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Although I have a deep personal and professional interest in the Internet, I had never really thought of the Internet as an ethical issue until I was first contacted – by e-mail, of course – by Professor Marc Le Menestrel.

Marc is both Assistant Professor of Management at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain and visiting Professor of Business Ethics at the international business school of INSEAD [click here] at Fontainebleau, just outside Paris, France.

At the time that he first contacted me, Marc was in Singapore which is the newly-opened Asia campus of INSEAD. Together with his senior colleague Professor Henri-Claude de Bettignies, he was running a 16-session course with the intriguing title: "Individual, Business & Society: The Ethical Dilemma”. One of the sessions was called “Who should regulate the Internet?” and this session was focussed on a case study of the LICRA vs Yahoo! legal action in France.

Subsequently, I visited the main INSEAD campus at Fontainebleau, talked with Professors de Bettignies and Le Menestrel, and gave a videotaped interview of the Yahoo! case to Marc Le Menestrel and his American colleague Mark Hunter.

This exchange has led me to think much more about the issue of Internet ethics. Is it an oxymoron, like ‘military intelligence’ or ‘English cuisine’, or is it simply common sense and, in that sense, an orthodoxy?

This paper examines three related issues:


It is essential to start with some understanding of the history and the nature of the Internet.

Where did it come from?

[For a much more detailed history of the Internet, see the Hobbes Internet Timeline click here]

What are the implications of this evolution for the ethics debate?

  1. The distributed nature of the Internet – based on packet switching and the routing and rerouting of packets along multitudinous networks and nodes – makes any central control of the medium impossible, even if it was thought desirable.

  2. The Internet was developed originally for military and then academic purposes. As originally conceived and used, it was a closed network with specific uses and functions and therefore, initially at least, never provoked a debate about ethical issues in the way that cinema or radio or television – all immediately available to those who could afford it - immediately did.

  3. The Internet was originally designed for, and used by, the few and the intellectual. This gave it a particular set of values – such as tolerance of dissent and antipathy to control – that still pervades much of the debate about Internet content and regulation.

  4. The Internet was originally used exclusively by Americans and even today around two-fifths of all users reside in the U.S.A. This means that the debate around the Internet has been influenced massively by American culture and values, notably the First Amendment of the US Constitution (which guarantees freedom of expression) and more generally an hostility towards Government intervention or control.

  5. The growth of the Internet has been exponential: more and more people are using it for longer and longer to do more things. This has at least three consequences:

  1. The Internet is no longer the preserve of the few and the intellectual. In many industrialised societies, a majority of citizens have access – whether at home or at work – and the user profile is increasingly approximating that of the citizenry as a whole.

  2. The Internet has ceased to be an American phenomenon. There are now almost as many users in Europe as there are in the USA and therefore much of the ethics debate now is a clash between American and European culture and values.

  3. As Internet growth continues and especially as we see more users in Asia and South America, the ethics debate will not simply be an American vs European one. Increasingly we have to accommodate a wide diversity of cultures and value systems.

So much for the history of the Internet. What about the nature of the Internet? What range of services does it provide?

The main forms of content are:

The types of activities which are taking place on the Net can be analysed as follows:

What are the implications of this range of services for the ethics debate?

  1. The Internet is not one network but many – indeed it is a network of networks. It does not provide one type of service offering but many – and this range will increase. These services have many different characteristics and the ethics debate has to take account of this – how we approach chat rooms many not be how we approach newsgroups, especially where children are concerned.

  2. The Internet has many actors with different interests. Infrastructure companies like Cisco or Oracle may have little or no involvement in content. Microsoft may start by ‘simply’ providing a browser (Explorer) and then go into the portal business (MSN). Not all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide access to all newsgroups and most chat rooms are not hosted by ISPs. If one is attempting to bring a sense of ethics to the Internet in any particular instance, it is essential to know who has the control and the responsibility.

  3. There is still a poor sense of understanding of the issues. On the one hand, those who campaign for more ‘control’ of the Internet often have little understanding of the technological complexities. Typically they do not know how newsgroups and chat rooms are hosted and many politicians do not know the difference between a newsgroup and a Web site. On the other hand, many providers of Internet infrastructure and services have little understanding of, let alone sympathy for, the concerns of users. Frequently complaints about material or requests for meetings are dealt with in a cavalier fashion or even ignored.

  4. Increasingly the debate about the content of the Internet is not national but global, not by specialists but by the general populace. There is a real need for this debate to be stimulated and structured and for it to lead to ‘solutions’ which are focussed, practical and urgent.


