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Review: Code of Ethics for Programmers?

JonKatz posted about 15 years ago | from the Tecnology-and-the-Future dept.

Technology 216

Do computer professionals need a code of ethics? As the computing industry grows, argue two experts on the social aspects of computing, so do the many ethical dilemmas facing people who create, design and sell software and hardware. I'll second that idea: computing is getting some of the worst publicity around, and more and more of it is deserved. This is the second in a series of essays based on "Technology and the Future," edited by Albert Teich and published by Bedford/St.Martin's.

Computers may have ushered in a social and economic revolution, but they don't necessarily signify an advance in the world's ethical life.

Stealing other people's work is almost a hobby on the Net, where copying isn't seen as a crime, but as an inalienable right. Geeks and nerds routinely brag about their software snatches, purloined gaming and music libraries and free upgrades.

Programmers frequently come up with products that are buggy, excessive, unworkable, unsupportable or overpriced. The industry's consumers are exploited and abused.

Online, cruelty and hostility are points of pride, civility and respect rare virtues.

While people all over the world have been quick to embrace computing, they've been slower to consider its moral implications. The explosion of computer technology, its sudden rise, and its susceptibility to misuse and malfunction have raised a slew of unresolved ethical, social and legal issues.

The Net's builders - engineers, nerds, academics and geeks of the 60s and 70s - talked a lot about freedom, accessibility, and openness; they believed in information as a tool for improving the human condition. They would be flabbergasted, three decades later, to learn that entertainment has become the Net's primary draw. According to Cyber Dialogue, more than 43 million users -70 per cent of all Americans online - were using the Web for sports, movies, TV, music or gaming.

As is often typical in visionary social movements, the real world tends to set in brutally. The leaders of today's computing industry today talk a lot more about bandwidth, hardware, and IPO's than about changing the world.

As for other leaders, Congress is much too busy exploiting political concerns about dirty pictures to focus on real moral problems - and by now, nobody would really want Congressional input into the life of the Net and the Web, anyway, especially when it comes to ethics.

So although there are scads of ethical people in the computing business and online - many engaged in downright noble endeavors - computing is still raw, wild, and ethically unformed. Along with the honorable values found online - freedom, sharing, creating - there are plenty of dark ones.

"Computer Ethics," by Tom Forester and Perry Morrison, is one of the most provocative essays in Albert Teich's collection of writings about issues raised by the spread of new technology. There could hardly be a more timely subject. There is nothing approaching a consensus on computing ethics, even as the number of Americans using the Internet rockets past the 100 million mark.

The ease with which even minimally-skilled Net users can copy software, for instance, presents millions of people with ethical dilemmas weekly. Ethicists have argued that copying software is blatant theft, yet the easy transmission of software also challenges long-held ideas about who can and should own information.

Is copying software wrong? Are some kinds of copying more ethical than others?

Hacking and cracking are defined differently all over the Net and Web; some see hacking as harmless fun while cracking is criminal, but an increasing number of people view both activities as equivalent to fraud or theft.

What about the behavior of computer users online? People can act arrogantly, even viciously, ignorantly asserting opinions and spreading misinformation, attacking different views, ridiculing the helpless, driving newcomers away. Websites routinely tolerate behavior that would be prohibited or curtailed in almost any other other context.

Within the computer industry itself, there are by- now- entrenched patterns of unethical corporate behavior. Few companies involved in the creation or maintenance of computers or programs take any real responsibility for what they sell or how it works. Accordingly, few Net users are without horror stories to tell about squandered money or malfunctioning equipment.

Computers are often badly - even unethically -- sold, with pricey and unnecessary equipment foisted on unknowing consumers; technical support remains a nightmare of near-extortionate "incident" plans and delays, with often poorly-trained, overwhelmed staff. In most companies, some of the most important employees, especially in terms of public perception - Help Desk geeks - have the lowest status and salaries.

Computer software is constructed to invade privacy, record personal tastes and habits, share unauthorized information, and market personal information in ever-widening circles and ways.

It's hard to think of any other business with so horrid a record of abusing its customers. Public disgust and resentment over the way computers are sold, and the way the machines work (or don't) help create a climate in which government regulation and intervention becomes more politically appealing. As computers become more central, they tend to be blamed for more and more problems - pornography, isolation, addiction, hate-mongering. Computers get an even worse PR rap these days than politicians.

Although much of this publicity is false or overblown, computing reinforces the disturbing notion that technology often rushes ahead of our ability to deal coherently - or ethically - with it. That in turn breeds mistrust and suspicion.

Who, exactly, bears responsibility for bugs? For system crashes? For the equitable distribution of technology?

The truth is, we have no idea. And it's all only going to get more ethically complicated.

Computer- driven studies in artificial intelligence and genomes have raised staggering question marks - some having to do with the nature of life itself - though they receive far less political or media attention than the occasional media-sensationalized computer virus.

Because computing is a relatively new field, Forester and Morrison write, the profession has lacked the time or organizational capacity to establish a set of moral rules or ethics the way more entrenched professions like medicine or law have. Computing and its many subsets - such as programming and software engineering - haven't yet emerged as a full-fledged profession. They also plead that computer educators teach ethics; that they make students aware of the social problems caused by computers and the kinds of moral choices programmers and designers will face at work.

"Computer professionals face all sorts of ethical dilemmas in their everyday work life," write Forester and Morrison. "First, although they have obligations to their employers, to the customers, to their co-professionals, and to the general public, these obligations often come into conflict."

How should a systems analyst respond if her employer insists on selling overengineered, unnecessarily expensive or otherwise inadequate systems to unknowing customers? Should computer professionals care when they see intellectual or property rights being infringed upon? How should a computer professional deal with the daily barrage of issues involving intellectual property?

Do non-professionals online have any ethical responsibilities at all? Movements like free software and Open Source advocate the sharing, distribution, use and re-use of software, a moral position in conflict with traditional notions of ownership. Yet online, it's almost a moral imperative to thwart corporate efforts to curb information, as when the WB network foolishly postponed the season finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in the post-Columbine hysteria and fans downloaded it all over the Net.

Technically, the "Buffy" fans were stealing the WB's property. Can't a network programming exec air what he or she has bought any time he or she pleases, for any reason at all? Yet in this case, the theft seemed more ethical than the hypocritical decision to postpone the broadcast.

Similiarly, the music industry is in near-meltdown over unpaid MP3 downloads and other forms of piracy. Yet the record companies - one of the world's larger cartels outside Colombia - were due some comeuppance for their arrogance, greed and control over music. In the age of the market-driven mega-corporation, it sometimes does seem more ethical to steal than to pay.

For now, online ethics remain personal and individualistic. Certain values predominate in some quarters - information-sharing, a common interest in protecting freedom, an increasingly rationalist approach to political and informational issues. But how to implement those values in any particular situation is left up to the individual, a hit-or-miss proposition in a culture with tens of millions of people and tens of thousands of newcomers every day.

Professional organizations like the ACM (Associatiion of Computing Machinery), the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), the British Computer Society (BCS) and IFIP (International Federation for Information Processing) have all worked to create codes of ethics and professional conduct. Few of these codes are widely known and embraced.

But there are broad ethical principles that many computer users and builders can rally around. Here's a few starters:

  • Opportunity. People who work in computers might work for the equitable distribution of technology, so that computer users don't become a powerful elite in control of a culture that excludes the technologically illiterate, a social nightmare already well underway.

  • Responsibility. People who make technology need to consider its social implications, applications and consequences.
  • Access. Unfettered access to the Internet, its information unrestricted and unregulated by corporations or government except in the most dire circumstances.
  • Civics. Democracy and inclusion, using network computing to break down elites, to bring more people into the political process, provide them more information, and give them new ways to express their opinions and attitudes.
  • Civility. Another ethical goal might be a civil society online - especially a new kind of media -- where information is gathered and shared openly, solutions are approached rationally rather than ideologically, facts replace confrontation and dogma, argument is encouraged but personal attacks viewed as the unethical assaults on the free movement of ideas that they are.

And where corporations, designers, programmers and engineers take responsibility for the things they make and the way they work and are used.

