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Fordham College at Lincoln Center
Dept. of Computer and Info. Sciences
CSLV 4650 -- Cyberspace: Ethics & Issues
Prof. Robert K. Moniot
Below is a list of suggestions for topics of papers by students for
this course. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to
provide some ideas to stimulate your imagination
in thinking of what topic you would like to discuss. You can also
visit the Resources
page of the class web site for more sources of ideas.
- Individual vs. corporate responsibility:
- Software ownership and intellectual property: Should
software be treated similarly to other written works? What rights
do the author, vendor, and user respectively have? How does
software differ from other kinds of goods and services, and how does
this affect the ownership issue?
- Software piracy: Does the responsibility lie with the vendor,
the pirate, or both? What are the
consequences, practical, moral and legal?
Can a distinction be drawn between small-scale piracy, in which
software is copied for one's own use or for a few friends, and
large-scale piracy, in which a company makes many copies either for
sale or for in-house use?
- Defective software: What are the consumer's
rights? Should the consumer have to pay for ``bug fixes?'' Is the
vendor responsible for damages resulting from software failures?
Was the Y2K problem or ``millenium bug'' a hoax? Mere hype? What
does the way this issue was handled say about the mechanisms in
place for preventing or repairing defective software? About our
society's dependence on technology?
- Misuse of software: Should a software producer be concerned
that his product may be used for illegal or improper ends? Does the
principle of double effect apply here?
- Privacy and information access: Does the ease of
unauthorized access to computer systems or data affect the morality
of such access? Do individuals have the right to view information
about themselves stored in proprietary databases? Do citizens have a
right to view information in governmental databases? Should
organizations (whether commercial or governmental) be allowed to
share data on individuals without their consent?
How private is e-mail? Is it ethically justifiable for a company to
monitor the e-mail of its employees? For an internet service
provider to monitor the e-mail of its customers? Is it legitimate
for ordinary citizens to use strong cryptography to protect the
privacy of their e-mail messages?
Web browser cookies: what are they? What legitimate purposes do they
serve? How can they compromise users' privacy? What can be done to
prevent cookies from being used in unethical ways?
- Microsoft has a reputation for ruthless, monopolistic business
practices. By its nature software, and particularly operating
system software, benefits by uniformity and so helps justify and
support such practices. Yet experience shows that monopoly is
ultimately harmful to the consumer by permitting higher-priced,
lower-quality products to persist in the market. What are the
ethical principles at issue here? How can these competing
interests be balanced? What are other vendors doing to remain
competitive in this market? What role will Linux and the
open-source software paradigm play in all this?
- Professional issues:
- Various associations of computer professionals have
approved codes of ethics for their members. Are such codes a good
idea? Do the codes properly address the ethical issues faced by
computer professionals? To what extent are computer professionals,
whether members of the associations or not, bound by these codes?
- How can computer professionals help each other to be
more aware of ethical issues and to put them into practice in their
- How can computer professionals help members of the
general public to be more aware of ethical issues relating to the
use of computers in their work?
- Social scientists who study the communities of the
Internet should adhere to accepted ethical codes of conduct for research
involving human subjects, such as informed consent, community
consent, respect for privacy, and avoiding harm. In many cases it
may be difficult to follow these norms. For example, how can one
obtain informed consent from anonymous contributors to a discussion
group? Also, obtaining consent from the members of a community may
compromise the goals of the research, since their behavior may
change if they know that their activities are being monitored. How
can these conflicting demands be reconciled in an ethical manner?
- Social issues:
- Computer crime: How should society protect itself against
the new methods of embezzlement, fraud, etc. enabled by computers?
How can this be done without excessive intrusion on individual
- Free speech vs. society's right to protect itself: should
web sites presenting pornography, hate speech, etc., or promoting
illegal activities be permitted to operate? Are such sites
protected (in the U.S. at least) by the constitutional right of
freedom of speech, or do they constitute threats against which
society has a right to act? If these activities should be
regulated, to what degree? Similar questions are raised by online
- Viruses and hacking: Does the responsibility lie with
vendors for providing inadequate protection, or with users for not
observing the most basic precautions? What motivates hackers, and
what is the best way for society to deal with them?
