and violating copyright law.

The Five Commandments of Computer Ethics

In computer ethics, there are certain basic rules that most people would agree should be followed to maintain ethical behavior using computers:

Don't use someone else's computer system without permission. Don't use someone's computer system for personal gain (except yours). Don't damage anyone's computer system on purpose. Do your best work when you're at school or doing an assignment on someone else's computer system. Treat others how you'd like them to treat you regarding your use of their computer systems.

Don't Use Someone Else's Computer System Without Permission

When you use someone else's computer, make sure to ask first before typing at the keyboard. If the person says "no" (or doesn't answer), then don't type on his or her system; this is called cyber-burglary and it breaks the first commandment of computer ethics.

If you happen to be at a public library and want to research on the Internet but other patrons are waiting for computers, then wait your turn! Don't just log onto an Internet account that isn't yours -- that breaks the third commandment. Nobody likes a "computer hog."

Don't Use Someone's Computer System for Personal Gain (Except Yours)

It breaks the second commandment of computer ethics to use someone else's computer system without their knowledge or permission to do something that will benefit you. For instance, it's unethical to hack into someone's email account and read personal messages because this violates their privacy rights. It would be unethically wrong to log onto your friend Jimmie Johnson's MySpace page and post offensive comments on his wall about how much he likes NASCAR racing when you know he doesn't like online drama. If Jimmie finds out, he might delete or deactivate his account altogether, which is bad if you want to remain friends with him in the future.

Don't Damage Anyone's Computer System on Purpose

It is immoral and unethical to purposely cause damage to anyone's computer system, whether it is your own or someone else's. This includes writing a "virus" program that will delete files on the hard drive, reformatting the disk, or using up all of someone's available printer paper for an entire day -- even if you feel you were wronged by them in some way. It would be wrong to break into your friend Jimmie Johnson's MySpace account so you can change his privacy settings and make him look like a fool in front of everyone he knows on the Internet.
Do Your Best Work When You're at School or Doing an Assignment on Someone Else's Computer System
It's important to always be mindful of the work you do when on someone else's computer -- whether it is at school, in a lab, or using your friend's system. If you're in an Internet class and are required to write papers for the course, then you must follow all copyright laws that apply when writing about certain topics to avoid the possibility of plagiarism. Even if your friend loves "The Simpsons" TV show and has downloaded every episode from iTunes onto his iPod, you still need permission before moving these files after he installs new system software on his computer.

Treat Others How You'd Like Them To Treat You Regarding Your Use of Their Computer Systems
This commandment applies to most situations regarding computer ethics with others. For example, if you want to use your friend's computer system so that you can finish some school work on time, then you would be breaking this commandment if you were to delete files from his hard drive without asking first. If Jimmie Johnson only has one Ethernet cable for his laptop and wants to go online while you are using his computer, then he will need to ask first before plugging into the network jack with your Ethernet cable.