Next - Part Three: The Coming Of The Perfect Baby

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just give it some time (1)

miahrogers (34176) | about 15 years ago | (#1706705)

There are so many newcomers to the internet now that it's up to much abuse. People will generally abuse things that are new to them. After the prohibition everyone drank like crazy for periods, but after a while they cooled off and got bored with it, they moved onto more interesting things. Eventually the internet will be a common everyday thing, it almost is, but still not every house owns a computer with a dial up account. Once everyone has internet access it will become just a regular thing, people will GET BORED WITH ALWAYS TYPING IN CAPS. Cracks will be as common as shoplifting, or armed robberies, online shops will be built with security, just like real shops. We just need to give the internet some time to cool off, once it does people will realize how they should use it. Not everyone will know about how their computer works, they won't have to, so salesman will still try to rip people off. But you'll always be able to get a geek to come along with you on a computer shopping trip, just how you can get a mechanic to come along with you on a car shopping trip.
In short once we give computers enough time to grow into our culture they'll stop being abused.

Re:Unethical sales? (0)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706706)

And if you buy IBM who's main selling point is "We cost more" then you're just not paying enough attention.

Re:It's all about respect... (1)

elvum (9344) | about 15 years ago | (#1706707)

Let me guess - you're American, right? :-)

Check this (1)

meadowsp (54223) | about 15 years ago | (#1706728)

Check out this link for someone who's actually knows what they're on about as opposed to random ramblings...

Re:Don't f*** anyone over. (3)

binarybits (11068) | about 15 years ago | (#1706729)

bloated software

One person's "bloat" is another's "feature." Yes Windows is bloated, and they're getting their asses handed to them in the server market, where bloat is not acceptable. But for most home users, Windows is still a better choice than any of the non-bloated OS's.


This may be news to you, but not everyone has an unlimited supply of money. Winmodems are cheap. Yes they are also cheap hacks, but they get the job done.

two meg video cards

WTF? How is it unethical to sell this? Again, not everyone has unlimited money, and a 2 meg video card is better than a 1 meg video card.

14 inch monitors

So now it's a crime against humanity if you are forced to look at anything smaller than 17 inches? I'm looking at a 15-inch monitor right now, and I don't feel explointed.

IEEE (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706730)

yer.. the IEEE are a good example of ethics.. would you like to code a software network card.. oh that'll cost you a few k for the standard. How many standards do they have? Millions?

What does 'a code of ethics' really mean? (3)

timothy (36799) | about 15 years ago | (#1706731)

If the question is, "Ought people behanve ethically?" then the answer is obvious -- because 'ethically' is how we define the way people ought to act.

If the question is "Should people require licensure to legally create / sell software, and should that licensure be predicated in part on a loyalty oath to a document we'll draft some academics to draft using all of today coolest buzzwords and moral posturing?" the answer is a big flat No.

By naming a few reasons why that No should stand, I do not mean to imply that this list is complete, but ...

  • It would add barriers to entry to one of the only careers / endeavors that is open to those who study it. Why burden something that is currently open to people of a wide age range, and does not (inherently) discriminate based on looks or sex with layers of officious officialdom? "Mmmm, guilds."
  • Attested-to codes of ethics are about as useful and meaningful as ... what? Confessions to the Spanish Inquisition?
  • The existence of codified codes of ethics is one thing, but the expectation that people should ssear allegiance to a particular one increases the development cycle of each individual's code.

As a note, when my mom went to med school, her school (Johns Hopkins) specifically did *not* feature the Hippocratic Oath. Doctors who wish to profess that oath are still free to, of course, but would you really think your doctor was more or less ethical based on whether they publically declared their allegience to a given code?



Re:Woo Hoo!!! (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706732)

Actually the west was more ethical than many would have you beleive. There was little law so people had to live by ethics, the two are pretty much mutually exclusive. If you have law you sit around and think about getting around it or away from it. Ethics are something you embrass.

Eth-Eth-Ethics (3)

Signal 11 (7608) | about 15 years ago | (#1706733)

The reason for buggy code is simple: most programmers have never had access to state of the art debugging software and tools. We're out using emacs, vi, gcc, and libraries we pull off freshmeat. For the windows side - they're stuck using buggy MFC code. The state of the art.. well.. isn't.

We need good tools to do good work. It's a miracle that we have an abundance of stable free software despite not having access to these tools. That should speak volumes for the capability and skill of the current generation of programmers.

Now, on the issue of ethics - programmers, and geeks at large, already have them. They just don't match up what society wants us to have as ethics. We mistrust authority, promote decentralization, and only offer respect based on competence - not authority. As such... it's only natural that people on the other side of the fence would be clamoring for changes.

Be careful what you wish for - you may just get it. If we don't have programmers exploring all the details of programmable systems - both the good and the bad, we leave ourselves in a kind of technological dark age. Certain knowledge is forbidden, and those that pursue it are persecuted and jailed. One might argue we're getting close to that now...


Well, the bigger question is... (1)

Rombuu (22914) | about 15 years ago | (#1706734)

...does Programming want to become a profession rather than just a job? Professions have several characteristics that separate them from jobs, and professionals are generally accorded more respect than non-professionals. For professions in this discussion we are looking at vocations such as Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants, Clergy, etc... Professions generally have the following characteristics: - Require some degree of higher education - Members are certified by other members of the profession, usually guaranteing some minimal level of education and usually showing that they have passed a compentency test of some kind - Members have a code of ethics enforced by other members of the profession I believe there were some others but they escape me for the moment. The result of this is that if you are a member of a profession and say "Hey, I can't do this I have an etical problem with foo" you are probably going to get a lot more attention about it than a fry cook saying the same thing....

Re:Hacking Cracking (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706735)

Why do you think the "Essay" got on slashdot. Just another bit of "News" fighting the propaganda battle over the english language.

Some truth in all that raving (2)

Junks Jerzey (54586) | about 15 years ago | (#1706736)

Computers are often badly - even unethically -- sold, with pricey and unnecessary equipment foisted on unknowing consumers

Though he was starting get carried away with himself, he's right on this point. We know how to build reliable, balanced systems. That's what consumers want as well. But that's not what a PC is about; it's about crashing on a regular basis, having to run defragmenters and disk fixers, having to deal with video driver problems, not upgrading to the latest version of Word and having other people complain that they can't read the files you send them, and so on. For example, there's no reason the TNT drivers should be as unreliable as they are. When people pay $130 for a video card, it should be stable. And now before those problems have even been fixed, we're on to the TNT2, which also has unstable drivers. Racing to the cutting edge at the cost of reliability is not a good idea.

Re:Who is this puttz? (1)

jslag (21657) | about 15 years ago | (#1706737)

Yes, a well thought-out argument, with a thesis, clear structure, and supporting evidence, would be a refreshing change from Katz and his ilk.

But that would involve doing some *gasp* planning and revising, which are much too square and boring for such a hip and clued-in character. Who has time to polish their logic, when worlds of distraction are only a click away?

pthh (1)

whydna (9312) | about 15 years ago | (#1706740)

ethics shmethics >=)

Typically... (2)

amlutias (24318) | about 15 years ago | (#1706742)

Katz draws grand conclusions from little evidence.
How come he's fixated on the warez-ification of that buffy episode, anyway?

The Zeroth Rule of Slashdot (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706743)

Thou shalt pontificate endlessly.

Ethics? Sure! (2)

dattaway (3088) | about 15 years ago | (#1706747)

Lots of good reading and some hot spots that caught my attention. Quote: "geeks and nerds routinely brag about their software snatches..." Sounds reasonable to the average consumer computer user who think geeks have greasy hair and live in a dark room in front of a b/w monitor, but hell, Big Evil Software Companies make stealing an art. No need to brag, they just do it!

Ethical programming might include giving credit where credit is due, reliablitity, and let me add security in operating systems. (Ah yes, encryption: they don't sell cars without locks, and would you go traveling around the net without? Got anything to hide?)

the first story! (1)

Fideist11 (70614) | about 15 years ago | (#1706749)

can someone give me a link to the first story that this guy says this is the second in a series but i don't see any way to find the first...

