E-ethics

Ben Teehankee

July 13, 2000

View from Taft

BusinessWorld

By some people's expectations, we are at the eve of a Philippine e-gold rush. Advances in information and communication technology (ICT) have brought us instant information, communication and online commerce.

Bill Gates' book calls the ongoing business transformation "business at the speed of thought." Major companies are staking out the business landscape with their own Internet initiatives. They hope to achieve wider access to markets, cost efficiency, speed, and for some, the holy grail of e-commerce, recordbreaking IPO valuations.

With potentially so much money to be made so fast in everything "e," that other less hip "e" word, ethics, can be easily ignored. This is because technology moves so quickly that it tends to disorient most people. And the feeling that a whole new frontier is opening up leads some to believe that old rules don't apply. This is misleading. Technology need not suspend our sense of right or wrong.

Ethics has never been an easy thing to talk about. It's a bit slippery and subject to too many interpretations. Still, I sense a growing need to reflect on basic ethical considerations that will be pushed to the fore by ICT and e-commerce developments. This is because the speed of technology requires that our ethical reflexes be equally fast. We will be called upon to make ethical decisions in Internet time - almost instantaneously. Just think of the two seconds it takes to forward a rumor by e-mail or cellphone text message - one that could ruin a reputation or cause a bank run.

Let's focus on just three of many ways that ethical violations and technology can mix. A recent IT event, the Love Bug virus, gives us a useful springboard for looking at broader implications of these dilemmas that could arise in the local e-commerce scene.

Taking things that don't belong to you. The LoveBug virus gets passwords from your PC and e-mails these to the author of the virus without your knowing it. In old-fashioned terms, isn't this stealing? Suppose that Bank A's e-banking site that you're logged into rummages through your hard disk and detects that you are also e-banking with Bank B? Since Bank A is getting information from you without your knowing it, would that be stealing? I definitely think so. Bank A should declare its intention and ask for permission which the client can give or not.

Giving or allowing false impressions. The LoveBug virus used the come-on phrase "I love you.txt" in an apparent text e-mail attachment. Those who clicked on the attachment obviously had their curiosity piqued, to their dismay. It was all the virus needed to resend itself to the reader's whole address book and mess with some of her or his computer files.

The attachment was not a harmless text file at all, but was, in fact, a program written in a computer language. The deliberate misnaming of the file was meant to deceive and make the victim open the attachment. In old-fashioned terms, isn't this lying?

Now suppose a phone company claims in its handsome Web site that it will install a telephone within a few days when it actually can only do so after a few weeks. Would this company be lying? Yes it would. The company could instead post a disclaimer on the Web site which explains the range of possible number of days for installation. This gives the customer fair warning and no false expectations.

Taking unfair advantage of others. This is less blatant than outright lying but has the same effect. The LoveBug virus pretends to be an e-mail sent by a friend. It is not. It was certainly sent from your friend's account but without his or her knowledge. The fact that a friend's name appears in an e-mail takes advantage of a user who may think that e-mails always come from the sender indicated. The unsophisticated user is taken advantage of.

Now suppose an Internet service provider markets a so-called "fast" cable connection at a very attractive rate. The service turns out to be completely unreliable. Has the customer been taken advantage of? Most definitely. Sellers have the obligation of informing customers about both the advantages and disadvantages of using new technology.

Some might object to my use of the LoveBug virus as an analogy since it seems to blatantly violate the most obvious moral standards. But that's the reason I chose it. The fact that the spreading of the virus was wrong was not clear to many people since the incident was shrouded in technospeak. Some even argued that it must have been all right since it put our country in the map, or since it exposed the weaknesses in existing e-mail software.

If we can reason this way for an incident which was so clearly unethical, we can err all the more in some of the more "subtle" moral dilemmas that e-commerce will bring our way. A well-known IT telejournalist expressed the concern well: "Mukhang magaling tayo sa computer technology pero hindi natin alam kung ano ang tama o mali."

Business has always been subject to cycles with booms for some and busts for even more. Those who can take proper advantage of the emerging e-commerce boom can stand to profit. Those who want to take improper advantage may profit even more. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), while there may be a new economy, there is no new ethics.

As Tom Donaldson of the Wharton Business School says: "Eventually, our deeper values catch up with the new worlds we create." This should be comforting for those of us who find all this discomfiting. Behaving in a trustworthy manner is still an asset in any legitimate business arena, e-commerce included. By all means, wise business/people should join the e-gold rush if they can avoid losing their shirt. But they would do well to keep their soul intact.