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Welcome to the Internet - Got Ethic?

By Eric Bernhardt | Final Research Essays

"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest" - Mark Twain

 Global Internet technology has made today's business environment something of a modern day Roman Empire. As celebrated as the Roman Empire was, common sense tells us that building and maintaining it must have been neither simple nor convenient. Its massive geographic reach must have required unprecedented ways of thinking about business, culture, technology, and politics, with every moment becoming a new step on a tightrope of achievement over the implacable chasm of history.  Today the Internet offers us all a similar environment: vast, disparate and ripe for civilization. The Internet's world-wide reach puts any person with a computer and an Internet connection in a position to boldly collaborate, consult, or compete with anyone else in the world who also has a computer and an Internet connection. It also puts that person in a position to quickly lose money, customers, reputation, or even cause serious damage to other persons or businesses - all on a global level. Never before in world history has such power to communication resided in the hands of the average human being.

One might feel compelled to ask - what does it mean for billions of disparate human beings to suddenly be able to dive into the same giant cauldron and interact instantaneously? Like with a new neighbor, we want to know if we can trust the Internet, how we should behave around it, whether it will affect the value of our assets, and whether we are destined to become fast friends or mortal enemies. But the Internet is not just any neighbor. It is like the whole world moving in next door. Trust within a  neighborhood is normally secured by the rule of law. But in cyber-space there is no central legal authority, nor is there likely to be.

When no true legal authority exists in a community, there must still be a defining source of governance for there to be order. On the Internet the defining source of governance is business ethics. In "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations," the highly respected economist Adam Smith makes the claim that wherever people interact there is a "propensity in human exchange," and it is this propensity that breeds business (Smith). Smith clearly believed that business was a social activity, at one with social interaction and subject to social forces. The Internet is bounded and sustained by business interests. Any group of people on the Internet, whether a group of two or a group of many, is automatically participating in the business of the Internet. We pay Comcast for Internet access. We buy iPods on We sell bicycles on Ebay. We use Google to search for information on sustainable energy, while Google makes money from our searches and uses the money to purchase routers from Cicsco. We work for companies like Starbucks, which posts its menu online. Perhaps we email our mom, make a free Skype call to China, or surf a friend's blog using the University of Maryland network, which is supported by tuition, tax dollars, and research grants. Or maybe we even hack Citibank, donate money to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, or send in our Federal tax return online. These are all part of the business of the Internet.

Within this business space we can find organization. We can experience decidedly good and bad outcomes. Yet, with no central legal structure to govern it, what sets the standards for interaction? What sets the threshold between good and bad outcomes? When we choose to log onto the Internet, the only true standard we are guaranteed to encounter is the one we bring with us. It is our ethics. Whether we are an individual or a group of people (ie. a government, corporation, PETA, AARP, etc.), we bring these ethics to a place of business. The Internet is a pathway for commerce, like an Interstate highway. We each come to it with our own distinct purpose; but we travel the same road. What I do on the Internet can affect others, and what they do can affect me. What we bring to this extralegal place is our business ethics. And they make the difference between good and bad outcomes.

What happens when a revolutionary technology like the Internet comes to town? The Internet's global reach is what makes it truly revolutionary, and such technologies always generate ethical questions (Moor 111). James H. Moor, in his article "Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies" writes that "inevitably revolutionary technology [provides] numerous novel opportunities for action for which well thought out ethical policies will not have been developed " (118). Moor  recognizes that every so often throughout history, a new technology so changes our way of doing things that we can not be prepared for the ethical questions will that arise from its use. For example, when the telescope was invented nobody was prepared for the theological bombshell resulting from Galileo's subsequent discovery that the earth did not revolve around the sun (Wisan 473).  Moor, to neatly package his own observation, offers the following axiom: Moor’s Law: As technological revolutions increase their social impact, ethical problems increase. (Moor 117) Moor's Law is an equation of sorts for what happens when technology and society collide. When you consider that today's global Internet technology allows people to instantly and arbitrarily communicate with people on the opposite side of the planet, the implication of Moor's Law is easy to digest. The Internet is far more than just a technical work/play space. The Internet is a large, dynamic social construct where the potential to take part in world changing events exists with every click of the mouse, and with ethical consequences. When someone goes online, they step into a whirlwind of human interaction, and thus a whirlwind of ethics. They step squarely into Moor's equation.