Please, IN THE NAME OF GOD (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706752)

ok, ethics are fine - but please don't open the door for the federal govt to regulate the software industry ps: copying is not stealing, and there's nothing fscking wrong with it

Ethics (1)

ushirageri (80820) | about 15 years ago | (#1706754)

I am constantly bombarded by absolutely idiotic questions, from users, where I work. "Why can't my computer make my morning coffee" type questions. A little education on the part of the general public and average user, would go a long way in eliminating alot of mis-conceptions regarding what a computer can and can't do. As citizens of the 21 century, these people have an obligation to their employers, as well as themselves, to get up to speed with todays technology. Until then, we will continue to have people take advantage of other people by using their technological edge. The guy who wrote this article whines entirely too much.

Doctors shouldn't have to get liscences either (2)

binarybits (11068) | about 15 years ago | (#1706755)

If you want to make sure that your doctor is competent, go to one with a good reputation. There's no reason to force every doctor to go through the same cookie-cutter liscencing process. It's largely a means of restricting the supply of doctors so their pay is higher. There are a lot of tasks that could be handled by a doctor with less training than is currently given (like routine checkups.) Liscencing of doctors is bad, just like liscencing of software. If people want assurances that a doctor will do a good job, private firms can provide testing and certification. But having the government do it is a bad thing.

Ethics=good, Katz=out of touch (2)

irish_spic (18702) | about 15 years ago | (#1706756)

I do agree that ethical behaviour is important, it is what keeps society together; at least to some meassure. However, Katz has made broad asumptions about the profesionalism of the people that produce the sw that we use, without discriminating on wether the sw is open or shrinkwrap or industrial. There are big differences between them, as well as between the people that produce or sell them. It seems that Katz has not noticed this.

To me, it seems that the open community has done a great job of self regulating; of adhering to a high standard of respect to their fellow coders and to the users of their efforts - ethical behaviour. I have not seen evidence of the contrary. Lets also not forget that programers that work in a sw shop for shrinkwrap sw are seldom in control of the product. The control of the sw in these cases is the realm of the greasy marketer/bussiness person, undoubtedly, a lower life form. For these we do need some form of written code and accountability. (imho)


Software Engineer.

Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving in
words evidence of the fact.
-- George Eliot

Re:ethics (1)

ushirageri (80820) | about 15 years ago | (#1706757)

Wow. It actually took to this post for someone to finally slam Microsoft. You guys are slacking... or are we getting all ethically warm and fuzzy?

Re:We've had this conversation before. (1)

oneiros27 (46144) | about 15 years ago | (#1706758)

Actually, although 'Landscaper' need only be bonded/insured, 'Landscape Architects' need to be licensed. Also needing licenses are Professional Engineers, Professional Land Surveyors, etc.

With the advent of the licensing, many then need to have so many hours of 'Personal Development Hours' every year, and need to have a couple hours of classes on ethics every few years.

Presently, I have a BS in Civil Engineering. I could go out there and do the calculations for laying a slab of concrete, but I don't even have my EIT (Engineer in Training) license, much less my PE. For all we know, however, my calculations may be just fine. Just as easily, I may overlook something, and the foundation may sink, break gas lines, cause a big explosion, and toast the neighborhood. I could, however, make some invention in my home, and sell it on late night TV and/or the internet.

Software programmers aren't presently seen as doing life-threatening things-- yet a simple bug in a traffic light may cause both sides to go green at the same time, and cause a fatal collision.

Being a programmer with an engineering background makes things even more difficult. Most out there are willing to do a contract to the letter, and release it. If there's something the client missed, they can re-negotiate the contract later, and come back to finish it. With the mindset that I've been blessed/cursed with, the program must work _before_ I release it to the client. (In the days before the internet, this was how most programs worked...there'd me months, not days of alpha/beta couldn't just download a quick patch off of a BBS or the internet).

The rambling above may make you think I'm for, or against ethics and licensure in the computer industry. I'm actually for, but yet, I still realise that there are some concequences of it.
Both sides to the argument can make valid points to sway opinions, so there is no one 'right' answer on the subject. However, as more and more people release crappy programs, so long as the intustry's lobbyists don't ruin the bills, chances are some form of licensure/bonding requirement will happen in the future.

Re:ethics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706759)

The purpose of a blueprint is to record the structure of the building, using lines and measurements. The blueprint does not contain information on how the building was constructed, which materials are used, how they are used together, where they should be used to create the building. The blue print is comparable to a users manual. Although your idea of source code becoming standard with software is a nice thought. I see no forces in the future which will compel commerical companies to do this.

Re:Just stick to the 11th Commandment (2)

dattaway (3088) | about 15 years ago | (#1706760)

"Don't get caught" might work for some people, but it might be much easier to specialize in an area one enjoys to learn and become very proficient. Else, your specialty could become lying and cheating. Want to follow the path of warez and you will find much company, but the path to shared code leads to much greater rewards.

I remember a flamboyant cheater in college. He was excellent in math, but couldn't grasp the concept of electronics. So he cheated like hell. Goddamn, we were working for an electrical engineering degree and he had problems comprehending logic gates. So, cheated he did. He is now one of those managers at Walmart who initials checks and petty stuff like that.

Frosts my hide... (1)

ucblockhead (63650) | about 15 years ago | (#1706761)

Programmers frequently come up with products that are buggy, excessive, unworkable, unsupportable or overpriced. The industry's consumers are exploited and abused.

I see attitude a lot (though rarely from anyone in the industry) and it just pisses me off to no end. This is as much a management issue as a "programmer" issue. How many of us have been forced to meet unrealistic schedules? How many of have been forced to ship regardless of whether or not it is done? How many of us have been forced to skimp on quality to "get it out". How many of us have been told testing was not important?

Perhaps we should be more proactive about refusing to release in these conditions. (And I personally have, on occasion.) But I wonder if Katz knows some secret way to tell your boss he's wrong without negative consequences. Usually, you just get labelled as someone who is "not a team player" and the software gets shipped anyway.

Then you get called on the carpet for the bugs in the software.

In my last job, pleas that the software be tested got met with blank stares. "Regression testing? What's that!? I'm sorry, we have to get it there tonight, no matter what!"

And people wonder why there are bugs...

One of the reasons (the prime reason IMHO) that open source software is less buggy is that people who know nothing about programming aren't making the schedules.

computer code of ethics is nothing new (1)

r (13067) | about 15 years ago | (#1706762)

there already are codes of ethics and professional conduct in this field. see, for example, the acm code of ethics [] for computing professionals (acm [] being the association for computing machinery). i'm sure that ieee [] has one as well.

the only problem is the industry at large ignores them, and it's unlikely that anything short of legislative intervention will change that...

Re:katz (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706763)

I didn't like much of what Jon had to say and thought his conclusions specious, but insulting his religiosity is just plane vile.

A previous post talked about "respect" and I think you, sir, have a lot to learn about that.

If you've got something to say about his comments or those of other respondents we're all (I'm sure) interested in reading what you have to say. Until you can do that without betraying your fascistic politics, I strongly suggest you say nothing.

"'Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than open your mouth and remove all doubt.", Lisa Simpson, Fox TV

You've blown it, me thinks. No doubt left in my mind at all.

Re:Eth-Eth-Ethics (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706764)

Yerp.. try and throw me in jail for writing viruses for example and I'll show you all the tekniq that developed from viruses. Position independant code, protection of memory, self modifying code, etc. Two anti-authoritarian slurs in the same sentence, I'm impressed :) Decentralization rulez.

Re:Unethical sales? (1)

Garth Vader (75778) | about 15 years ago | (#1706775)

Personally, I think that if you're going to lay down any kind of big money for a major purchase (computer, car, house, ... ) you should at least do some research so you're not completely lost. If you go in clueless, then you get what you deserve... Why should people have to be an expert to buy a product. If you go to the doctor and he says you need some kind of expensive procedure when you really don't is that OK because you didn't read up on medicine? What makes this worse in the computer industry is that most salesmen I have encountered know as much as the average consumer.

