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Ethics and the Internet

by Glen Emerson Morris

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One of the side effects of the information technology revolution is that there are entirely new ways for businesses to be caught committing ethical violations. Another side effect is that there are entirely new ways for the public to find this out.

Recently, a software company advertised on the Internet for people to develop 3D objects for a 3D library they planned to market. Applicants were told they would be assigned a unique set of objects, be paid a set price when they completed, and were to work in their homes using their own computers, a common practice for computer professionals. Applicants had to buy a software program to create the 3D objects, for a nominal $100, also not unreasonable.

The problem was that the company actually assigned the same sets of objects to many people, deliberately planning on rejecting the work of all but one in each group. This allowed them to pay for the work they accepted with money collected from the people whose work they rejected. To make the product cost literally nothing to develop, all they had to do was to assign it to enough people. If the 3D object set was to pay $2000, they could assign it to 20 people who had paid $100 each for the company's software. If they recruited enough people, they could make a good profit even if they never sold a product. Since the company recruited people over the Internet from all over the country, it seemed to them that the chances of getting caught were close to non-existent. Before the Internet, they would have probably been right.

Initially most people accepted the company's decision that their work wasn't good enough to be used, even if they disagreed with it. Unfortunately for the company, some of the people whose work they rejected started talking about it on the Internet. Others read the comments and noticed they had been assigned the same objects. The story spread quickly on the net, and the company found itself with a public relations disaster, not to mention civil and criminal problems.

This incident is a good example of the how, given the fact that there are over 25,000 thousand different newsgroups on the Internet, with easily over a million messages at any given time, people are still able to find the information they need, sometimes even if they don't know they need it.

The ability of the Internet to collect information about businesses, and connect it with consumers, is only at a primitive state compared with how it will be in a year or two. The reason has to do with time. The Internet currently provides consumers an easy to share information, but not easy not an easy way to store information. Messages consumers post generally are routinely deleted after a set number of days, so no long term consumer's knowledge base is developed.

To store information long term on the Internet a database has to be integrated with the Web server, and until now this required sophisticated programming skills and expensive software. Recent software releases allow a similar system to be assembled easily with off the shelf software, for instance by using the database FileMaker (under $100), the Web server WebSTAR (about $500), and a program which integrates the two named Tango (about $300).

As these new Web server databases become affordable to small businesses, they also become available to individuals. In a year the cost of a simple Web server database will probably fall below $200. DVD storage systems being marketed to consumers then will be able to store millions of records, giving them a storage capability comparable to any corporation or government system. About the same time, millions of consumers will have access to the high speed lines needed to put Web server databases on the Internet, privately, and with little if any government regulation. It's only a matter of time before consumers, in groups or alone, put up databases collecting and distributing complaints consumers have against businesses, doctors, lawyers, and governments.

Particularly at risk are members of professional trade organizations like the AMA and State Bar Associations, whose trade organizations have usually limited consumers access to information they possessed about member's performance. The 1996 election in Massachusetts resulted in a law requiring the state government to provide performance statistics about doctors and hospitals to consumers, immediately upon request, by telephone. By accepting this system now the Massachusetts health industry may have avoided a far less sympathetic consumer run version on the Internet. Lawyers are facing similar problems. Most state bar associations don't make lawyer performance and disciplinary information available on the Internet. The State Bar of California, for instance, doesn't even make complaint records available to the public unless the Bar actually bring charges against a member (and the consumer pays a fee for a copy of the report). Since their budget is limited, they can only bring charges against the most serious offenders, and number of minor to midrange offenders go uncharged, undisciplined, and unknown to the public. In the future, consumers may simply bypass the AMA and Bar Associations and file complaints on a consumer run Internet database.

Businesses, like lawyers and doctors, are about to face a world full of consumers who are constantly sharing notes about the performance, and ethics, of all those they do business with. Businesses counting on the suppression of information to conceal unethical business practices are missing one of the most basic principles of the Information Age.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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