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A Brief History of Computer Ethics


Computer Ethics is the branch of philosophy that analysis the nature and social impact of computer technology as well as the standards of conduct which pertain to proper use computers. It involves social issues, such as access rights, working place monitoring, censorship and junk mail; professional issues such as professional responsibility and code of conduct; legal issues such as legal obligations, data protection, computer misuse and software piracy. 

Within a relative short period of time, computer technology has created huge new possibilities and also the ethical and social implication on both business and individual’s life.  However, ethical framework and laws lag behind all the new innovations, to fill the vacuum, it needs timely effort to make laws, to corporate with company policy, personal policy and social conventions.  Computer ethics is at its relatively young stages.


The Brief History of Computer Ethics:

In 1940s, Norbert Weiner, MIT professor and a pioneer of computing, create “cybernetics”, an information feedback system and forecast that computers would create unemployment worse than Great Depression, but it was ignored for decades. 

1950s-1960s The dawn of computer technology, which features large mainframe computer, the main issues are “can machines think?” personal privacy threats, centralization of power and big government.

  • 1950: Norbert Wiener published the book, “the Human Use of Human Beings”, which established him as the founder of computer ethics and laid out the foundation of computer ethics.
  • 1966:  MIT’s Joseph Weizenbaum writes a program called ELIZA that makes the computer act as a psychotherapist.
  • 1966: First computer crime, a programmer used computer code to prevent his banking account from being flagged as overdrawn.  When late discovered, there was no law to charge this crime.
  • 1966: the adoption of Freedom of Information Act, which gave the individual and organizations the right to access data held by the federal government
  • 1960s:  Donn Parker, an author on computer crimes, pointed by ACM, led the creation of ethics code in computer technology fields.


Famous quintessential author Issac Asimov, concern in his fiction stories, “are there decisions that computers should never make?”


1970s-1980s The young and exponential growth of computer technology, which features minicomputer, microcomputer, personal computer and the beginning of networking. The attention turned to software and the issues are surrounding it, such as property rights, software piracy, liability, privacy, computer crime, hackers and more. 

  • 1970: Walter Maner, a medical teacher and researcher, noticed the need for a separate branch of applied computer ethics, developed course, workshops. The “computer ethics” coined ever since.
  • 1970: The adoption of Fair Credit Reporting Act, which dealt with handling of credit data.
  • 1973: ACM adopted the professional codes of ethics, by the middle of 70s, new privacy and computer crime laws had been enacted in American and European,
  • 1976:  Joseph Weizenbaum published book, “Computer Power and Human Reason” which considered the classic in computer ethics.
  • 1976: Abbe Mowshowitz published article, titled: “On approaches to the study of social issues in computing”

 It identifies and analyzes technical and non-technical biases in research on social issues in computing. Five positions—technicism, progressive individualism, elitism, pluralism, and radical criticism—which reflect major streams of contemporary social thought are examined.   ---- The ACM digital library, volume 24, issues 3, March 1981

  • 1978: The adoption of Right to Federal Privacy Act, which limited government’s ability to search bank records.
  • 1979: Terrell Ward Bynum, developed curriculum for university course on computer ethics. He late launched an essay competition to generate interest in computer ethics.  In 1985, he published the widest-selling issue in journal’s history --  “ Entitled Computers and Ethics”
  • 1984: The adoption of Small Business Computer Security and Education Act, which advises congress on matters relating to computer crime against small businesses.
  • 1985: James Moor classic essay, “What is Computer Ethics?” were published, in his view, computer ethics includes:

(1) identification of computer-generated policy vacuums, (2) clarification of conceptual muddles, (3) formulation of policies for the use of computer technology, and (4) ethical justification of such policies. ---Terrell Ward Bynum

  • 1985: Deborah Johnson published the first major textbook in computer Ethics, and became the standard-setting textbook in computer ethics. It also set up the research agenda for almost a decade.
  • 1986: The rewritten of Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which covers the digital, data, and video communication.
  • 1988: Robert Hauptman a librarian at St. Cloud University coined the term “information ethics” it comprises all the ethical issues related to the production, storage, access and dissemination of information.
  • 1988: The adoption of Computer Matching and Privacy Act, which restricts government’s right to programs or identifying debtors.


Since the middle of 1980s, the computer ethics field has grown rapidly, university courses, research centers, conferences, articles, and textbooks have widely become the de facto of topics.


1990s - Present The pinnacle of computer technology, the coming together of computers, telecommunications and media, which features the internet and World Wide Web.  It become such a phenomenon, which brought a seemingly endless set of ethical issues   such as legal jurisdiction, free speech, virtual community and the concerns of all the past.

  • 1992: ACM adopted the “ACM code of Ethics and Professional Conduct”.  It consists of 24 imperatives formulated as statements of personal responsibility.
  • 1995: Gorniak Kocikowska, predicted computer ethics will eventually evolve into a system of global ethics that applicable in virtually every culture, then, it will be the ordinary ethics of information age.
  • 1999: Deborah Johnson, opposite of Gorniak’s view, assumes computer ethical theories will not lead to a revolution in ethics, but only servers as the bedrock foundation of ethical thinking and analysis.  The computer ethics is only the same old ethics questions with a new twist.


From present to the near future, Computer technology features the convergence of information and communication technologies.  Issues will focus with decision-making capabilities, biochip implants, genomic research and such.


This is the short history of computer ethical following technological developments.  The question are can this pattern or order being reversed? Can we set up an ethical context? Can we develop a think and decision making skills? If the ethical and social implication is being well considered before any designs or developing of technology become reality, the world would be a much better place.

Last modified: 2004 December 5