Ethics - the Paint Brush

 Let us first consider the nature of ethics. Here I could easily post a dictionary definition. But the strict formality of such a definition would not adequately convey the reality that nearly every sentient person already has their own intrinsic notion of what is right and wrong, good and bad. Ethics, from one individual to another, are contextual (Moriarty 32) and changeable (Moor 118). Thus it would seem that nearly every human interaction has ethical overtones. And human interaction is the life blood of business. Therefore, business and ethics are inseparable.

This inseparability between business and ethics does not imply automatic compatibility. In real time business situations I can no more easily impose some rote definition of ethics onto the person I am interacting with than I can make that person eat the page of the text from which I would draw the definition. Moreover, just because I have my own ethic on something does not inform me as to what you think is important and will respond to. But let us say I make the effort to understand your ethic, even if I do not agree with it. Now I have elevated ethics to a level of communication and understanding. And business, if anything, is about communication and understanding. Business is ethics in action.

A business ethic can be either evolved (and thus productive) or unevolved (and thus destructive). Let me illustrate an evolved business ethic in action. During the tech boom in the late 1990's, while I worked as a freelance software programmer, I occasionally did work for a small commercial audio-video (AV) contractor named John L. In those days, commercial AV customers had money to spend and did so quite readily. Thus, most of the AV contractors who hired me, intent upon the growth of their businesses, took on as many projects as they could and consequently, in my estimation, left their customers with mediocre results. Nevertheless, these contractors grew steadily and posted great profits. However, John L was quite a different fellow from other contractors I worked for. He kept his company small and his work force tightly knit. When I asked him about this he told me that if he took every big job that came along he would surely start losing his existing customers base because he would not have the resources to meet all their needs. John L was right. When the "tech bubble" burst a few years later, more than a few of those other contractors - some of them now having grown large - went out of business. Yet John L's customers remained loyal, and his business steady. In fact, though the industry had less work in general, John L. was now being called by customers who had originally done business with other contractors who had gone out of business. To this day, John L has a healthy business, good profits and a tight-knit work force. His well-evolved ethic has made his business a success. 

Did those other contractors follow an ethic? Yes, albeit a poorly evolved one. Those other contractors were good folks, and I believe they thought they were doing the right thing. Yet their ethic had a serious flaw that John L's ethic did not. The other contractors only thought one level deep; the customer valued a widget, the contractors valued the growth of their companies. But John L intuitively understood his customers' secondary need, in this case a sense of security that someone would return their phone call if the widget did not work correctly and that the problem would be fixed. When the economy soured, the customers' secondary need suddenly became their primary need; reliability and service. And John L's phone kept ringing when others' stopped.

Now let us consider an example of a highly unevolved business ethic, that which the holder thinks to be separable from the core activities of their business, even optional. Many business people agree that ethics are indeed a good thing, but they see ethical issues as "something separate from a company’s primary business" (Steen 1). Such thought is unfortunate, sometimes to the point of making no sense. Even companies of great stature are not immune to this defect in ethics policy. Joseph Weber, in a 2003 Business Week review of the book "FINAL ACCOUNTING: Ambition, Greed, and the Fall of Arthur Andersen" summarizes a portion of the book that highlights the frightening stance that Arthur Anderson, LLC, a large US accounting firm, chose to take on its own business ethics.

When Barbara Ley Toffler attended the 1998 annual conference of the Ethics Officer Assn., a trade group for corporate ethics executives, she was mightily embarrassed. Here she was, head of the ethics consulting unit at Arthur Andersen LLP, and longtime colleagues were needling her because they knew that Andersen itself had no formal internal-ethics program. The firm, says Toffler, was the proverbial barefoot cobbler's child. She found herself asking: "How do you sell as 'essential' programs and services that your own firm refuses to embrace?" (Weber 26)

Toffler's book was written in the wake of Arthur Anderson's 2002 conviction for illegally shredding documents for Enron, another former company that had its own ethics problems (26).  Because of that conviction, Arthur Anderson no longer exists. Nor does Enron. Both companies had been large and well known. Neither company had learned that ethics can do nothing for you if you refuse make good use of them. Though some might say that these two companies lacked ethics, it is short-sighted to suggest that Arthur Anderson and Enron had corporate cultures with no concept of what is good and what is bad. Rather, the situation was one where their ethics simply bore no resemblance to those of the world in which they operated. These companies had not elevated ethics to a level of communication and understanding. And they paid the price for it.

