TAKING IN THE SITES / By SREENATH SREENIVASAN
Finding Business Ethics on and About the Internet
The World Wide Web is not exactly a haven for good business ethics. It
March 23, 1998
can be a lawless place filled with unscrupulous operators pushing
get-rich-quick schemes and other scams.
Naturally, those who study business ethics worry about the Web. "Every
possible abuse of integrity and decency takes place on the Web," said
Laura Pincus Hartman, director of the Institute for Business and
Professional Ethics at DePaul University in Chicago.
Randy Pennington, an ethics consultant based in Dallas, said there was
"a sense that moral and ethical values are not important" on the Web. But
that does not surprise him. "There is no standardization in technology on
the Web, so why do we expect standardization in behavior?" he said.
Mr. Pennington said that to avoid an attempt at "regulation of ethical
behavior in the future, the on-line community must regulate itself."
"This country has a history of regulating those industries that do not
control themselves," he added. Despite the global nature of the Web, he
sees the possibility of Government intervention.
The Netcheck Commerce Bureau is one attempt at self-regulation. The
agency, which has 700 corporate members in about 80 countries, maintains a
list of companies involved in electronic commerce. Visitors to Netcheck's
site can register consumer complaints about anything from unsolicited
E-mail to copyright disputes. There is even a place to compliment a
company. The site's philosophy is that "public pressure is the only real
deterrent in this new frontier."
The Web is also a great place to learn about and research the issues of
business ethics, both within the Internet and beyond. An excellent
starting place is the site of the institute at DePaul that Ms. Hartman
heads. The site provides an introduction to business ethics but goes well
beyond that. It is home to the Online Journal of Ethics and has
comprehensive links to other sites that deal with the topic.
The business of domain names and how they are registered involves some
of the worst breaches of ethics on the Internet. Corporations and
nonprofit groups are being forced to spend a lot of time, money and energy
to fight piracy of high-profile .com and .org addresses. Even in the world
of business ethics, names can be less than clear. For example,
Business-ethics.org is the home of the International Business Ethics
Institute, and Businessethics.org belongs to the Council for Ethics in
Economics. The institute, which has a truly global background, has a site
that contains a sparse brochure. The council -- which is trying to
"strengthen the ethical fabric of business and economic life" -- has a
more substantial site with articles from the quarterly publication Ethics
in Economics, and texts of speeches on ethics organized by the institute,
based in Columbus, Ohio.
The Ethics Resource Center is a leading nonprofit ethics consultancy.
The site offers information about the center's work with large
corporations in developing ethics programs.
The Center for Business Ethics, at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.,
is home to the Ethics Officer Association. This group represents the
executives that help police many of the nation's large corporations.
Few industries have been mired in as many questions about ethics, both
real and perceived, as the military industry. One attempt to address its
problems is the Defense Industry Initiative on Business Ethics and
Conduct, a group of large military contractors, which has an in-depth site
about the organization and aspects of Government contracting. Much of the
information is applicable to other industries.
Unlike many other sites, the Better Business Bureau site, which is run
by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, is aimed at consumers in
addition to the corporate world. It provides tips on various consumer
frauds. It also has a guide to "establishing an ethical business" and a
detailed code of advertising that explains common abuses and misleading
Establishing an ethics code is an important step for any company or
industry, and a growing number of sites carry such codes. The DePaul site
has compiled a list of direct links to a variety of codes, including
Johnson & Johnson, Northern Telecom and the National Association of the
Remodeling Industry. Also included is the code of ethics of the
International Ethical Business Registry, a Canadian organization that
promotes ethics codes. Among the aims of the registry: donating at least
10 percent of its gross income "toward the betterment of mankind." Its
site has pointers about setting up a first-time code and answers a common
question: "Is a code of ethics like a mission statement?"
(Answer: "No. A mission statement states what you do. A code of ethics
states how you do it.")
At first glance, a site that promises "business ethics from an Islamic
perspective," as the Islamic Training Foundation does, seems to be far
removed from most of what is available on the Web. But in a closer look at
some of the material, readers learn that Allah describes successful people
as those who are "inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right
and forbidding what is wrong." What non-Islamic business ethicist would
not endorse such a view?
"WHERE TO GO"
INSTITUTE FOR BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONAL ETHICS
NETCHECK COMMERCE BUREAU
INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS ETHICS INSTITUTE
COUNCIL FOR ETHICS IN ECONOMICS
ETHICS RESOURCE CENTER
CENTER FOR BUSINESS ETHICS
CORPORATE CONDUCT QUARTERLY
DEFENSE INDUSTRY INITIATIVE
BETTER BUSINESS BUREAU
VARIOUS CODES OF CONDUCT
INTERNATIONAL ETHICAL BUSINESS REGISTRY
BUSINESS ETHICS FROM AN ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVE