Professional Ethics and Social Issues in Networked Information Systems

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

These are the notes for lectures "Professional Ethics" and "Social Issues", in the course Networked Information Systems (COMP2410/COMP6340), prepared for the Australian National University, May 2011 (updated May 2012 and May 2013) by Tom Worthington.

About the Author

Tom WorthingtonTom Worthington is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the Research School of Computer Science in the College of Engineering and Computer Science at ANU. He teaches ICT Sustainability. In 1999 Tom  was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy. In 2010 he received the Canberra ICT Education Award for his  Green IT Strategies course. The accompanying textbook is used for university courses in Australia and North America.

Tom consults to government and industry on technology policy and has been an expert witness in several court cases involving patent, computer and telecommunications issues. He is a Certified Professional, past president, Fellow and Honorary Life Member of the Australian Computer Society, a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

2 Ethics

Why Study Ethics in a Networking and Web Course?

Professional ethical issues can occur in developing any information technology. However, the Internet and web allow many more people around the world to quickly connect to an IT system. As a result professionals are more likely to confront ethical issues when dealing with the Internet and the World Wide Web. Professionals may be called to account for their actions not only in their own country, but in any jurisdiction in the world.

What are Ethics?

Ethics (from the Ancient Greek ethikos, the adjective of ethos "custom, habit"), a major branch of philosophy, is the study of values and customs of a person or group and covers the analysis and employment of concepts such as right and wrong, good and evil, and responsibility. It is divided into three primary areas: meta-ethics (the study of the concept of ethics), normative ethics (the study of how to determine ethical values), and applied ethics (the study of the use of ethical values). ...

From: Ethics, Wikipedia, 2007

A President of the Australian Computer Society (ACS) provided a much shorter definition of ethics:

Doing the right thing even when no one looking.

From: Philip Argy, as reported at the ACS Canberra Branch Conference 2007, 2007

Ethical Conduct and Practice

The ACS has a Code of Professional Conduct and Professional Practice, incorporating a code of ethics which requires all members to act with professional responsibility and integrity. The code is only binding on members of the ACS, but courts are likely to use such codes when judging the actions of professionals, even if they are not a member of a particular body.

ACS Code of Ethics

In decreasing order of priority, the ACS Code of Ethics lists:

  1. The Public Interest
  2. Integrity
  3. Confidentiality
  4. Objectivity and Independence
  5. Competence
  6. Keeping Up-To-Date
  7. Subordinates
  8. Responsibility to your Client
  9. Promoting Information Technology
  10. The Image of the Profession and the Society

Ethics research

Professional ethics are mainly concerned with applied ethics (as used in the workplace). However, research at the ANU on meta-ethics and normative ethics provided a better understanding how ethics applies to ICT.

The researchers conducted a survey and interviews of ICT professionals on their attitudes to ethics and the IT industry (Lucas, 2008). One finding was that those borne 1981 to 1999 (so called "Generation Y") thought:

  1. Ethical regulations should be less important,
  2. Job security made a difference to ethical behaviour.
  3. They had more ethics education than previous generations.

Further research in this area is being proposed by ACS.

3 Being a Professional

Government Certification of Professionals

The Australian Federal and State Governments have enacted Professional Standards Legislation, coordinated by the Standing Committee of Attorneys General, which regulates some professions, including engineers, solicitors, accountants and IT professionals. In return for accepting mandatory levels of qualifications and training, professionals are able to limit their liability.

The Australian Computer Society sent me a message to say I could apply for a new category of membership, the Certified Computer Professional. This allows limited liability, under Professional Standards Legislation.

From the start of 2010, the Professional Standards Councils included IT professionals in the scheme. To take part IT professionals must:

  1. Have qualifications and experience to be a Certified Professionals (CPs)
  2. Undertake 30 hours Continuing Professional Development (CPD) each year, and
  3. Have Professional Indemnity Insurance.

In return for this a Certified Computer Professional has indemnity capped at as low as $1.5M. In effect society is saying they trust suitably qualified professionals to act responsibly.

Guidelines for Expert Witnesses

The guidelines provided by courts to expert witnesses also provide a useful summary of how professionals should act in their ordinary work. In "The accidental expert witness", Tom Worthington discusses work of an Australian ICT professional giving evidence in Australian courts.

Ways by which an expert witness giving opinion evidence may avoid criticism of partiality include ensuring that the report, or other statement of evidence:

  1. is clearly expressed and not argumentative in tone;
  2. is centrally concerned to express an opinion, upon a clearly defined question or questions, based on the expert's specialised knowledge;
  3. identifies with precision the factual premises upon which the opinion is based;
  4. explains the process of reasoning by which the expert reached the opinion expressed in the report;
  5. is confined to the area or areas of the expert's specialised knowledge; and
  6. identifies any pre-existing relationship between the author of the report, or his or her firm, company etc, and a party to the litigation (eg a treating medical practitioner, or a firm's accountant).
From: Federal Court of Australia Guidelines for Expert Witnesses in Proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia, Federal Court of Australia, 19 March 2004

4 Social Issues in Networked Information Systems

Democracy Implemented in XML

All 110 years of transcripts of parliamentary proceedings are now available for the Australian Parliament as search-able web content. Hansard, as the record of the Senate and House of Representatives, is known, display by default in HTML, but can be downloaded as XML (under a Creative Commons licence) for analysis.

