Ethical Issues: Internet Content Providers and Internet Service Providers

Background on ethical issues, and activities that illustrate these issues.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will have an understanding of:

  • Ethical issues of copyright
  • Ethical issues of "do no harm"
  • Ethical issues for ISPs (Internet service providers)
  • How to analyze an ethical issue

Student prerequisites

Some understanding of basic ethical theory—for a summary, see "A Proposed Methodology..." below.

Resource Materials


A Proposed Methodology for the Teaching of Information Technology Ethics in Schools

I wrote this article, which appears in John Weckert, ed., Computer Ethics 2000: Selected Papers from the Second Australian Institute of Computer Ethics Conference, vol. 1 (Sydney: Australian Computer Society Inc., 2001).
A Proposed Methodology for the Teaching of Information Technology Ethics in Schools

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy—Computer Ethics: Basic Concepts and Historical Overview

Terrell Bynum's entry for information technology ethics is an excellent synopsis.
Stanford Encyclopedia of PhilosophyComputer Ethics: Basic Concepts and Historical Overview


Baase, Sara. A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computers and the Internet. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Bynum, Terrell Ward, and Simon Rogerson. Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Tavanni, Herman T. Ethics and Technology: Ethical Issues in an Age of Information and Communication Technology. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2003.

Ethics for Content Providers and ISPs: Specific Issues for the Activities

The activities below deal with Internet content providers (ICPs) and ISPs.

Make it clear to students what the two terms mean and who belongs to each group:

  • ICPs include anyone who provides material available on the Internet, typically from the World Wide Web.
  • ISPs include all the organizations that provide the infrastructure and gateways that facilitate access to the Internet and hence to content.

One does not exist without the other; to read content, you need an ISP.

Laws exist that apply to both groups. In general, ISPs can be held legally liable in relation to the degree to which the ISP was aware of illegal activity and did nothing to prevent the activity from taking place or did nothing to prevent potential illegal activity from occurring.

Encourage the students to think about how they behave and make decisions. Draw a distinction between:

  • Behavior controlled by law (detection, apprehension, prosecution, enforced consequences)
  • The role of personal ethics

A law works if transgressions can be detected and then effectively prosecuted.

  • What is it about the law that actually acts as the deterrent? Is it that you accept the law as right and just? Or is it that you think you will be caught and hence be punished?

Ask students these questions:

  • Are you more likely to do something questionable if you think you will not be caught?
  • Are you more likely to do something questionable if you believe that not only will you not be caught, but also nobody else will be impacted by your actions?

Students will probably be confused at this point, which indeed is the point—deciding how to behave is confusing.

Ethics for Content Providers

Concentrate on two key areas: copyright and not doing harm.


Copyright seeks to provide a balance between a fair return to the creator and encouragement of originality and free flow of information. Copyright does not protect ideas. It protects the creator's right to perform, reproduce, sell, and derive related works. A common example is that hearing a song or reading a novel about "love" or "hurt" prompts you to decide to write your own. You are free to do so, but if you repeat the exact notes of the chorus or copy exact pieces of dialogue, you will infringe the original author's copyright. In fact, the underlying structure of a song or novel may well be copyrighted also.

  • Fair use notations exist in copyright laws throughout the world. For example, copyright might not apply to reuse if there is likely to be little commercial impact on the creator. This idea is often used by people to validate their copying music: "Well, I was not going to buy the song anyway, so I have not deprived the creator or distributor of any income, hence I have not behaved unethically!" This is not the intention of fair use, it is intended to promote free flow of ideas and information; for example, in an education setting it is reasonable to copy parts of works for face-to-face teaching purposes.

Generally, if someone reuses a work and benefits commercially, the owner of the copyright may well objec—provided, of course, that the infringement is detected.

  • What ethical issues are related to copyright?

    • Ask students: Is it unethical to steal? (In fact, it is illegal.) Taking someone else's work is in fact stealing, and you are likely to impact on their fair return; you might also impact on their reputation for creativity.
    • There are issues of trust involved.
    • There are issues related to "telling a lie."
  • Have the students consider copyright infringement against their own works. Ask them if they would be happy if such infringements occurred.