In considering whether there is a place for ethics on the Internet, we need to have understanding of what such a grand word as ‘ethics’ means in this context. I suggest that it means four things:

  1. Acceptance that the Internet is not a value-free zone

    This means that the World Wide Web is not the wild wild Web, but instead a place where values in the broadest sense should take a part in shaping content and services. This is a recognition that the Internet is not something apart from civil society, but increasingly a fundamental component of it.

  2. Application of off-line laws to the on-line world

    This means that we do not invent a new set of values for the Internet but, for all the practical problems, endeavour to apply the law which we have evolved for the physical space to the world of cyberspace. These laws might cover issues like child pornography, race hate, libel, copyright and consumer protection.

  3. Sensitivity to national and local cultures

    This means recognising that, while originally most Internet users were white, male Americans, now the Internet belongs to all. As a pervasively global phenomenon, it cannot be subject to one set of values like a local newspaper or national television station; somehow we have to accommodate a multiplicity of value systems.

  4. Responsiveness to customer or user opinion

    This means recognising that users of the Internet – and even non-users – are entitled to have a view on how it works. At the technical level, this is well understood – bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) end the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) endeavour to understand and reflect user views. However, at no level do we have similar mechanisms for capturing user opinions on content and access to it.

Now that we have a better understanding of what ethics means in the context of the Internet, we need to address the question: whose responsibility is ethics on the net? The answer is that responsibility should be widely spread.

In seeking to apply a sense of ethics to cyberspace, there are some major problems but also some useful solutions.

Among the problems are:

Among the solutions are:

So, how will all this come about?


An excellent case study on Internet ethics – and one being developed by INSEAD in Fontainebleau – is the French legal case against the American company Yahoo! [click here].

What are the basic facts of the case?

[For much more detail on the Yahoo! case click here and click here].

What issues are raised by the Yahoo! case?

  1. Should the Internet raise issues of ethics and morality? Should a company like Yahoo! have any interest in, or concern about, what one of its users sells to another of its users?

  2. Is there a fundamental clash between American and European values as applied to Internet content? If there is, how should a conflict be reconciled or accommodated?

  3. Should the Internet be borderless or should there be geolocation checkpoints? If there are to be such checkpoints, how would they work?

  4. Can the courts of one country apply penalties to a company based in another country? If so, how will Internet e-commerce cope with multiple jurisdictions?

At this stage, I prefer simply to pose these questions rather than attempt to answer them. However, I would offer some personal views on some of the lessons that could be drawn from the Yahoo! case.

  1. Countries have very different cultures.

    The French understandably are acutely sensitive to issues concerning the Holocaust – it happened on European soil and was visited upon Europeans by Europeans – whereas, not withstanding the strong Jewish lobby in the United States, Americans appear less offended by the sale of Nazi memorabilia. Another cultural difference involves the trial itself: whereas it was comprehensively reported in the French media, the British and America media appeared to view it as a strangely Gallic affair that merited less attention.

  2. Courts are blunt instruments for Internet regulation.

    Obviously, courts are legalistic, but they are also confrontational and costly. We need cheaper, faster, more flexible means of resolving Internet problems. Yahoo! would have saved itself a lot of trouble and opprobrium if it has engaged in a meaningful dialogue with LICRA and LICRA should have given the company more time to develop such a dialogue.

  3. Public opinion can exert considerable influence.

    Yahoo! opposed a demand by the court that it block access by French users to parts of its action site and yet, only months later, voluntarily decided that no-one in the world should have access because the offending items are no longer for sale. Undoubtedly, it was the views of Yahoo! users around the globe that persuaded the company to make such a policy reversal or volte face.

  4. There are often different technical or commercial opinions.

    Yahoo! told the French court that it was technically impossible to block French users from parts of its American site, but a technical panel appointed by the court argued that such geolocation blocking was possible. Yahoo! was originally ‘happy’ to see anyone auction anything on its site free of charge, but now it has a much more restrictive policy and a pricing requirement.

  5. Where there is a will, there is usually a way.

    Commercial companies – especially new companies operating in very fast-changing and competitive environments – do not like people to query their methods of operation and are often very resistant to proposals that, at least at first sight, would appear to complicate further their already complicated lives. But the Yahoo! case has shown that, when companies engage with a problem, they can find a solution.


Some final thoughts about the Internet and ethics:

"This is not a battle between good and evil"


"Internet E-Ethics In Confrontation With An Activists' Agenda: Yahoo! On Trial" by Marc Le Menestrel, Mark Hunter & Henri-Claude de Bettignes click here and go through 'research' and 'working papers' to check working paper 577

Case analysis by Yaman Akdeniz of University of Leeds in UK click here

Briefs and rulings in the US case: click here


Last modified on 23 September 2002

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