In many ways the Internet Age has been a second Age of Discovery. No oceans were crossed and no new lands were discovered, and yet 30 years later the internet is still a new and relatively untamed place. Of course, it’s not just a new place but a new kind of place, a virtual world where the rules of the physical world don’t always translate well. As a result, we are still trying to figure out the ethics of online behavior, the right and the wrong of how we interact with each other in a virtual space.
There’s a pretty basic principle at the internet’s core: sharing. Without plenty of people willing to freely share information, ideas and opinions, there would be no internet as we know it. That said, there’s plenty of room to debate what kind of online sharing is appropriate and what kind is unethical. Your opinion on the subject may have something to do with how much time you spend on the internet and even how old you are.
We recently discussed how the Ethics Resource Center’s 2011 National Business Ethics Survey revealed that active online social networkers view workplace ethics very differently than their co-workers. The survey revealed, for example, that social networkers were much more likely to share negative information about their organizations publicly and to use company software on their personal computers. One possible explanation for this startling finding is that active social networkers are representative of a new generation that has grown up using the internet and possesses very different perceptions of the ethics of information sharing and intellectual property rights. For them, the basic assumption exists that information is meant to be shared freely and that doing so serves the greater good, but does that mean there should be no rules governing sharing?
Currently, the center of debate over online sharing is content aggregation. Content is king on the internet, and it’s generally expected – and even desired – that interesting content is going to be shared and aggregated across many websites. However, problems arise when content creators believe their content is being used without proper attribution or productive links back to the original content.
As reported by The New York Times, the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin recently saw the debut of a couple of initiatives to introduce rules of ethics to content aggregation. First, a new group called the Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation was established to create standards for content aggregation. In the article, the Council’s founder Simon Dumenco states, “We want some simple, common-sense rules. There should be some kind of variation of the Golden Rule here, which is that you should aggregate others as you would wish to be aggregated yourself.”
Second, Maria Popova and Kelli Anderson introduced the Curator’s Code, Unicode symbols used to express either direct attribution to a source or a “hat tip.” The purpose of the Code is to create a quick and easy shorthand for aggregators to use consistently so that attribution is not lost as information spreads out across the web.
In this second Age of Discovery, both the Curator’s Code and the Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation are attempts to provide maps for the uncharted waters of the internet. Maps, after all, are just visual guides that allow consistent movement by travelers in the physical world. In the virtual world of the web, we also need guides. We need guides that help us interact with each other in a consistent and ethical way, and we need guides that help us navigate overwhelming amounts of data with precision – and easily understanding the original source of information is vital to accomplishing both goals. As is usually the case, the ethical course of action is not just the right thing to do, it is also the course that brings clarity out of confusion and thus benefits all.