Keyboard
Keyboard (source: Sergey Skleznev via Dreamstime)

As web developers, we are responsible for shaping the experiences of users' online lives. By making ethical, user-centered choices, we create a better Web for everyone. The Ethical Web Development series aims to take a look at the ethical issues of web development.

With this in mind, I’ve attempted to divide the ethical issues of web development into four core principles.

  • Web applications should work for everyone.
  • Web applications should work everywhere.
  • Web applications should respect a user’s privacy and security.
  • Web developers should be considerate of their peers.

The first three are all about making ethical decisions for the users of our sites and applications. When we build web applications, we are making decisions for others, often unknowingly to those users.

The fourth principle concerns how we interact with others in our industry. Though the media often presents the image of a lone hacker toiling away in a dim and dusty basement, the work we do is quite social and relies on a vast web of connected dependencies on the work of others.

What Are Ethics?

If we’re going to discuss the ethics of web development, we first need to establish a common understanding of how we apply the term ethics. The study of ethics falls into four categories:

Meta-ethics
An attempt to understand the underlying questions of ethics and morality
Descriptive ethics
The study and research of people’s beliefs
Normative ethics
The study of ethical action and creation of standards of right and wrong
Applied ethics
The analysis of ethical issues, such as business ethics, environmental ethics, and social morality

For our purposes, we will do our best to determine a normative set of ethical standards as applied to web development, and then take an applied approach.

Within normative ethical theory, there is the idea of consequentialism, which argues that the ethical value of an action is based on the result of the action. In short, the consequences of doing something become the standard of right or wrong. One form of consequentialism, utilitarianism, states that an action is right if it leads to the most happiness, or well-being, for the greatest number of people. This utilitarian approach is the framework I’ve chosen to use as we explore the ethics of web development.

Whew! We fell down a deep dark hole of philosophical terminology, but I think it all boils down to this:

Make choices that have the most positive effect for the largest number of people.

Professional Ethics

Many professions have a standard expectation of behavior. These may be legally mandated or a social norm, but often take the form of a code of ethics that details conventions, standards, and expectations of those who practice the profession. The idea of a professional code of ethics can be traced back to the Hippocratic Oath, an oath taken by medical professionals that was written during the fifth century BC (see Figure 1-1. Today, medical schools continue to administer the Hippocratic or a similar professional oath.

the Hippocratic Oath
Figure 1-1. A fragment of the Hippocratic Oath from the third century (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In the book Thinking Like an Engineer, Michael Davis says a code of conduct for professionals:

prescribes how professionals are to pursue their common ideal so that each may do the best she can at a minimal cost to herself and those she cares about… The code is to protect each professional from certain pressures (for example, the pressure to cut corners to save money) by making it reasonably likely (and more likely then otherwise) that most other members of the profession will not take advantage of her good conduct. A code is a solution to a coordination problem.

My hope is that this report will help inspire a code of ethics for web developers, guiding our work in a way that is professional and inclusive.

The approaches I’ve laid out are merely my take on how web development can provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. These approaches are likely to evolve as technology changes and may be unique for many development situations. I invite you to read my practical application of these ideas and hope that you apply them in some fashion to your own work.

This series is a work in progress, and I invite you to contribute. To learn more, visit the Ethical Web Development website.

Intended Audience

This title, and others in the Ethical Web Development series, is intended for web developers and web development team decision makers who are interested in exploring the ethical boundaries of web development. I assume a basic understanding of fundamental web development topics such as HTML, JavaScript, and HTTP. Despite this assumption, I've done my best to describe these topics in a way that is approachable and understandable.

Article image: Keyboard (source: Sergey Skleznev via Dreamstime).