- Cryptography and national security: Does a government have
the right to eavesdrop on the communications of its citizens? How
can the legitimate need for privacy in business or personal
communications be balanced against the dangers of allowing strong
cryptographic software to get into the hands of criminals and
- Computer communication and freedom of expression: How should
society's need to protect itself be balanced against the
individual's right of expression? Is a service provider cooperating
in evil if a customer uses the service to publish harmful or
E-mail chain letters at least waste people's time and at worst are
used for confidence schemes. Can/should something be done about
them? Chat rooms and online forums are places for people to air
their views freely, but some contributors conceal their true
identities or motives. Is the ethical requirement of honesty
relaxed simply because the medium makes deceit so easy?
- The increasing computerization of everyday life poses risks:
computers are used to run aircraft, medical equipment, elevators,
even toilets. When the software has bugs or design flaws, people
can be injured or killed. What responsibilities do software
designers have for the consequences of such errors? Do the
managers responsible for computerizing their company's operations
tend to be overly optimistic about the reliability of these systems,
to the extent of trusting them too much?
A related issue might be called bio-info-ethics, dealing with the
convergence of information technology and medical advances: Who owns
the human genome? Who should benefit from medical discoveries
derived from it, or from studies based on tissue or blood
samples from individuals? On a more personal level, who has a right
to see your medical record? Who should be able to choose the kind
of medical treatment you receive?
- Gender issues: historically, women have been under-represented
in computer professions. Does this bias affect the design of
software? What, if anything, should be done to increase the numbers
of women in this area, and if so, how can this best be done?
- Computer haves and have-nots: do inequities in access to
cyberspace technology contribute to widening the gap between rich
and poor? This question can be considered on the domestic level,
addressing differences between social classes in U.S. society. It
can also be considered on the global level, addressing differences
between developed and less-developed countries.
What concrete steps could be taken to reduce these inequities? Are
any such steps being taken now?
- New opportunities:
- How can cyberspace technology contribute
most effectively to the common good? How can we avoid the dangers
it poses of exploitation and of increasing the gap between rich and
- The Internet has made it much easier for people to collaborate on
large projects. (This was one of the original purposes for which
was developed.) Examples include the SETI@home project
(http://www.setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/), which coordinates
thousands of home computers to search for radio signals from
extraterrestrial civilizations, and the Great Internet Mersenne
Prime Search (GIMPS, http://www.mersenne.org/), which similarly uses idle
computer time to find large prime numbers. These projects make use
of spare computer resources that would otherwise be wasted, and
allow projects that have difficulty obtaining public funding to go
forward. Other examples of such projects can be found at the GIMPS
- There are numerous projects underway now to digitize books on a
large scale and make them available over the Internet. These
projects aim to increase the availability of important or rare books
to people all over the world. But besides the
technical problems of scanning large numbers of books, these
projects face obstacles posed by copyright restrictions.
- Artificial intelligence researchers seek to produce computers and
software that can perform sophisticated tasks normally considered
the exclusive domain of human beings. What useful purposes can
artificial intelligence serve? Is it realistic to suppose that it
will ultimately free human beings from drudgery and poverty? Are
there limits to what it can do? To what it should do? Is there a
danger that computers will eventually displace human beings,
rendering them irrelevant?
- In the late 1990s, a number of universities started
projects to put courses onto the Web. These on-line distance
learning programs charged tuition and carried full college credit.
They offered the possibility of a college education to people (for
instance working people with a family) whose schedules would not
allow them to attend regular courses, but who could complete the
on-line courses at times convenient for them and at their own pace.
Also, people living in distant locations could enroll. Critics of
these programs argued that university administrators were swayed by
the prospect of lucrative programs that would cost little to
maintain, and paid insufficient attention to the difficulties of
making such courses equivalent in quality to the ones offered on
campus. In this view, the universities sought to exploit
disadvantaged individuals for crass commercial gain. Within a few
years, most of these programs folded for lack of sufficient interest
on the part of the students, and because they cost much more than
expected to develop. Are the critics right about the motives, or
were the universities simply victims of their own naivete? Is there
an appropriate role that distance learning can play in making
education available to those who are disadvantaged by geography or
the demands of their life? If so, what role should universities
play in the development of these programs?