  • Raise the question: What is a fair return? Copyright does not exist to provide a way to unduly inflate monetary returns. For example, directly discuss the issue of the price charged for CDs and DVDs. Is it justifiable to infringe on copyright because the price of CDs is too high? Openly discuss this issue. For instance, is it ethically reasonable to argue that because CD prices are too high, it is reasonable to download pirated copies because the middle person between the creator and listener has inflated the price? There is a clear ethic of trust involved. The public trusts companies to do the right thing and behave ethically; laws exist to protect the public against undue price manipulation. Do you, as an individual, have the right to protest by infringing copyright? This is a difficult question to attempt to answer.

Not Doing Harm

  • The ethic of not doing harm is an important one. Providing content that is misleading or based on poor research can harm a person's reputation, can lead to growth of unfounded beliefs or opinions, can result in unwarranted actions, and so forth.
  • The notion of harm is not just related to physical harm. Content on the Internet is public, or at least public to subscribers of particular Web sites. Content may or may not directly identify the author, sources, or parties mentioned in the content. More problematic is content that deliberately obscures the creator.
  • Have the students consider a situation where misleading material is published about them, and have them discuss how they feel.
  • Have the students consider why someone might place misleading material on a Web site. Does it matter if the misleading nature of the material is deliberate or not?
  • As a way of linking to other areas of the curriculum, the concept of checking sources and telling the truth are important in English, science, journalism, and so forth. However, sometimes telling the truth can do harm—to someone's reputation, for example.

Ethics for ISPs

Have the students consider this situation:

  • Students are gathered around a dance hall ready for a school dance. Inside the dance hall it is dark, and there are several senior students whose role is to make sure that no alcohol is consumed inside the hall. For students to enter, they need to show their bags to the school captain before entering the hall. The school captain at the door is acting in the role of the ISP.

    • If the school captain did not inspect the bags, we would not be surprised if alcohol got into the hall. Parents would assume that the bags would be inspected.
    • The teacher and the school would find it very difficult to argue that they did not have an ethical responsibility to prevent students from bringing alcohol into the hall. By inspecting bags, they are exercising due care. Consider the argument: "It is not our responsibility to check what students bring into the hall in their bags; we simply provide the venue."
    • Have students respond to this situation and discuss the ethical issues:
      • Is there any case of invasion of privacy?
      • Who bears the ethical responsibility?
      • What level of ethical responsibility does the student have

Now consider the ISP:

  • In the above case, the ISP actually inspects each bag. The bag is like a data packet on the Internet. However, on the Internet it is impossible to inspect each set of bits to determine their purpose—ethical or otherwise—as they pass through a server.
  • An ISP has no way of knowing what a bit pattern represents. But they can see the end result of postings on a Web site or conversations in a chat room that they host. For example, consider a chat room that allows people to denigrate particular individuals in a school.
    • Assume that the ISP claims to monitor conversations and asks chat- room participants to abide by a code of conduct, which does not permit the use of denigrating terminology. However, in this instance, the chat room is not monitored, and an individual is denigrated and is identified to the school group. This results in the student suffering. (Be careful here, as it might be the case that some students in your group have encountered this exact problem!)

Putting aside the legal issues raised here, have the students consider the ethical behavior of the actors in this scenario. Refer to my “Proposed Methodology” paper (described above under "Resource Materials").

  • Who are the actors? (ISP and chat-room participants)
  • Has the ISP knowingly allowed transgression of its code of conduct?
  • Does it matter whether the ISP has acted knowingly or not? The ISP has, in fact, provided the space (in this case virtual space) for the denigration or abuse to occur.

The participants have participated in an act of abuse. Let's assume for the moment that the participants have not identified themselves and have not identified the victim. Can the participants claim to have acted ethically? Have students discuss and produce a justifiable set of ethics for a chat room.

The questions will require students to research on the Internet and/or library. Teachers will also have to take students through a scenario-analysis process.

Summary of Expected Results

  • Students should become more aware of the complexity of the ethical issues applying to Internet content providers and Internet service providers.
  • Students should become aware of their own roles in Internet communication and the possible consequences of their behavior on the Internet.

Andrew Meyenn received master of science and master of education degrees from the University of Melbourne in Australia as part of a doctoral program in e-learning. He is the head of the information technology (IT) learning area at Wesley College in Melbourne and lectures on IT professional issues at the University of Melbourne and at Central Queensland University. Author of a number of textbooks, he is the coauthor, with Richard Jones, of Computer Science: Java Enabled, for use with the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program; Meyenn and Jones are developing an online teaching resource for IB computer science. He is a member of the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA).

Authored by

Andrew Meyenn
Wesley College
Melbourne, Australia