Re:Who is this puttz? (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706776)

Do you think he writes like, one paragraph per web page that he visits and then does the relevency by pressing the back button on his web browser?

Code of the Hacker (1)

LL (20038) | about 15 years ago | (#1706777)

Every profession, once it reaches a point of maturity (I'll leave it up to the pundits as to whether IT has hit that sweet spot yet) establishes a set of customs or cultural norms that, if nothing else, help protect themselves from excessese and self destruction and help define their purpose for existance. The doctors have their Hippocratic Oath, lawyers their client-attorny priviledge, and the largest corporations a distinctive mindset. In fact this is a phenomenum that ESR has detailed quite nicely in his writings about the hacker community and open source development.

The question is that if the computing industry is to move from being seen as the province of self-absorbed geeks and nerds, to the level of expertise and professional found in top-notch surgical teams (and I believe the level at the top of technical mastery of details is on a par), I would have to argue that a code of conduct be ennunciated so at least we can define a standard for members to be identified with.

What would such a code for hackers be? Ultimately any moral, cultural or ethical code can only be self-directed, motivated by the social conventions of peers. One may note that many of the ideals in media (Star Trek, Star Wars, Asimov's Laws of Robotics, etc) have passed into popular language (e.g. Prime Directive) so there is some scope of encouraging people to be more like say Linus rather than XXXX (name your favorite peeve). As for some suggestions to get people thinking, I'd toss in the following

1) Understand the hacker's code and why it exists
2) Remember the history of the source before you
3) Try not to delete or corrupt data, you never know when it might come in handy
4) Avoid perverting code beyond the purpose for which it was designed
5) Give attribution to hacks you borrows
6) .... ???

Cleverness for its own sake may be satisfying for the ego but ultimately, what defines a hacker and his/her purpose in life?


Software Snatch (1)

PD (9577) | about 15 years ago | (#1706778)

Is that like computer porn?

Katzopheliac (1)

Lord Kano (13027) | about 15 years ago | (#1706779)

n. "Katz-O-fEl-E-a"
One who rambles on without end, in the grand tradition of JonKatz.

Seriously, I think that a part of the programmers code of ethics should be.

We will not code or assist in the coding of any program which can be used to surveill anyone.

We will not code or assist in the coding of any program that can be used to gather personal information about anyone without their consent.

We will not code or assist in the coding of any program that forces a user to surrender privacy rights as a condition of it's use.

We will not code or assist in the coding of any program that allows a computer to be remotely controlled or monitored without it's owner and user's consent.

We will not code or assist in the coding of any program that forces a user to surrender control of the computer as a condition of it's use.

We will make our best reasonable efforts to insure that our programs ship bug free.

We will fix any and all bugs as timely as possible after a program is released and the bug is discovered.

Ethics are important, coders are not robots, they have the ability to think for themselves and they SHOULD DO SO!


Open Source is ethical (1)

Get Behind the Mule (61986) | about 15 years ago | (#1706780)

I'm surprised that Katz didn't bring up open source projects, which are largely driven by ethical considerations. He seems to see matters of ethics being largely ignored, but I think it's hardly that one-sided, and open source is one of the main reasons for that.

BTW, on another topic, I am very tired of all the Katz flamers that turn up every time he contributes an essay. To be sure, no one is required to agree with him -- after all, I'm expressing a bit of disagreement myself. But the idiots who can't think of anything better to say than "Shut up" and "I hate you" are contributing less than nothing to the discussion.

Why aren't these people being moderated down to negative infinity? If they can't be moderated into oblivion, then I fail to see any usefulness of moderation at all.

Katz and the music (1)

rcade (4482) | about 15 years ago | (#1706781)

Yet the record companies - one of the world's larger cartels outside Colombia - were due some comeuppance for their arrogance, greed and control over music.

There are times I think Jon Katz was held against his will at some kind of Rolling Stone re-education camp. Mentioning the recording industry and the Colombian drug cartels in the same breath would be laughable if it wasn't so offensive. What next -- comparing the fast food industry to the Shining Path?

Katz needs to abandon the notion that those evil record companies are "The Man" and everyone else is being held down by them.

Re:Unethical sales? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706782)

Why should people have to be an expert to buy a product. If you go to the doctor and he says you need some kind of expensive procedure when you really don't is that OK because you didn't read up on medicine?

You don't have to be an expert, but I sure wouldn't have any kind of operation without doing some research on my own.

Computer industry *does* abuse customers (1)

sethg (15187) | about 15 years ago | (#1706783)

There's a lot about Katz's article that I don't like (and which dozens of other slashdotters will complain about, too, so why should I bother?), but I must disagree with this critique:
He then proceeds to attack the industry for "abusing" its customers. This is also nonsense. The computer industry has been improving its product faster than any other industry in the history of the universe. So technologically, this is certainly not true.
First, in the early days of the automobile industry, products improved and prices dropped exponentially, just as with the computer industry today. This "history of the universe" line is ignorant claptrap.

Second, according to the Bad Software Web site [] :

  • "By the end of 1995, computers and software ranked #8 in the Top 10 list for complaints to the Better Business Bureau, outdoing used car dealers. As sales increased, complaints increased. In 1996, computer-related complaints rose to #7 on the list."
  • "The software industry has been one of the worst for leaving callers on hold. A small study by Service Management International indicated that software companies leave callers on hold longer than any other industry studied, worse than government agencies, computer hardware companies, airlines, banks, utility companies, and others."
If there were "lemon laws" to protect the buyers of computer products and services, like there are to protect car buyers, sellers might spend more time "improving their product" through better quality control and better usability -- rather than shoveling every feature that Marketing dreams up into the next release and shipping it as soon as possible, and then declaring "There are no significant bugs in our released software that any significant number of users want fixed" [] .

Do 'codes of ethics' work elsewhere? (1)

Multics (45254) | about 15 years ago | (#1706784)

Having been working as an engineer (not software for once) for three years where part of the professional code of ethics is "don't bribe public officials", and yet the financial disclosures that all the politicians file in my area show mucho 'contributions' from engineering firms, I've come to the conclusion that codes of ethics pretty much don't work. It isn't important or expediant.

In the world of lawyers, their code of ethics is nearly a total joke. The advent of lawyers that show up on your doorstep 12 hrs after some public disaster is good enough proof of that.

In the world of medicine, people die every day in the USA from doctors that are not interested in care, but instead on the 7.5 minutes they can 'give' each patient in an office visit. Sometimes the problems don't fit in 7.5 minutes... Having just had a relative die of non-care --no one took the time to figure out really what was wrong over 13 days-- while in an Intensive Care Unit, no one cares. As a result codes of ethics mean nothing and are worse than useless as it allows people to hide behind meaningless words created by people who haven't been there nor done that.

As long as there is a 40% unfilled demand for people to drool over keyboards and pretend to be programmers & software engineers, then ethics, morals, and even legality will all mean much less than they should. Just read slashdot comments to see much of the underbelly of the industry.

Codes of Ethics mean something if they are generally agreed apon. At the moment programmers can't even agree on the planet they're on, better yet how to really behave. Maybe someday... Certainly not now.

Re:katz (1)

ushirageri (80820) | about 15 years ago | (#1706795)

What the hell does being Jewish have to do with it? Please reach down and extract your head from your ass!

Programmers?!? (1)

antizeus (47491) | about 15 years ago | (#1706796)

Most of this long-winded article had nothing to do with programmers.

Insert Katz flame here.

Music Industry (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706797)

bwahaha.. yer.. the music industry is really "melting down" over the 2% of music listeners who didn't buy music in the first place cause it would mean going into a music store that is full of "artists" (with accent on the 'i' so it sounds like 'ee') flipping aimlessly through compact discs that could be being used to store buffy episodes (well not really, cause their not burnable, but it's something you could hear Katz saying). The music industry has successfully told artists that this is the only way to make music and it is impossible for an artist to go out and get a day job. "Your music will suffer". Pfft.. "You have a gift and if we don't get all the money from your fans that you deserve it will go to waste" Pfft.. Get real jobs and make music on the side, like most of us who write code we like on the side.