Internet - the Canvas

To understand the landscape in which Internet business ethics are currently being played out, let us look at specific examples of good and bad outcomes on the Internet. First, consider that prior to the 1990's the Internet was only used by a small number of scientists and educators. In those days, commercialism on the Internet was considered bad manners. But the 1990's brought growth, public access, commercial development, and a desperate need for data organization. Since then, commercial Internet content providers (ICPs) like Google have provided the inspiration and follow-through for a level of organization that has tellingly culminated in "google" having become a new dictionary word (google). It is hard to imagine how we would ever navigate the vast volume of information on the Internet without the help of commercial companies like Google, Yahoo, YouTube and Facebook.

Google-driven data collection has made it possible for smaller Internet entities to develop services that were previously almost unimaginable. Brownstein, et al in their article "Surveillance Sans Frontières: Internet-Based Emerging Infectious Disease Intelligence and the HealthMap Project" discuss HealthMap, a web application that can track disease outbreaks around the world by using "low-cost and real-time data mining [of] a variety of electronic media sources" (1020). HealthMap can freely surf through arbitrary Internet information sources, look for a heightened prevalence of discussions relating to disease, correlate the locale of the discussions with World Health Organization reports, then track the progression of the associated disease outbreaks on a map.  HealthMap is exploiting the data organizing capabilities of Google to provide astounding, new, intelligent benefits for society.

HealthMap depends highly upon the number and regularity of interactions to be had with people in cyber-space to successfully provide a valuable, global human service. This high level of cyber-participation has made the Internet's raw data carrying power accessible to the masses at relatively low cost. Such low cost promotes effective cross-cultural education. A kid studying Japanese in a place like Liberty, Kansas can actually practice with native Japanese speakers in Japan by making a free Skype Internet phone call to Japan (Woo). Prior to the Internet age, a person's education was often significantly limited by the expense of accessing educational resources that were not in close physical proximity to the person. Now, the Internet not only extends a person's educational reach, it puts them at the crossroads of the world's discourse.

The Internet is increasingly being used for news sharing and political engagement. The mere existence of Internet social discourse can promote critical social change, even when political authorities attempt to suppress information content. In November 2007 the government of Pakistan declared a "state of emergency" and cracked down on traditional news outlets, allowing only government approved news to be broadcast (Shaheen 143). Shaheen, in his study "Use of social networks and information seeking behavior of students during political crises in Pakistan: A case study," relates that during the state of emergency the government tried to suppress unflattering news about itself, but instead provoked it. Internet social networking amongst Pakistani students on sites like Facebook not only spread information meant to be suppressed by the government, it allowed the participants to voice their frustrations to each other (143). Shaheen summarizes optimistically, saying "[t]he results of this small case study… indicate promise that the use of social networking websites may be an alternate medium to promote the freedom of speech and greater awareness about their political rights" (142). The more networked the social discourse, the harder it may be to suppress. Internet social networking contains the kernel of discourse that spawns free speech and an awareness of individual rights, though they are not to be exercised without caution.

These stories of high promise also hide a strain of discord and even danger. We sometimes like to think that because we understand the technology of something we are less vulnerable to its dark side.  The researchers Harris, Van Hoye and Lievens, in their study of attitudes towards privacy and the Internet, found that people who thought they knew more about the Internet were more willing to use it for transmitting personal data than people who did not think they knew the Internet so well (234).  But the public has been hearing for years that data carried on the Internet can travel through many different network devices before it reaches its destination, devices over which we as individuals obviously have no control, operated by people we obviously do not know. It may be that we are far too trusting in the handling of that information. 

