Ethical aspects relating to cyberspace: web ideologies

Virtual communication as a subject of philosophical and ethical analysis reveals the essence and specificity of the regulation of virtual communication. Commentary

Ethical aspects relating to cyberspace: web ideologies

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The ethos of web culture is based on the principles of: unlimited and unrestricted freedom of information, privacy, general availability, quality of information, no harm, limitation of the excessive use of web resources and the principle of inviolability of intellectual property.

The actual implementation of these principles is possible through a number of institutional measures: the formulation of various codes of ethics, which endorse the rights and obligations of participants in virtual interaction, and the creation of an institution of intranet self-regulatory bodies.

The intranet is the private company network that is completely isolated from the external network (the Internet) in terms of services offered (e.g. via LAN), thus remaining for internal use only, possibly communicating with the external network and with other networks through appropriate systems (TCP/IP protocol, also extending with WAN and VPN connections) and related protection (e.g. firewall).

The relevance of the research topic characterises the degree of its scientific development; determines the subject of research; formulates aims and goals; reveals the scientific novelty, as well as the theoretical and practical significance of the ethical aims of communication, and provides data on the approval of the results obtained.

Virtual communication as a subject of philosophical and ethical analysis reveals the essence and specificity of the regulation of virtual communication.

Virtual communication can be defined as a special form of channel-based interaction for receiving and transmitting information. Consequently, its main distinguishing feature is mediation and depends to a large extent on its functionality, which determines its qualitative originality.

Unlike most traditional forms of communication, virtual communication is characterised by distance and by a high degree of permeability: a person located anywhere in the world can become a participant. Virtual communication has therefore a global intercultural nature, and inevitably leads to a collision in the process of interaction of the value-normative orientations of different cultures and, consequently, to the unification of the rules and norms governing communication processes.

The ability to provide information to a very large audience all over the world makes virtual communication be close to mass information communication. This means that any user can take an active part in it, thus becoming not only a receiver, but also a sender of messages.

Because of the machine mediation most forms of virtual communication are characterised by features such as anonymity (understood as the anonymity of a dialogue in which the subjects do not introduce themselves to each other), which, combined with the ability to disconnect at any time, leads to a decrease in the psychological risk in the ordinary communication process in which there is a maior dictated by circumstances of work, wealth, class, public celebrity and fame, age, etc.

Consequently, in the process of virtual communication, it becomes possible to satisfy usually repressed urges and impulses, which, so to speak, cause marginal behaviours. Faced with a subject we do not know and do not look into the eyes, there are more possibilities to pass a judgement without conditioning mediation.

Moreover, the consequence of anonymity is also the risk of a lack of reliable information about each other between the communicants. Therefore, during virtual communication, there is an ongoing construction of the image of the virtual counterpart (often attributing to him/her characteristics that he/she does not actually possess), and of the rules of interaction with him/her. In the process of virtual communication, there is an ongoing construction of the communicator's personality: the specificity of virtual interaction enables a person to create any impression of himself/herself, to wear any mask and play any role - in other words, to experiment (play with others) by passing off an identity he/she does not possess or by imposing one that is capable of asserting itself.

It is no coincidence that most participants in virtual interaction use pseudonyms (“nicknames”): the change of name marks a symbolic rejection of a real person and an exit from real everyday society.

Since in a situation of virtual interaction the factors that form and maintain social inequality in the real world are initially absent (virtual subjects have no body, which means they have no gender, age, ethnicity, nationality), virtual communication is basically a non-status in nature, virtual communication is fundamentally a non-status in nature - and the only criterion of social effectiveness on the Internet are the personal qualities and communication skills of the participant in the interaction (first and foremost, mastery of written speech, but not only written if some people regard audio-conferencing as communication, since video generally frightens those who should be shown).

The blurring of real roles and statuses, the elimination of space barriers and geographical boundaries and, finally, the deconstruction of the subjects of interaction themselves make it difficult for some social institutions to control virtual communication. Another significant feature of virtual communication is therefore its non-institutionalism, which is inevitably accompanied by the uncertainty of the social rules and norms governing people's behaviour in this domain.