Whats wrong with bioethics (2)

dattaway (3088) | about 15 years ago | (#1706798)

Don't be too quick to dismiss ethics in any form. Sure, Jeremy Rifkin [] may be a gadfly, but consider the alternitive. You like your food pumped full of antibiotics and steroids so that steak can be bigger and your milk can be 10 cents cheaper and stay a day longer in the fridge?

Computer ethics are lacking and this is why this topic needs to be discussed. Unless, of course, you consider today's commercial software to be high quality and provide you a secure future. Ethics just are a way to make us more aware of issues. Its education and its good.

CS Ethics course (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706799)

We have had ethics lectures as part of the first year CS course. The syllabus can be found here [] . Things covered include "philosophical aspects of ethics", "IPR", "malicious use" and "what's a profession". Anybody who attends this course would refrain from trying to sell WinNT into the health sector ...

Re:Well, the bigger question is... (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706800)

yer.. maybe I can show up to net cafe's and get free coffee. "Oh, and I'm a programmer, here's my card" .. "ahhh.. come sit over here with the linux machines sir".

sounds like that gov't web page on education (1)

MillMan (85400) | about 15 years ago | (#1706801)

Another load of hot air that is a bit more serious than that gov't post from yesterday, but still ignores a lot.

Anyone who reads this web page knows that the problems that exist in the computer industry (or any industry) are a lot more fundamental than a lack of some sort of written code of ethics.

It all stems from human greed, which is particularly bad in this country, it's what drives the economy. Thus our economic system is to blame too. Any company has to keep pumping out new products, to keep profits up, otherwise you go out of business. I'm sure this idea and its relation to the computer industry has been discussed here before. Our economic system is immoral. Not much is likely to change until the econmic system changes too.

Of course we're all part of the problem. When you release code under pressure from your boss and look the other way you're part of the problem. When you sit at home passively watching TV instead of getting out and doing something about it you're part of the problem. I'm as guilty as anyone on this count.

Then again, you have to put food on the table, right? It's a tough decision to make, trying to fight a seemingly unstoppable machine.

But those who made those tough decisions in the past are those who have made the most difference in this world....

Re:Unethical sales? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706802)

like, but what if you needed an operation on your brain? Then, like, you wouldn't be able to do anything.

That would be cool

Re:Software Snatch (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706803)

it takes a special kind of mind to spot that one.

Copying == theft (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706804)

Actually, dumbass, unauthorised copying IS stealing and there is EVERYTHING fscking wrong with it.

Deal with it.

Re:katz (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706805)

Generalizations are innate in human nature. They are prone to error, but this is the only reasonable way humans can evaluate complex information. We use generalizations on a daily basis, why should I suspend using this ability when religion is involved because it is politically incorrect? You paint many of your thoughts with the same narrow brush, do you not use generalizations when judging objects based on their appearance, behavior, or previous knowledge? If you are swimming and see a shark, will you suspend the common generalizations of sharks being dangerous and give the shark chance to prove these generalizations are false? Or will you act on them and try to escape? You are a hypocrite. You attack the use of generalizations in certain contexts, but you have no problem in using them in other.

DIY Codes of Ethics (3 easy steps) (1)

G27 Radio (78394) | about 15 years ago | (#1706806)

I don't really think a standard code of ethics is going to do us a lot of good. It's too hard for everyone to agree. So, here is some help for individuals who want to develop their own code:

Step 1: Like anything else you need to decide what your ultimate goal is. What is the legacy that you want to leave behind? (if you care about such things.) Do you just want to take what you can? Do you want to give back as much as you take? Do you want to go the extra mile and give more than you took?

Step 2: With your goal in mind from Step 1, make some decisions about what you feel is right and wrong. Don't let other peoples' morality lock you into a box when you make these decisions. Don't let anyone else shove their code of ethics down your throat!

Step 3: Stick by your code. Even a code of ethics needs to be "patched" occasionally, but if you don't make an effort to stick by it then it's probably a useless exercise in the first place.

Yes, these steps allow for people to say "I'm going to be an asshole and rip off everyone stupid enough to fall for my scams." But I don't think any code of ethics is going to stop a doctor, lawyer, plumber, programmer, basketweaver from doing what they want to do. On the other hand I think codes of ethics are important if you care about what effect you have on anyone elses' lives.

Extra credit Step 4: If you have the balls, then set an example. Don't worry about how lame people may think you are. If you've done a good job developing your code then negative opinions won't make you insecure, and you may even be able to learn from them. I truly admire the people that have gone through with this step.


Re:katz (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706807)

My observations of jews are that they always try and portray themselves as victims. Then I see katz constantly try and portray "nerds" and "geeks" as victims. I concluded there may be a connection.

Re:Katzopheliac (1)

nphinit (36616) | about 15 years ago | (#1706808)

Ridiculous. What's wrong with programming at the CIA? Or what about information warfare with the Army? You might think these situations are unethical because of their military involvement, but most level-headed individuals realize such positions are needed in this day and age.
Although I dislike what they do, virus writers are just as much "programmers" as the rest of us. Stop trying to regulate every aspect of life...

Re:Open Source is ethical (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706825)

Because it's not an essay and he gets on the front page. Half the comments that are posted on slashdot and get +3 moderations are better than this tripe. What's more, he is obviously ignorant of the field.

Re:Frosts my hide... (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706826)

plus we never stop developing.

Computer Ethics Class (1)

qwerty2000 (85489) | about 15 years ago | (#1706827)

My college requires us to take a computer ethics class from the ethics department before we get our degree. Is there many other colleges out there with this same policy?

Blurred Ethics (1)

freeBill (3843) | about 15 years ago | (#1706828)

I think this not an important issue. I think it is a bunch of fairly unrelated important issues.

First, there are the issues revolving around programmers directly: Should I rewrite a base class for my new company just because I wrote the original for another employer? Should I release it as open-source? Should I store my customers' data in a proprietary format (even encrypted) which prevents them from using another vendor or consultant?

Then there are the Evil-Empire-type issues: Is the same behavior which was acceptable from a struggling startup still fair when executed by a global monopoly? Should I ever have to pay for an upgrade for basic software like an operating system or a word processor? Shouldn't a purchaser get to own the software in some sense (not just a license)?

Then there are the script-kiddie-, Buffy-fan-type issues: Is deep-linking ethical? Can I justify copyright violations as a response to censorship? Is it ever ethical to watch any Fox show besides "The Simpsons"? Is it ever unethical to steal something from Rupert Murdoch? Does the information really want to be free?

I think Jon does these debates a bit of a disservice, muddying the waters by mixing them all together. But then, when he starts talking 'Netiquette and flaming, I think he gets into an area which is not the private domain of programmers, but a set of issues for our whole society. Once everybody can get on the Web (now) without any technical expertise, the decisions about how to behave there become everybody's responsibility.

It was nice of the ethics-schmethics crowd to flame Jon and demonstrate the need to bring these issues up.

Re:Go Away Katz (3)

Malor (3658) | about 15 years ago | (#1706829)

It strikes me that people here are often, maybe even usually, rude. Your post is an excellent example. You even go so far as to blame it on OTHER people for being 'thin-skinned'. (!)

Telling the truth is a good thing. Calling someone names, most of the time, is not. It amazes me how hostile people have become online, and yet how blind they seem to their own hostility.

And he's right about the industry abusing its customers. Microsoft is our favorite example. They write code to make money: security and stability be dammed. Many people even praise them for this... making money, to these people, is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing.

When does it become enough? Microsoft has on the order of 25 billion sitting in the bank. Why don't they take the time to really push the boundaries of what computing is a little bit? Do a little bit of what open source does -- improve computers for everyone, just because it's the right thing to do.

It strikes me that one of the fundamental points of computer ethics is to write software that is secure. Almost nobody I know of does this with their programs. OpenBSD is *the only* operating system I know that has stressed security and code correctness from the beginning. (Netware may be another; it is quite secure, but I do not know what Novell's internal practices are like. )

Respect and tolerance are two more points I think should be taken up by a great many more /.'ers. I have rarely seen such arrogance. Back when it was young, a couple years ago, the expertise you could find here was genuine, and the flaming generally was merited. Nowadays, it's just a bunch of angry teenagers who flame first, think second. The same expert people are here, but their voices are mostly drowned out in the clamor of the angry amateur wannabes. Lots of ego, not much to back it up.

