Printed from the Society, Religion and Technology Project website:

John Knox’s Guide to Net Ethics

image Published: Mar 07, 2006

The following is an article written in 1996, for what was going to be ‘John Knox’s Guide to the Internet’, before the project to produce became overtaken by events (largely on cloning issues which burst upon us at this point and took up a great deal of our time for the next several years). But 10 years on we think quite a lot of it is still relevant and we’ve even added a bit about information overload and authoritative information.

What makes the Internet so special?

At one level, it might be argued that the Internet new simply makes more readily available the vast range of human written and graphical information that is already there. But the way it does this raises some new questions and gives a new focus to some familiar ones. In particular, four features mark out the Internet, in all its forms - speed, access, indiscriminacy and anonymity.


Speed is perhaps the most obvious feature. If I wish to send a lot of complex recorded information across the country or the world, it is unrivalled. It has the advantage over a fax that far more data can be sent, and it arrives already inside the recipient’s computer, ready to be used, without having to be retyped, scanned or transcribed. It has the potential to transform the writing and editing of committee and working group reports, saving a lot of paper, photocopying and postage. It is also extraordinarily flexible. By using a simple common format for all of the information, transmission is generally able to transcend the multiplicity of computer systems and software. There are plenty of technical hiccups, and annoying “traffic jams” at peak times in the most frequently used parts of the Net, but it still works remarkably well much of the time. And with the increase of speed more information can be handled, more often.


The second feature is ease of access. Potentially, the Internet opens up to my own office or home as much of the world’s information as it is prepared to put on display, and as I am prepared to go “out” and look for. Previously I was limited to the books I owned, the libraries I had access to, and what could be easily mailed, faxed or communicated by phone or spoken face to face. Now a large number of the world’s libraries, databases and other sources of information are accessible. Searching for information abroad was especially difficult and slow. Now I can type in a few key words into the computer and wait a short time while a “search engine” roves electronically around the world’s computers, and tells me where I can find something on the subject anywhere on the globe. Many sites have order forms where I can obtain a copy, either by conventional post (known on the Internet as “snail mail”) or increasingly often across the Internet itself. To find out the times of trains from, say, Amsterdam airport to a small town in central Netherlands, you can dial up a German Web site in Karlsruhe, type in your email address, the station names, the required date and rough time of travel, and within an hour an email message will arrive on your computer with a choice of trains (in English), changes of train, prices, supplements, etc.
This “access revolution” of the Internet is not only in the amount and the different locations of material, but equally in the breadth of different subject matter that is available at the click of a button. On any given subject, you can find a wider array of information, but especially by browsing through the list of the 10,000 Internet newsgroups find and explore subjects which had never occurred to me. This has both its advantages and its disadvantages. You might be a doctor with a patient suffering from a rare disease of which you had no prior experience, and yet be able to find via the Internet a doctor in a hospital thousands of miles away with recent experience of treating it. Or anyone could find a host of new forms of sexual perversion. The sheer ease of access creates its own problems and accentuates others, as well as finding a host of solutions and possibilities.

It also extends the range of people potentially able to access any material. Much information has always been theoretically available, but in practice was unknown outside a relatively narrow slice of the population who were especially interested in that area and knew where to find it. All this can now be found readily enough by anyone who cares to explore - in the excruciating jargon that has inevitably built up around the Internet, to “surf the Net” - imaginatively enough to find out. This includes children, who are not only naturally more curious to know “what happens if…?” , but are often far more au fait with the Internet, its techniques and tricks than their parents.

The third feature of the Internet is its indiscriminacy. The technology of the Internet means that any recordable information can be reduced electronically, sent and received, and there is no way to distinguish it in transit. In its reduced form it is simply so many bits of data. Only when it is reassembled do we see again the patterns that tell us it is script, sound or picture, and then what that information is telling us. Similarly, there is no physical discrimination in who can send and receive the information that is there. Anyone with access to the Internet can put anything they like on it, simply because there is no way to stop it, and no one in a position to control it. Its very nature transcends national boundaries and the normal means of control exercised by a society. It creates its own virtual society, which is beyond normal lines of responsibility or any obvious channels of jurisdiction. This is presenting problems in copyright and intellectual property issues as well as the regulation of socially undesirable material.


