Mrs. Shobha Kumar, a quintessential middle class Indian lady had uploaded some of her personal health details and medical test reports on an internet medical website for assistance in her health matter. The matter has been attended by the website, but what followed later, is a barrage of advertisements from various websites coercing her to buy a range of products and services related to her health issues and directly associated with her medical test reports. It takes no great IQ to realize that her personal details and medicals reports have been compromised or transacted or hacked in cyberspace and obviously distributed to a wide variety of these advertisers, without her knowledge or permission.

Similar is the case, if somebody shows an intention online of purchasing a house or car. The way that person will keep getting unsolicited calls, messages in that connection is not only disturbing but also scary. Targeted advertising is not illegal nor is it breaking any existing law of our land. However, such incidents raise the question of ethics in cyberspace and whether privacy and personal details, will ever remain private or personal anymore.

Need for cyberspace ethics :

Nonetheless, this is just one of the several issues that cyberspace has created, due to its unprecedented growth and openness. Other issues could be Trolling, Cyberbullying, Cyberstalking, Hacking into someone’s personal computer and accessing personal details, copyright violations, breach of privacy and so on. The list is ever increasing, with no remedy in sight in most of the cases.

What is overwhelming is the scope of cyberspace, for instance  the outreach of social media or the ingress of various other apps into our personal lives. Almost half the humanity has given access to social media apps into their smart phones and personal computers/ laptops. Their data obviously gets accessed and saved with the central servers of the apps. This massive data reveals the likes & dislikes, preferences & problems, friends & families, events & conversations, personal videos &  photographs, selfies,etc. How this data will be used or misused is never known to us.

The extensive research and developments in the area of Artificial intelligence which is going on, further creates a whole new challenges of exposure and warnings for us. It is therefore now the right time that some sense of cyberethics is called for.

What is Cyberethics?                                         

Cyberethics1 is the philosophic study of ethics pertaining to computers, encompassing user behavior and what computers are programmed to do, and how this affects individuals and society. For years, various governments have enacted regulations, while organizations have defined policies about cyberethics.

Without going around with sophisticated words, in simple layman terms, some of the rules of cyber ethics can be stated as under :

  • Do not plagiarize; which means do not copy down some downloaded stuff and later promote it as your own. It is plain theft or stealing or shoplifting.
  • Do not use someone else’s password and access into their computers; even if you have inadvertently got access to it. Passwords are like a neighbours door keys, which should not be misused.
  • Be polite and civil in cyberspace, as much as you are in real life. Do not use offensive, rude or uncivilized words on internet just because you known that you are out of reach of others. There are human beings on the other end who have sensitivities, as much as we have.
  • Respect the sensitivities of women and children who are particularly vulnerable, as well understand the limitations of old persons who use the internet. They may not be tech savvy, and may be unaware of even some basics of internet functioning.
  • Cyberbullying is a big no-no and eventually will land the bully in big trouble. Cyber interactions leave a footprint or trail and it is even easier to nail them for prosecution, as and when needed – be it now or even years later.
  • Do not misuse data, photographs, videos, contacts of somebody else which has been provided in good faith or in trust or in normal course of social or commercial interactions.

Scope of cyberlaw in India :

Cyberlaws in India covers the legal aspects involved in online transactions, distributions, communication  over the internet and other devices or technologies. So, what is legal in cyberspace? Whatsoever is done within the legal framework of cyberlaw and after obtaining due permission of access can deemed to be legal.

Similarly on the other end of the spectrum, a user has access to unlimited amounts of data from the internet search engines and the liberty to download it without any restriction. The subsequent use of this downloaded data is seldom monitored nor is it feasible in practicality. However it raises the issue of propriety and copyright violations.

The scope of cyberspace and its related cybercrimes is not just extensive, it is continuously widening at the same time. The Information Technology Act, 2000 which is the main law governing cyberspace in India does not define the term ‘cybercrime’ as such. Nonetheless the act covers several criminal activities associated with the use of computers and internet, for example hacking, phishing, illegal trespass into computer systems, data theft, spreading of computer viruses, etc. To dwell into the realms of cybercrimes is a wider issue and several laws exist to protect the victims and bring the culprits to book.

Nevertheless in general, the other issues such as unauthorized use of private and personal data, in particular photographs, illegal use and sharing of copyrighted content are also relevant from the common persons point of view.

The Monkey selfie copyright dispute :             

A curious case happened in 2011, which gained wide interest and came to be known as ‘the monkey selfie copyright dispute’2. It was reported in several publications with pictures published, of photographs taken as self-portraits or selfies by an endangered species of macaque monkey, from a camera belonging to a photographer David Slater. The dispute arose when Slater claimed he holds the copyright over these selfies taken by macaque monkeys. Subsequently PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) intervened in the case arguing that the macaque monkey should be assigned the copyright. After extensive hearing in the matter, the court in United States in April 2018, issued a ruling in favour of the photographer David Slater, finding that animals have no legal authority to hold copyright claims.

This case has ignited the issue of who owns the copyright of selfies and other such self-portraits; millions of which are available around in cyberspace.

Copyrights and Cyberspace:

The Indian Copyright Act 1957, under its Section 14 explains copyright as the exclusive right to do or authorize the doing of any act in respect to a work or any substantial part thereof; namely to reproduce, to communicate, to issue copies, etc of an artistic work ….  Further Section 2( c )(i) defines artistic work to include a photograph whether or not any such work possesses artistic quality.

There is thus a copyright generated in favour of the photographer and the person who hires the photographer. However, by uploading such selfies on the internet websites and agreeing to the terms and conditions of the websites (albeit without ever reading through it), an individual actually compromises his rights in relation to his or her own photographs. It is thus a situation where there is no privacy nor proprietory right of the person over his own photographs.

The same goes with all the personal data shared with websites. With billions and trillions of media and data floating in cyberspace, it is essential for websites as well as users to stick to some fundamental code of ethics and ethical behavior over the internet. The citizens of cyberspace can then hope for some level of trust and confidence in the arena of cyberspace.

Conclusion and way ahead:

Cyber-policing is yet to come of age and may not come at all too. This is for the simple reason that it goes against the basic principle behind the internet, which is of ‘freedom and open source’. Therefore, any kind of strong policing will be unwelcome and frowned by one and all. It is here that some level of basic cyber ethics is called for, on lines of basic civic sense or community living basics. It goes beyond the realms of enforceable law. It is just plain moral standards of civilized behavior on the internet. Eventually order needs to prevail over disorder and morality over immorality.

Like all common technical standards developed and standardized, the time has come for cyberworld to develop a standard of ethics to be followed by internet users so as to keep the developments of information technology rolling on and on, for larger benefit of present and future generations.

References:

  1. ‘Cyberethics’ – Wikipedia
  2. ‘Monkey selfie copyright dispute’ – Wikipedia

 

Author : Harish P. Vishwanathan