The hate that is so often spewed here will break up the open source movement before it ever really gets started. Each time you post something that blasts another person, you do a bit more damage to the community as a whole. Sometimes it's necessary, but there is absolutely no reason to blast Katz. It does no good, and causes harm to the overall community.

Strikes me that most of the people doing it are falling prey to the exact same pettiness they almost universally loathe and despise in others, at school and in other RL places. 'Get out, you don't belong here, you're Not One Of Us'... implying that the person who is saying it IS.

It is so very sad that the people who are tormented and abused most -- the geeks -- do the same thing to people who aren't exactly like them.

"How can we be in, if there is no outside." -- Peter Gabriel

Re:what a joke! (1)

Orgasmatron (8103) | about 15 years ago | (#1706830)

you should look into what "profession" means. inasmuch as neither "programming" nor "software engineering" has a formal system for dividing themselves sharply from the rest of the world (think doctor, lawyer, plumber here), they don't constitute a profession.

There are no ethics in the computing industry... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706831)

... if there were, there would not be buggy, unfinished, "don't wait for stability" releases of software.

Take a look at the Aerospace industry. A part going into an engine gets examined at every point along the manufacturing line. If that part fails in service, people die.

Take a look at the Automotive industry. Airbags are checked for safe operation... there has been a lot of hubub about this issue in the past year. How many people have died because an airbag failed to exert either too little or too much pressure. Look at the numbers... 20, maybe 30 (in the US).

How many times has a computed crashed today? How many times has a program failed today? How important was the information that that computer maintained. Would someone have lived had that computer not failed?


Re:katz (1)

ushirageri (80820) | about 15 years ago | (#1706833)

First, I am not Jewish, as if it mattered anyway. Secondly, every racial type has a group who portray their race as being oppressed.(Blacks, Native Americans, Jews and yes Whites. ie How about White supremist for a start) But, painting an entire enthnic group with the same brush is a narrow minded view and deserving of a critical response.

Get some perspective (2)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706835)

Please guys - take a step back here.

I've been lurking on slashdot for many moons, and have seen the general tone of comment descending steadily over time. Does anyone else find it ironic that many of the comments on Jon's article are proving the point he was trying to make?

> Online, cruelty and hostility are points of
> pride, civility and respect rare virtues.

>> heh. shut up katz. you're a fucking idiot.

Nice one sunshine. Maybe Jon's got a point.

Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, he's tapped out 10,000 words and obviously put a degree of thought into what he's written - (nice to see those question-marks have disappeared as well). If you don't like it, submit your own essay and show us how it's done.

Another benefit of Katz's work, and others like it, is that it gives a point of view from an essentially non-technical point of view.

Slashdot is read almost exclusively by white 20 year old males, who compile kernels just for the hell of it. But like it or not, the demographics of computer users are changing, and we are now in the minority.

Our job as experienced members of the IT industry is not to try and alienate the users, but to educate them. OK, so someone wants to use hotmail instead of learning how to connect to a POP server. Why? It's easier. Why should novice IT users need to know about POP3 just to read email?

There are 100 million people worldwide entering a domain that, up until a few years ago was entirely ours. We'd best adapt to that.

And to end my rant - someone commented that mechanics don't have a code of ethics either. My question for you is "would you trust a mechanic?"

Cheers... Mike

Re:katz (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706838)

Although I did insult his religion, I do not consider it to be an unfair assesment. I am not going to be silent because I may offend someone.

I fail to understand how you could infer my politics as being "fascistic". It is interesting, that if you say anything which is unflattering against jews, then you are instantly a fascist, evil, neo-nazi. If you knew me, you would know that is absurd.

There is no doubt, or much else of anything left in your mind. To many cartoons would be my guess.

Unethical sales? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706845)

Computers are often badly - even unethically -- sold, with pricey and unnecessary equipment foisted on unknowing consumers

Heh. I guess Katz doesn't agree with the saying (can't remember who said it):
"It's morally wrong to allow naive end users to keep thier money"

Personally, I think that if you're going to lay down any kind of big money for a major purchase (computer, car, house, ... ) you should at least do some research so you're not completely lost. If you go in clueless, then you get what you deserve...

Computers are no different (3)

chuck (477) | about 15 years ago | (#1706846)

The Computer field is not fundamentally different than any other field. Every career, whether it is medicine, automobile repair, livery, or telephone operator gives you an opportunity to choose whether to help, or to harm someone.

Doctors could get away with quite a bit, if driven to evil. (I think I saw a piece on one of those prime time news shows some months back.) Auto mechanics can make up repairs, or lie about maintenance schedules to take extra money from an unsuspecting customer. Even the telephone operator, who for some reason decides he doesn't want to look up my brother's number in Cleveland, and instead tells me there's no record and hangs up, has a potential to harm in some small way.

Does there need to be a code of ethics for auto mechanics? Does there need to be a code of ethics for telephone operators? I don't think so. We can get along quite nicely with one big code of ethics for everybody: ``Don't f*** anyone over.'' At least that's my code of ethics. It has worked for me no matter what field I am working in. The only thing it requires is a little bit of thought, that that is what is lacking.

Don't start thinking this is a new problem, either. People have been evil and opportunistic since the beginning of time. Just because we have a new advancement in technology, doesn't mean that today is any different than any other point in history. If you think you live in some kind of ``special time'' or ``golden age,'' you're just fooling yourself.

So come on, everybody. Just be nice.

Also, I have a hard time believing that you can teach ethics. That is something that can only be learned by example.

  • Chuck

PS: Was this supposed to be some kind of review?

what a joke! (1)

The Fonze (28895) | about 15 years ago | (#1706847)

Two comments.

1.) here's the quote:
"Computing and its many subsets - such as programming and software engineering - haven't yetemerged as a full-fledged profession. "

here's my response:

"For the gang of mutton heads who learn vb with the dream of being billioaires, this is true, for the rest of us who code because we love it and everyday try to raise our skills to the next level this is complete horse-shit!"

2.) After reading the a few of the previous posts,
it has been confirmed to me that is rapidly becoming a haven for punks. Does anyone have another URL to hang out at?

Ethics in the Computer Field (1)

SparkeyG (10604) | about 15 years ago | (#1706848)

Just a link to see what other organizations think pass as ethics, esp in the computer field.

Media Spam (1)

Hard_Code (49548) | about 15 years ago | (#1706850)

I think most of this article is clueless media spam (FUD about the poor digital illiterati). I found this disgusting though: "According to Cyber Dialogue, more than 43 million users -70 per cent of all Americans online - were using the Web for sports, movies, TV, music or gaming." As if Americans weren't pop-culture/media/commerce saturated/brainwashed drones enough! So now there is an interactive medium and what do they use it for? A replacment for passive TV! Don't try to tell me the web is "used" for sports/whatever. That's not what I call "usage". People are too used to the media using /them/.

Who is this puttz? (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706852)

Why can't he post his 3 million line "Essay" (which btw, I give you a D- in, no references and you didn't justify your opinions) as a comment like the rest of us. I can rant for as long and as hard as you and I don't insult anyone. Mp3 is not theft. Buffy the Vampire slayer gets played once in the states on a bad channel and is under appreciated by the masses. And your opinion is no better than mine so why do you get front page air time and I get self structured up moderating? Here's a real big idea.. if you must preach your opinions, reply to the various retorts and criticisms.. hell.. give us something to criticise, like say, an argument. Just a query, what kind of an "Essay" was this? It wasn't a political essay. It wasn't an journalistic essay. I don't think it was an essay. I think it was a rant and I think rants belong in the comment section.

Re:for god's sake. (1)

Have Blue (616) | about 15 years ago | (#1706853)

Yes, it is somewhat hypocritical of Katz to on the one hand condemn software piracy as theft but to support piracy of TV programming as "doing the right thing". WB was certainly in the wrong for pulling the finale, but it doesn't make it any more right for people to steal their content. There must be a dozen better ways to influence a TV network.