If there is an disconnect between our Internet behavior and our awareness of our Internet vulnerability, it may in part be because Internet security discussions tend to revolve around technical subjects like encryptions, passwords, anti-virus software and the like, while downplaying the critical role of human actors. The importance of technology as a tool for (or against) Internet security is probably moot compared to the importance of government/corporate policy and legal jurisdiction.  Facebook, one of the most popular social networking web sites, with members all over the world, has a privacy policy that states, “Facebook may..collect information about you from other sources, such as newspapers, blogs, instant messaging services, and other users of the Facebook service" (Privacy).  There is a big red flag here that should give anyone pause. Using Facebook puts you in a position to have information about you, accurate or not, collected and presented for public consumption at Facebook's discretion. Cumulatively, that may or may not paint you in a way that we would like (Walther et al. 44). Just as in the non-Internet world, people are free to lie, embellish, or misconstrue. Just as in the non-Internet world, Internet data can be accidentally released or stolen (Leyden). If the information gathered about you becomes available to a potential employers (Haefner), or litigants, for use outside of your intended context, the results could potentially be damaging. When Facebook mines your Internet "DNA", their primary interests are not the same as yours. For Facebook, information is income. For you, your information is reputation. Perhaps Facebook's relationship with you is symbiotic. But perhaps it is parasitic.

One of the biggest problems for privacy on the Internet derives from the legal ambiguities of international business. Any international business can face jurisdictional dilemmas that may affect what ultimately happens to your personal data. Simply doing business internationally can force a company to violate privacy laws when there is a conflict in policy between two countries. In a 2004 report on the US Patriot Act, created for the British Columbia Information and Privacy Commissioner, Geist and Homsi note a case where The Bank of Nova Scotia was forced by a US court subpoena to choose between ignoring a legal demand for customer records from one country and ignoring privacy laws in another: “The court [stated] that choosing between sovereigns is part of the cost of doing business for multinational corporations” (17). This may not bother you if you trust that anyone who gains access to your information through any particular court of law is going to respect that information. But that is a lot of trust. And it is troublesome to think that, trust or not, you will probably have no say as to the outcome in such jurisdictional battles.

Google's ambitious services and innovations have made it a lightning rod for international privacy conflicts. In 2007 a Canadian university decided to forgo upgrading some of its core IT services when Google offered those same services in a web-based format and for a much lower cost (Abaya). But there was a hidden caveat; because Google records are subject to the US Patriot act, so to is the data that Google maintains for its international clients. Despite the fact that Canadian law forbids it, the US government claims the right of direct access to the electronic data of these foreign nationals without having to give them notice. This has not gone over well with the university staff (Avery).

There are darker implications here, beyond the general realization that we may not be able to trust any privacy law to survive international dilemmas. How is this information used? In October 2008 Nart Villeneuve of Citizen Lab, an Internet research group associated with the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, released findings that the communications and personal information of users of TOM-Skype, the Chinese version of the popular and supposedly secure Internet phone software Skype were being seriously compromised. TOM-Skype text is being filtered for key words (ex. “Falun Gong”, “Taiwan Independence”) and siphoned off, along with user data, for storage on insecure servers in China (Villeneuve 5). Even worse, users of the US version of Skype can just as easily have their information intercepted, profiled and stored when they communicate with Tom-Skype users. Villeneuve was able to connect to the insecure servers and found data for users from 58 other countries, including the US (9). Unfortunately for Skype, which is owned by Ebay, when Internet companies do business in China, the Chinese government requires “commercial agreements  to restrict use of their products in China for political dissent” (Zoellick).  The US government has its own jurisdiction over Ebay and other such companies. One shudders to think what might go on behind closed doors if the US government, which is strongly suspected of not always respecting its own privacy laws (Warrick), and the Chinese government ever found strategic benefit in sharing data they each have accumulated on each other's citizens.

Internet Ethics in Action - A Case Study of Google

You may have noticed that throughout the above narratives of good and bad Internet outcomes the word "ethics" was left unmentioned. It was not necessary for me to invoke the word "ethics" for you to draw your own conclusions. Each of these stories most likely has triggered within you a sense of right or wrong, desirable or undesirable. You may think, for instance, that the use of Facebook to connect Pakistani citizens during the 2007 political crackdown is a good outcome that outweighs any other negative aspects of Facebook. Or you may think that Facebook merely exploits its users for monetary gain, and using Facebook to spread rumors during a crisis is dangerous and unproductive. The competing views in this situation, and in situations like this, pose ethical problems in accordance with Moor's Law. This is the context in which Internet businesses must operate.