The above characteristics leave an imprint in the social relations established in a virtual environment, thus contributing to the creation of a special ethos of cyberspace, and largely predetermine both the nature of the web ethos and the problems it has to face.

The main assumption of the Internet ideology is the proclamation of the cyberspace’s independence from any State structure and institution. It is argued that the global network is a completely self-regulating environment that resists all external influences and is not subject to coercive control and regulation and, therefore, should only be constructed in accordance with the moral laws established by the Internet users, but not with the legal ones recognised in real society. The Internet ideology is therefore extremely liberal and its leitmotif can be considered the slogan proclaimed by hackers: “Information wants to be free”.

The Internet ideology exists in three versions, which can be conditionally designated as radical-anarchist, liberal-democratic and liberal-economic. The followers of the radical-anarchist version of web libertarianism tend to see the Internet as an “electronic frontier”, i.e. the last unregulated area of human life, which, therefore, must be protected from any restrictions, whether external or internal.

However, it is obvious that, despite being somehow attractive, the idea of an “electronic frontier” as a space of unlimited and unrestrained freedom seems entirely utopian since, in practice, such freedom can easily turn into arbitrariness or - on the contrary - into a means of power control that, in turn, pretends to fear the aforementioned followers so that they may be left themselves more exposed, so as to better attack and hit them.

According to the liberal democratic version of web ideology, the Internet should be seen as a means to build a new “digital democracy”, i.e. a democracy enriched by the possibilities of information and communication technologies.

This vision is reflected in another common metaphor describing the Internet as a kind of “electronic Agora”, i.e. a virtual place where people have the right to express any opinion without fear of censorship. To provide everyone with this unique opportunity, but also - probably even more importantly - to weaken the government's monopoly on the exclusive decision-making of all important issues relating to the life of society by making political processes open and transparent, so that they are available for analysis, scrutiny and correction.

At the same time, the idea of “digital democracy” is contradicted by the fact that the Internet is currently far from being generally available. Even in rich industrial countries, there are various economic, socio-cultural, gender and educational restrictions that make access to the Internet a privilege for the few (this phenomenon is called “digital divide”). It would therefore be too early to consider the Internet as an environment for the functioning of digital democracy: the Internet has great democratic potential, which, however, has not yet been fulfilled completely.

Finally, the supporters of the liberal-economic version of web ideology, which is the closest to classical liberalism, argue that the development of information and communication technologies should lead, first and foremost, to the creation of an “electronic market” that is absolutely free of any State regulation.

It is in economic independence from the State that the theorists of this approach see the guarantee for the development of fair market competition and private initiative. However, on closer inspection, it turns out that the idea of establishing fair market competition in global IT networks is nothing more than a common myth. In reality, the Internet rather creates single and oligopolistic economic structures that have little in common with a free “electronic market”.

Moreover, the very logic of the Internet development contradicts the ideology of the “electronic market”, which is at the mercy of private entrepreneurs. This shows that the liberal-economic version of web libertarianism is internally contradictory: it is obvious that the key principle of web ideology - the principle of unlimited and unrestrained freedom of information - is scarcely compatible with the principle of inviolability of private property that underlies economic liberalism.

An analysis of the modern versions of the Internet ideologies therefore shows that all of them - as is characteristic of all “-ism” ideologies, are in one way or another utopian, since they tend to over-idealise cyberspace. At the same time, their importance should not be underestimated: they quite adequately express the attitude of the virtual world’s inhabitants.

This enables us to state that the only “real” basis of the Internet ethics is the inviolability of the personal information freedom proclaimed by web libertarianism, which acquires the status of an unconditional moral imperative in this system of opinions.

Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is a world-renowned Italian economist and international relations expert, who serves as the President of the International World Group. In 1995, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dedicated the Giancarlo Elia Valori chair of Peace and Regional Cooperation. Prof. Valori also holds chairs for Peace Studies at Yeshiva University in New York and at Peking University in China. Among his many honors from countries and institutions around the world, Prof. Valori is an Honorable of the Academy of Science at the Institute of France, as well as Knight Grand Cross and Knight of Labor of the Italian Republic.

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