It's all about respect... (2)

krb (15012) | about 15 years ago | (#1706856)

Read the subject. Then read it again.

I've a long standing set of rules which I attepmt to live by, formulated over a course of years through analysis of as many various "codes of ethics" as I could find data on. I've read religious texts and secular philosophies (though these are not so different). The bottom line is that my studies of what people, both today and in the past, have deemed as ethical/right/appropriate/honorable/moral all comes down to respect. It's my holy grail and my concience. There is no situation I've yet found where the application of respect does not lead to the appropriate choice. Determine the context and then behave in the manner that is most respectful to all involved parties.

This theory, which is first and foremost of my Three Rules for Living Right aoolies just as readily to the issues raised by Katz as any other. If a particular action is disrespectful, it shouldn't be performed. For example, writing buggy, inefficient software and releasing it under pretense of stability is disrespectful to the user. Thus, developers ought to endeavor to write clean, efficient code or at least wait for stability before relaese. This is but one example. See if you can apply it more widely. I've come to live by this code and my experience tells me it works.

I hope this has provoked some thought. Feel free to reply below, or by personal email, though if you flame me I'll just delete it - keep it, well, respectful.

Kerry Benton

p.s. Three Rules for Living Right isn't a book I wrote or anything, just how I refer to the rules I live by. Just so you don't think I'm plugging a product.

We've had this conversation before. (2)

jabber (13196) | about 15 years ago | (#1706858)

This has been discussed ad nauseum when we talked about the value and validity of CS degrees [] and the concept of Software Engineering [] as a degree and a work title.

We came to the conclusion, that in situations where the work done may, if not done properly, endanger others (the definition of endangerment varies), then a title, a certificate, or a professional membership, is a Good Thing. Such a condition, by definition, carries with it a code of ethics (i.e. Professional Engineer).

A landscaper doesn't need to have one, nor does a small-time plumber (though often they must be INSURED for the work they do). An architect, or large-scale engineer (think bridges, highways, municipal scale work) must be licensed by the state where they practice.

With small-time software, Caveat Emptor, and long live open source!

Your computer _can_ make coffee!! (2)

greenfly (40953) | about 15 years ago | (#1706860)

IEEE Ethics (1)

styxlord (9897) | about 15 years ago | (#1706865)

The IEEE has a set of ethics [] for its members to follow. There's nothing really ground breaking here just some common sense, but it does exist. Some of these you read and go, yeah, if I was building a bridge or a nuclear power plant then I'd follow all these, but they all directly apply to the "Software Engineer" (to Engineers this term is about as enjoyable as Floral Engineer ;) ) too, even to me, and all I do is write games.

Re:Ethics? Sure! (1)

ucblockhead (63650) | about 15 years ago | (#1706866)

but hell, Big Evil Software Companies make stealing an art.

Hell, didn't the GT Interactive story hit the wire only yesterday?

But anyway, the error here is the confusion of teenagers with too much time on their hands with the rest of us. We seem to have a PR problem. The public (hell, even someone like Katz, who at least ought to be ready some of /.) doesn't see any difference between a couple greasy teenagers exchanging cracked software and a couple of hackers exchanging the latest versions of their code.

This geek doesn't brag about stolen software. This geek brags about once convincing the company he worked for to get rid of all illegal software.

(Caveat: this geek also had a misbegotten youth his is ashamed of. He did, however, grow up.)

Re:katz (2)

Analog (564) | about 15 years ago | (#1706867)

'Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than open your mouth and remove all doubt.", Lisa Simpson, Fox TV

While quoting Lisa Simpson does have its amusement factor, please tell me you know that she (the cartoonist? actor?) was quoting Abraham Lincoln.

There's badness on the Net? Omahgod! (2)

jjohn (2991) | about 15 years ago | (#1706868)

There's crime and dishonesty on the Net? Has the president been notified? It's almost like the net created a virtual community, almost like a city. We all know that cities don't have ethics problems, so why does the net? It must be those evil hackers!

This sort of moralistic handwringging is a bit much for me. I posit that there are far more well behaved netizens than not. Bad business practices are not limited to the software industry. The net is a mirror of ourselves and if we don't like what we see maybe it's time to turn the computer off for a bit.

overengineered, unnecessarily long & inadequate (1)

djKing (1970) | about 15 years ago | (#1706869)


I was a fan of yours at Hot Wired and glad when you made the move to slashdot, having just mad the conversion to slashdot my self just before you arived.

that said, this article sucked. You are vague in many places: hacking/cracking and confusing copying with copy right violation, are just two examples.

I think you were trying to ask if programers need to take responsibility for how people use the tech we unleash but you never realy make that clear.

Here's a hint that you should know, this is the web break it down. For example ask the single question: "What do you do when management makes the wrong ethical decsion?" And see what slash doters have to say.


*whoosh* (1)

twit (60210) | about 15 years ago | (#1706870)

The regulatory process is a way of ensuring that any doctor you go to conforms to a good standard of practise. Given the modern world (yes, the modern world)'s plethora of specialists, it is unfeasible to comparison shop for each and every doctor that you may encounter.

Consider the simple example of breaking your leg. You will see an emergency physician, most likely, and be treated primarily by an emergency medicine resident. The X-ray may be taken by, or will be taken under the supervision of, a radiologist. If it requires surgery (like severe breaks do), you'll be operated upon by a surgeon and watched over by an anaesthesiologist. Finally, your general physician will supervise your recovery. That's a half dozen doctors. You may not even meet half of them (the surgeon, anaesthesiologist, and radiologist), much less establish a relationship.

The "high price" of medicine is a function, quite honestly, of the free market in medical services. Doctors, given a monopoly on their profession, charge as much as they can. Why wouldn't they? That's what the free market is intended to promote. If it seem that doctors collude to establish high prices, remember that it's in their interests to charge as much as they can for every service they preform.

In systems which don't establish a free market but instead a salary or a state set fee for service, costs are much lower. Admittedly, availability of medical services suffers as well.

As for the government providing testing and certification, it doesn't. Or at least it doesn't in Canada; the College of Physicians and Surgeons is run by its members and doctors. Likewise for the provincial Law Societies (legal licensing) and Associations of Professional Engineers (engineering licensing). I believe that the various state licensing and accreditation boards in the US (and I assume that you're from the US) operate on the same principle.

Would doctors go without licensing, perhaps? I don't think that there's a chance that they would. The cost of malpractise insurance for a board-certified physician or surgeon is already immense (and rightly so, given the high cost of someone's good health). If a two-tier system evolved, no doubt the uncertified physicians would get an even worse deal.


Yes.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706871)

Programmers definitly need a code of ethics: (a) Do not work for the NSA, CIA, etc. (b) Do not work for Microsoft. (c) Do not allow managment to ship programs that you don't feal are really secure.. this includes providing module features to allow the instilatioon of encryption outside of the country if realevent. (cell phones are a good example of people not following this rule) (d) Try to the best of your ability to empower the users of your software (this may involve moving towards an open source model, but could also just mean make a powerful user interface or attached scripting languages instead of just moronic pull-downs)

Re:But............. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706874)

However, I'm not all for required Certification, because it would kill a lot of open source projects, and even hobbyist coders who just want to stick there stuff on the Net for others to play with.

Fine... but getting that certification says that your software is guaranteed to work.

Any license that you look at today for a computer service (by this I mean software, e-mail service, internet service) has totally bogus crap written into it. The famous "you can't sue us if we FUCK UP in a major way" clause is total bullshit... but we put up with this. Why should we? Computers are a purchased service like anything else. If people start puonding on doors big time maybe something will actually change.

Anything other product in this world that does not work when you buy it is returned... and the company, assuming that they don't fix their problems, goes belly up... except for the software industry... WHY?

My suggestion is this... flood the software vendor that produces the crap (assuming that you are using crap) you are using with mail complaining about the heataches you have had with their products... flood the state's attorney generals office... flood the Better Business Bureau. Don't send e-mail... it magically gets lost or ignored... don't make phone calls... you'll never get through... send snail mail... send certified mail if you are thoroughly pissed.