Here is an example. Starting at the search page, I entered my name "Tom Worthington", which produced 66 Matches:


Nine of these are catalog entries for my books held in the Parliamentary Library, such as Green Technology Strategies. Twenty are mentioned in Parliamentary committees. Only seven are actual mentions by parliamentarians in the Senate.

One mention I get in Hansard is from 1999:

so ago. This year's theme `The Bush Telegraph for the 21st Century' targeted questions of information technology for non-metropolitan regions. The range of speakers included Tom Worthington , who is the immediate past president of the Computer Society; Fay Lamont, a finalist in the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year Awards...

Clicking on the link brings up that the portion of the Hansard, as a web page (in XHTML 1.0 Transitional), as well as the option to Download the Fragment as PDF, or as XML.

While it is good that Hansard is available on-line, the interface could be improved:

  1. Have a link on the word "Search" in text on the Parliament home page (currently it is in an image with the phrase "ParlInfo Search"),
  2. Include the word "Hansard" on the search page,
  3. Add an option on the search page to limit results to the Hansard,
  4. De-clutter the search results page, by moving from the top to the bottom: "Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document", "View Or Save XML" and "Download Fragment". Those who need these options are likely to scroll to the bottom and find the, for everyone else it will not matter.
  5. Check the search page displays correctly on a range of browsers, including those for non-Microsoft operating systems, smart phones and tablet computers (on my Firefox 3.6.17 browser, the search box is off the right side of the page).

The provision of Hansard in this way also creates ethical dilemmas for IT professionals involved in its maintenance. By definition, these electronic documents form part of the law of Australia. It would be very tempting for a future unscrupulous government to modify the record to suppress unpleasant facts. The IT professional responsible for designing the system has to build in safeguards to prevent this happening. However, there will still need to be provision to correct errors, as so a way to modify history. If ordered to modify the records in an improper way, will the IT professional refuse, even in the face of the threat of dismissal or more extreme punishment?

Professional Ethics in the Design of Emergency Warning Systems

After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the United Nations coordinated the establishment of an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System. However, such systems are designed to warn public officials at a national and regional level and there could be a delay before the general public receive the warning. The advent of the Internet and the web allow for the possibility of direct warning to the general public. This creates ethical dilemma for ICT professionals who will be required to ensure the systems are sufficiently reliable.

There are risks to the community, even from a reliable warning system. The promise of being offered a rapid warning may lull the community into a false sense of security, waiting until the last second for the official warning before taking action to protect themselves.

5 Questions To Aid Study

Hypothetical scenario

On 3 March 2010, The Hon Julia Gillard MP, Minister for Education announced that the Australian Government will implement a "My University" website (modelled on the "My School" website), to inform students about institutions, courses and pathways.e website commenced in 2012, with a largley positive response.

Suppose you are employed as a team member by the government, to support for Your supervisor has asked you to look through the site’s access logs to to help determine which features of the site should be upgraded, due to their relative popularity. While you are looking through the logs, you notice that some users are exploiting a bug in the code. These users are running a specially-designed script which allows them to extract "league tables" identifying which universities give the best marks to which categories of students and are selling that data.

Fixing the bug will require resources to be diverted from implementing new features which the Minister for Education has announced. Your team leader, ask for your advice on what to do.

To help, here is an excerpt from the ACS Code of Ethics:

  1. The Public Interest
  2. Integrity
  3. Confidentiality
  4. Objectivity and Independence
  5. Competence
  6. Keeping Up-To-Date
  7. Subordinates
  8. Responsibility to your Client
  9. Promoting Information Technology
  10. The Image of the Profession and the Society


Question 1

Question 2

Suppose that fix of the security bug in the system resulted in the system being unavailable for four weeks, instead of the planned four hours. As a result Australian universities have lost millions of dollars from overseas students who did not enrol. Imagine that you are an independent expert witness assisting a court investigating the failure of the system.


  1. Address to the Universities Australia Annual Higher Education Conference (Speech), Julia Gillard, Minister for Education, Australian Government, 3 March, 2010
  2. Baird review into International Students final report, Media release, Julia Gillard, Minister for Education, 9 March, 2010
  3. Stronger, simpler, smarter ESOS: supporting international students, Review of the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act 2000, Bruce Baird, Australian Education International, ISBN 978-0-642-32945-5, March 2010.

6 Readings

Now read:

  1. Ethics and regulation in the ICT industry – Lessons for the ACS, Richard Lucas, ACS Canberra Branch Conference, 2008
  2. The accidental expert witness, Tom Worthington, Information Age, 14/12/2005 14:56:45
  3. Wireless Internet for Emergencies, Tom Worthington, for the APCO Australasia Annual Conference, Sydney, 3 March 2009.

Optional Suggested Videos:

  1. Ethics Value Proposition, Philip Argy, President of the Australian Computer Society, 2007
  2. Ethics - Trusted vs Trustworthy, Philip Argy, President of the Australian Computer Society, 2007
  3. ACS Code of Ethics, Philip Argy, President of the Australian Computer Society, 2007

Creative Commons License
Professional Ethics and Social Issues in Networked Information Systems by Tom Worthington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License

This is version 1.4, 31 March 2014.