The last special characteristic is anonymity. No one else is looking. The individual “surfer” on the Net can act as if an island, not part of any group who can observe what he or she is doing and respond or comment accordingly. It is entirely possible to flit from one newsgroup or Website to another, eavesdropping or viewing for a while, then moving silently on, never interacting humanly, never belonging. Such activity is close to the extreme of individual consumerism, which raises a number of concerns of the fragmentation of human relations. For many people. the essence of the Internet is its potential for forming new relationships across boundaries of geography, politics, race and so on, enhancing the sense of community via active membership of newsgroups and so on. But it is also possible to use it purely to consume, and to interact with nobody.
There is a certain freedom in being able to browse around and see what’s on offer, without someone looking over your shoulder. But the removal of the constraint that “someone might see” can also open up a world of temptation simply because the normal limits which human interaction place on our behaviour have been transcended. To a limited extent that is true of multi-channel television watching, but so much more is available via the Internet than by any other form of communication that puts the question on to a quite different level. The range of pornographic material, in particular, probably far exceeds any other single channel of access, and there is no one to see you, as it were, reaching up to the top shelf to have a peep. To assume that everyone will of course be responsible about this is simply naive. Reliable statistics are difficult in this area, but surveys of most “visited” categories of site suggested that visits to “adult” sites vastly exceeded all other categories. Anonymity is a key factor.


The Internet has proved the communication medium for NGOs and campaigners par excellence. For many community, environmental and activist organisations, for whom networking is their lifeblood, the Internet offers unrivalled opportunities for co-ordinating action and information. The ability to keep a committed group of people informed, updated and discussing strategy, developments and ideas through the various closed email groups has transformed what can be done in activist circles. A number of protests and campaigns have been orchestrated via the Net, notably the protest at animal shipments from the south of England. Depending on one’s perspective about a given cause, this development can be seen as either a great benefit or a danger - most ways of using the Internet tend to have this ambivalent character.
The ability to do the same thing for non-existing groups varies. Some coalitions are as ephemeral as the latest action, some are international, virtual and never meet in person. The possibilities are endless provided someone is prepared to keep the channels open, moderate the immoderate language people use when there is no visible human present and it’s so easy to press SEND in anger.
Benefits and Dangers

Communication is a good thing, but…

Communication is something close to the heart of the Christian understanding of God and humanity. In revealing himself to us, God communicates, and has given to human beings the power of speech and many other non-verbal means. To make things known is part of the Christian message, and part of the creation ordinance to men and women to “fill the earth and subdue it”. In its very nature of making things known, the Internet falls within the same category and takes its place alongside the printing press, the camera and the telephone as things a Christian should welcome for what it makes possible in knowing and understanding what God has created.
In principle, the Internet should have a rather positive evaluation, but within this context of communication is the obvious caveat that the use of the Internet, like all technology, is subject to the individuals and organisations who put it to use, for good or ill. In this respect, the Internet is ethically ambiguous. Taking this further, we must ask what sort of knowledge the Internet is especially making available, and to whom? Who and what are being left out, by comparison? What are the features of the Internet itself which influence what people do with the knowledge they get while using it? Just as reading a book or going to see a play or a film all involve different ways of receiving and using “data”, what effects will the type of knowledge the Internet provides have on us?

Wider horizons

For the professional, business and academic users, there are numerous benefits of greatly widened and quickened access to relevant information. For the ordinary home user, perhaps the biggest benefit the Internet provides is the almost unlimited widening of horizons, and exploring interests in new ways. Some groups in particular have found a release and opening of opportunities through the Net. An impressive and heartening range of newsgroups has sprung up, which offer a support network for people with particular problems, suffering serious diseases, coping with a tragedy, coming to terms with abuse, struggling with addiction, and so on. In a strange way, the relative anonymity of the Internet can provide the very outlet of being able to tell someone at last, without the awful feeling that everyone will know, which at the same time gives the discovery back that you’re not alone in the problem. The Internet can also offer many opportunities for disabled people to expand their horizons.
In an unexpected development, retired people are finding a new interest and way of communicating via the Net. It is no longer seen as primarily the preserve of the young and unattached. The pornography debate has highlighted the need for parents not just to keep an eye on where their children are “surfing”, but to become just as familiar with the Net themselves, and to grasp its potential as a family resource for learning, playing and sharing. As far as can be judged, the Internet has so far appealed significantly more to males, and for a variety of reasons. More should be done to encourage women to find their own ways of using its potential.

