Ethical Issues Computing Essay

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Ethics is the branch of philosophy that asks and addresses questions regarding right and wrong behavior. The contemporary industrialized world’s heavy reliance on computers to accomplish a variety of tasks heightens the importance of ethical computer use. Schools are charged at some level with allowing students to consider the ethical ramifications of their actions in general. Computer use in schools is not exempt from this task. Indeed, it is now more important than ever for all members of the school community to ask difficult questions about how they and others can use computers in ethical ways in different contexts. Some of the ethical issues differ little from those in the day-to-day world without computers, that is, the “offline” world, but are nonetheless important in the online setting. Others are more specific to the online world in terms of the potential damage that computer misuse can bring compared to the offline context. The ethical contexts discussed in this entry include netiquette, censorship, digital copyright, and privacy.


Netiquette is a portmanteau of net for Internet and etiquette. Like etiquette for daily conversation in schools, netiquette is a way of establishing a more productive and respectful setting between school participants via appropriate means of expression. Common guidelines of netiquette are rooted in both notions of everyday courtesy in the offline world and the special circumstances of online communication. For instance, harassment, abusive language, and unnecessarily lengthy monologues should be discouraged just as much online as they are in the offline classroom setting. However, typing in all caps is a uniquely online version of shouting. Moreover, forwarding irrelevant e-mails and sending files too large for most computers to handle interferes with school community members’ computer usage and should be avoided.


To receive federal funds for computing equipment and Internet access, schools and libraries must abide by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). CIPA requires that these public institutions use filtering software that blocks access to online material that is “obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors.” While case law continues to evolve on defining the rights of students and teachers in cyberspace, this major statute stands in force.

Supporters of the law cite it as an efficient way of harnessing the power of the Internet for pedagogical purposes while blocking its more unsavory sections from students. Critics point out that corporations who manufacture the filtering software may have hidden political and social agendas reflected in the lists of blocked Web sites. These lists are not available to public scrutiny since they are considered trade secrets. Moreover, many Web sites, either intentionally or unintentionally blocked, do not have any objectionable content. Teachers and administrators are advised not only to monitor Web sites that students attempt to access, but also to monitor software that blocks Web sites that may be educationally benign or beneficial.

Digital Copyright And Fair Use

Generally speaking, the same copyright legislation that forbids large-scale unauthorized duplication and use of copyrighted works in the offline world applies to the Internet as well. Consequently, schools can be held liable in civil courts for students’ sharing copyrighted music, movies, software, and other media over the Internet. The benefits and perils of sharing copyrighted works online are highly contested and involve their own set of ethical questions. Still, few would call the use of PreK–12 school networks to share copyrighted files for solely recreational purposes ethical.

Policies and related debates over the degree of latitude educators and students should be given to distribute or exhibit copyrighted works typically concern four factors. These include the action’s pedagogical value, its impact on the work’s marketability, the nature of the work in question, and what portion of the total work is used in terms of length and the specific portion. Traditionally, educators have relied on the fair use doctrine of copyright law to legally copy part or, less commonly, the whole of copyrighted works for pedagogical purposes. The doctrine itself was enshrined in the Copyright Act of 1976.

Nevertheless, Congress further tightened copyright protection in cyberspace in 1998 by passing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA makes it a federal offense to interfere with any digitized anticopying mechanism put in place by the copyright owner of a digital work. Even bypassing anticopying mechanisms to garner material that is normally protected under fair use is largely illegal under the DMCA. The Librarian of Congress gave “media studies or film professor[s]” permission to bypass these restrictions to make film compilations for exhibition in college and university classrooms in November 2006. It is unclear if this relatively narrow exception applies to teachers and students in the PreK–12 school system.

Prosecutions of copyright infringement for teacher supervised computing activities are rare, in part because the fair use doctrine presents obstacles for copyright holders to pursue legal action. Nevertheless, teachers and students should exercise discretion in the portion of the copyrighted work they copy for school use; generally the longer it is, the more likely fair use does not protect the action.


Internet access provided by schools to their students comes with the expectations that schools own the means of this access and that students are primarily using it to perform school-related tasks. Legally speaking, student activities and correspondence on school networks are treated the same as student grade and behavior records. That is, school faculty and parents can access what their students and children have been doing on school networking equipment. Typically this is recorded on school hard drives and network servers in the form of saved e-mail messages that students have sent and received as well as logs of what Web sites students have visited. The same principle applies to faculty computing activities, which can be monitored by school administrators as well.

If these principles are not consistently made clear to students and faculty, then they may act indiscriminately on reasonable expectations of privacy regarding their Internet access. It is neither unusual nor unreasonable for members of the school community to sometimes go online for personal reasons. Moreover, students may use the Internet at school to gain information or access communities they are forbidden to retrieve at home, such as Web sites related to religion, politics, or sexual orientation.

Privacy laws heavily favor school personnel’s and parents’ right to access their students’ and subordinate faculty’s school records. However, monitoring potentially embarrassing personal messages and browsing or interfering with a student’s identity formation begs difficult ethical questions for school practices.

Administrators and faculty should formulate online privacy policies that take these concerns in addition to relevant legislation, school objectives, and community input into account. In addition, all members of the school community should be made aware of those policies once they are in force. This is so that they can know what behaviors are expected of them and their children, and what input they should give in future policy revisions.

A Different Ethics?

It is debatable whether computer usage in schools raises fundamentally different sorts of ethical questions than those educators and students normally face. Some argue that the sort of misbehavior students and other members of the school community have engaged in online differs from common offline misdeeds only in their greater reach through a wider channel. The effects of decisions made in online computing can have a greater impact, but they are similar in nature to everyday actions in schools. Others argue that since students and educators increasingly participate in online activities as members of virtual communities, the nature of related ethical questions changes.

Virtual communities found on online forums, for instance, can accomplish similar pedagogical tasks. An example would be an analysis and critique of mass journalism guided by experts such as the online Columbia Journalism Review. This invites ethical questions of who should have control over the curriculum, what the nature of online learning should be (if) contrasted to offline pedagogy, and how complementary an online community should be to the school community.

Whether or not the nature of online computing alters fundamental questions of ethics, there are enduring issues that educators and students should be aware of. This enhances the role of computing in schooling and creates a platform for further discussion of ethics that is a cornerstone of a liberal education.


  1. American Library Association. (n.d.). Internet filtering software. Available from plapubs/technotes/internetfiltering.htm
  2. Knowlton, D. S. (2000). A theoretical framework for the online classroom: A defense and delineation of a studentcentered pedagogy. In R. Weiss, D. S. Knowlton, & B. W. Speck (Eds.), Principles of effective teaching in the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Nelson, I. (2006, December 6). New film copyright ruling will benefit faculty. Duke University News & Communications. Available from 12/copyright.html

Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1998). The educator’s brief guide to the Internet and the World Wide Web. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education

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