Let us look at a highly productive and highly controversial Internet business that has been navigating some of the thorniest ethical territory on the Internet, Google. The root of Google's ethical problems derive from the amount of information it collects, and difference of the cultures within which it operates. You only need to consider two of those cultures to see how the problems arise, China and the United States. China is a huge market for any service, Internet or otherwise. From the day that Google, Yahoo and other Internet companies entered the Chinese market, these companies were faced with a political regime that desperately wanted to limit its citizens' access to information and a citizenry that desperately wanted access to information. For Google, doing business in China has meant acquiescing to the Chinese government's demand to block public access to certain web sites (Clemmett 413). Something about this feels wrong to Americans, and Google has taken a lot of criticism at home for playing ball with the Chinese government (speech).

Thus began Google's ethical drama, which has invited discourse as to whether Google is a bad actor that does not care about human rights in China or a good actor that is patiently cultivating a business presence in China so as to gradually promote human rights as the opportunities arise (Martinson). Or maybe Google is just a neutral actor whose business interests should not be stifled by socio-political intrigue. Is this a danger to Google's economic status? Probably not in the short term. Most non-Chinese people who use Google probably do not think much about Chinese human rights when they are searching for information on where to buy flowers for Mother's Day. But is that discourse important? It most certainly is, because it is a bellwether of the rhetorical claims and labels that could be applied to Google if the world situation were to change such that a significant number of people did take an interest.

There is no way to overstate the inseparability of business and ethics for Google, despite assertions to the contrary. Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman is often quoted in reference to his famous September 13, 1970 article for the New York Times Magazine entitled "The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits." In the article Freidman specifically stated, "[T]here is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits" (Friedman). Some people like to recite that quote whenever the subject turns to whether a business like Google should pay attention to criticisms rooted in social concerns. But it would be negligent for a company in Google's position to ignore ethical discourse that could portend a future market shift. This potential for the situation to change is what negates the argument that Google should consider themselves a neutral party whose business should not be connected to the socio-political situation in China.

One can imagine how the Internet could magnify the speed of a shift in the primary ethic within a market. Google should find it highly instructive to consider the current plight of the "Big Three" US automobile manufacturers, who as of this writing are trying to stave off bankruptcies (Herszenhorn). The auto companies claim that they were caught off guard buy a downturn in the US economy that soured consumers' long standing taste for buying large, less efficient vehicles - despite clear evidence for several decades that there was a secondary ethic within the auto market which held that fuel-efficient vehicles were highly desirable. If Google is smarter than the "Big Three", they will follow a business strategy that respects secondary ethics that might foreshadow future shifts in the Internet marketplace.

And it appears Google has indeed formulated useful strategies for operating in this politically charged arena. Though Google cannot singlehandedly force the government of China to change its ways, Google is proactively showing its awareness of the ethics of advocates for Internet privacy protection.  In 2006 Google was the only Internet company (including Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL) to refuse to comply with US Justice Department "subpoenas for a random sampling of millions of Internet addresses cataloged in their databases, as well as for records for potentially billions of searches made over a one-week period" (Godoy).  And in 2007 a Google representative stood before a UNESCO meeting on ethics and human rights, recommending a "global privacy standard for how companies protect consumer data..remedies [that] focus on whether a person was actually harmed by having the information exposed" (Mills). A quote by an anonymous Google executive in a January 14, 2008 article of The New Yorker says it all. "Privacy is an atomic bomb," he said, "Our success is based on trust" (Auletta). Google's actions suggest an  awareness of how ethics in the market place have the potential to substantially affect their business. One might speculate that the reason the executive chose not to be named is that Google would rather have internal discourse about how to manage ethics issues before any such issues would become incendiary public issues. This is an example of an evolved ethic that stands a good chance of producing more good outcomes than bad, for both Google and its customers over time.


What can each of us take from this, from Google to the humble blogger? The Internet is a vast, dynamic business space where human activities can result in both decidedly good and decidedly bad outcomes. As we have seen, there is no definitive central authority that governs the Internet as if it were a single state. What seems certain today (ex. the sanctity of your bank account) may be less certain tomorrow.  But that is not to say that we should eschew the Internet. Remember that there is always at least one ethical standard you can count on when you log onto the Internet - your own ethics. In a way we are each our own business, with our own interests and thus, even as individuals, our ethics are business ethics. It is safe to assume that you will not be the only one in search of that same assurance of trust, respect and security that such ethical standards bring.  Fostering our own awareness of the business ethics of other players on the Internet helps us decide whose business ethics are similar, whose we need to learn to work with, and whose to avoid. It is that active awareness that can make our Internet experience productive and profitable and promote good outcomes.

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