Software performance is fucked up because people put up with it.

Remember windows refund day... Microsofts own license and they didn't uphold it... lawyers could make a mint if people actually band together on this. The industry is so big that one voice doesn't mean anything... 100 million voices start to nail things home.


Ethics are a must (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706876)

I agree with the assertion that there should be a standard statement of ethics for software engineers. In fact, I believe that a Professional Engineering certification should be mandated by law before anyone can refer to themselves as Software Engineer". Software has assumed an all important role in our society. People responsible for designing, developing, and deploying software systems should demonstrate some minimal level of competence. If you are interested in this topic, I have some links on the subject available at this [] site. Also check out Construx [] for other sources.

Re:Ethics (1)

n-space (39263) | about 15 years ago | (#1706878)

"Get up to speed"? "have an obligation"? How does this include those that haven't been blessed with a silicon chip in their mouth? The obligation belongs to those who create technology which divides the public to think about the implications on society that their technology might have. I don't think it's too much to ask. Thinking critically about your solution, while possibly preventing an extra buck from getting in your pocket unethically, will better promote the "common good" rather than the developer's own self-serving interests (in most cases, simply money).

Don't f*** anyone over. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706885)

I wish more people thought like this but must of the people expect for a few are entering the field for money gains and don't see anything wrong with sell bloated software, winmodems, two meg video cards, 14 inch monitors, win95, etc. It's only human nature to screw someone over for personal gains. It's just something you have to live and deal with. About stealing software, most of the software i "stole" suck anyways. The best things in the world are free anyways, just look at linux. Linus did it becuase he wanted something great not to make a buck.

Just stick to the 11th Commandment (1)

Otto (17870) | about 15 years ago | (#1706886)

"Don't get caught"

Seriously, I don't see the need of a code of ethics for computer professionals. The crap codes by the IEEE, ACM and so forth concern professional things that don't really matter to us "hackers" (in the old, correct sense of the word). I have a good job as a computer programmer, and I work at it. I don't do anything to f*** anyone over, and that's fine by me. I've stolen code before; hell, that's practically how I got through college.

But whenever you try to make something "offical" and binding to the many, you ruin it, IMHO.. That's like all the idiots who want to unionize computer people.. It's not going to happen because most computer people think it's a rather stupid idea.


Go Away Katz (4)

binarybits (11068) | about 15 years ago | (#1706887)

This essay on "computer ethics" reminds me of "bioethicists." Bioethicists are typically techno-phobic wet blankets who go out of their way to scare people with obscure horror stories and far-fetched scenarios. The incredible values that biotechnology can bring are often ignored, and instead bioethicists engage in phony posturing about the impending doom of humanity if X new biotech breakthrough isn't controlled.

Katz is doing the exact same thing. His concern for "computer ethics" does not seem to be so much concern for specific problems but a simple desire to pontificate on the evils of computers in general. A few specific issues:

"hacking versus cracking:" I'm not sure what definition of "hacking" he's using, but the standard one on /. is simply clever and/or quick-and-dirty programming. I don't see how that's ever bad.

He mentions the piracy issue and then has nothing of value to say about it. Yes it's a problem. So what?

He trots out the "gap between the rich and poor" argument, which has been standard leftist fare with any new innovation for decades. But the simple fact is that computing for the masses is here. You can get a decent PC for under $1000. You can get a 486 for a couple hundred dollars. And those numbers will continue to drop.

He then proceeds to attack the industry for "abusing" its customers. This is also nonsense. The computer industry has been improving its product faster than any other industry in the history of the universe. So technologically, this is certainly not true. And yes, some companies have lousy tech support. So what? Other companies have pretty good tech support, and if people really want better tech support someone will figure that out and offer it. This is simply an inconvenience, not an industry-wide crisis.

The final "preoblem" he trots out is "incivility." This is just baloney. Apperantly some people have thin skins, and so therefore we need to tone down our discusions to avoid offending anyone. I say if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. There are a lots of moderated forums where you don't have to deal with any "incivil" people.

Re:We've had this conversation before. (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706888)

The difference is that Civil Engineers don't have a bunch of mates that they get together and build bridges with. Even if they did, they would probably reveal in the exactness of their designs rather than enjoying running across and back, across and back. And even if there were a bunch of shoddy hobbiest bridge makers out there, I'm sure they would say "Hey.. don't drive your car across that bridge.. it's just for running across and back" and if someone said "nah, it's ok.. I'll add a few support wires here and there.. it'll be fine" they'd say "no way pal". We do the same thing, except no-one listens to us. It's just for running across and back, across and back, BUT WE CAN SELL THIS!

Re:Your computer _can_ make coffee!! (1)

ushirageri (80820) | about 15 years ago | (#1706889)

Well...sort of. This particular user unplugged the UPS so she could plug in the coffee maker. Duh.."What's a UPS kind sir?"

Re:Ethics (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706890)

nah.. why learn to drive a car when you've got a horse.. oh wait.. I don't have a horse, can I use this car?

Woo Hoo!!! (1)

Jay (1991) | about 15 years ago | (#1706891)

It's the wild west in here, Baby! Really - It seems that we're on a frontier and things are going to be wild for quite a while untill the new-ness wears off. Ethics will develop themselves in this industry just as they have in others. Im not saying that all industries are ethical, but they do eventually develop some sense of what is right and wrong. Give it time.

Re:Computers are no different (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706892)

I think I saw a piece on one of those prime time news shows some months back.

Every two to three months infact. Recycled news.
Much like this post.

Re:It's all about respect... (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706893)

But what are you respecting? That is your ethics.

Hacking Cracking (1)

BalrogZed (84365) | about 15 years ago | (#1706914)

heh, they mumble on about ethics yet mention hacking anc cracking in the one sentence without making a distinction between the two. hi caramba

Balderdash! (0)

elvum (9344) | about 15 years ago | (#1706915)

I normally conveniently filter Jon Katz out, but thought I'd read him again for once. When my eyes once more lit on those trademark sweeping, groundless statements of dubious veracity (such as "the music industry is in near-meltdown over unpaid MP3 downloads and other forms of piracy") I realised once more why it is that several billion impoverished geeks each month commit suicide as a result of reading his articles.

Re:Anarchy Rules (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706916)

/me slaps his chest uncontrollably.. lets try to be a little more convincing.

ethics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 15 years ago | (#1706917)

The software business really needs to grow up. Could you imagine a company buying a building and not getting a copy of the blueprints? No idiot would buy a building under those circumstances. How do we know it's not going to fall down? Look at the blueprints. It's the only way. It's the same with software and source code. So why do people buy software without the source code? Someday we will look back on this and laugh! How quaint! No source code? Must be for something you really don't care about. Anyone who uses or recommends Microsoft software has no right to call themselves an engineer. Not only is there no source code available, the stuff has known bugs. If an engineer used "Microsoft" steel to make a bridge or a building, he would lose both his job and his reputation.

Re:for god's sake. (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706918)

crude but effective

But............. (1)

DanaL (66515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706919)

You are correct on a couple of points, but you ignore your own analgy:

1) Yes, doctors are capable of great evil (or harm due to incompotence)

2) Automechanics & Telephone operators don't need a code of ethics. Although, if a mechanic claims to have fixed your brakes, but doesn't and you get into a car accident, you should sue.

Doctors, however, do have to take an oath to follow a code of ethics and in many situations, computer programmers are much more akin to doctors. People's lives and a great deal of money rely on functioning software. The current licence agreements that more or less say, "No matter how crappy and negligently written our software is, we're responsible for exactly zero loss of income or life" are ridiculous.

However, I'm not all for required Certification, because it would kill a lot of open source projects, and even hobbyist coders who just want to stick there stuff on the Net for others to play with.


Re:Please, IN THE NAME OF GOD (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 15 years ago | (#1706920)

Yep.. after I dragged everyone along to see RMS (and he embarrassed me by saying that proprietory custom software - like the stuff in your microwave - is ok) they all walked out stoked and confused. one even said "I never knew.. I never understood".. and my response was "Since you've been on computers they've told you that the copy key was *bad*".. These were computer science people.. what's your credentials Katz?
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