A rapidly developing area of the Internet is in advertising and sales, but instead of the advertising coming to you via the television or a magazine or a hoarding, on the Internet the consumer goes to the advertising. Computer shopping is seen as a new growth area as parallel developments such as networking via the television, placing orders and banking transactions on-line, and, in due course, virtual reality come to fruition. The idea is to be able to sit at the computer and look at pictures of items in a display menu, get an on-line description and specification, and even turn them round and “feel” them by virtual reality. No one knows how far this will be a trendy gimmick for a few people, or how much this will change our patterns of shopping yet again. Taken to the limit, it could make the newly built shopping malls, so recently seen as icons of the late twentieth century, somewhat redundant.

Who the technology empowers; who it leaves out

In one sense the internet has become a gathering place for voices in the wilderness. It has given new voice for the oppressed, those who fear to talk openly, the marginalised, those who have problems they feel no one else would have but would long to talk. But it also leaves a new potential generation of have not’s for whom the benefits of things built round the Internet will be unavailable.

Ready Access to All Possible Material

The sheer ease of use of the World Wide Web and the links which everyone puts in their pages means that, at the click of a button, you can move all over the map and all over the possible subjects of interest to the human race. In seconds you can go from vital information to the utterly banal, to the subversive, to the helpful, to the funny, to the disgusting, to the peculiar, to the thrilling, and back again. More or less all human life is there.
And that is both the opportunity and the problem. Any data can be sent down a phone line or put up on the screen. If a picture of a distant nebula or galaxy can be sent from Hawaii, potentially so can pornography from Hamburg, share prices from the Hang Seng, goods advertised from Harrods, human rights information from Haiti, or a list of someone’s favourite rock groups and ice-cream flavours from Harrisburg. The Internet, in all its various manifestations, reveals far more readily, and indiscriminately to more people, far more of what goes on in human society, than perhaps any form of communication yet devised. This indiscriminate opening up of “all human life” brings areas to light that are normally hidden, brings some questions to light, which hitherto have been far from most people’s thoughts or experience.
Garbage in…

There has been criticism about the level of trivia and junk “out there”, as well as about some of the more disturbing content, of which there is plenty. Just because it is on the net does not mean it is true. The wikipedia phenomenon - define-it-yourself-in-community - is a post-modern take on dictionaries and encyclopoedias, which can be very creative. But it is not authoritative in the sense of the role of experts and peers who are recognised as ‘people who know’. Does it matter? Yes, on balance. The lack of moderation of what is posted on the net becomes a problem if the surfer believes implicitly what they read and then depends on it without any cross-checking. The Internet can merely confirm us in our prejudices as well as expand our horizons. The crisis over genetically modified crops in the UK threw up an interesting facet about information. Amid all the campaigning, claims and counter-claims of evidence, the most important single outcome from ordinary people was wanting to know where they could find authoritative information upon which they could make up their own minds. Simply letting focus groups participants loose on the Internet had mixed results. The presence of generally recognised communities of people who can speak with real knowledge about an issue remains vital in society. The Internet does not guarantee that.

Information overload

Can we actually cope with all this information? Will it eventually prove to be self limiting? For many people, email has stopped being an efficient means of communication because of overload. Ironically it’s so easy, it has become the seeds of its own undoing. To contact increasing numbers of overloaded people, it is becoming important to know whether the best way to reach them is by email, or phone, or letter or, texting, and if email, whether they have actually received my email and have read it amidst the other 50 or 200 that came in today.

Devouring time and Net addiction

You perhaps might start by instituting a search for a particular subject and come up with, say 20 sites. It requires a certain discipline to stick to your original task, because each time you open up a new site, there are a series of new links you could follow up instead. That can be the fascination of it, as you look up a page that catches your fancy and then another after that. Before you know where you are you can have spent hours browsing around from site to site, as each new page leads to another the unfolding parts of Alice’s dream in Wonderland. As much as the Internet raises all sorts of possibilities for finding information, it also has huge potential for devouring time. This is already causing some companies to keep an eye on how much time their employees are spending on the Net, and what they are looking at. A new excuse for not leaving the office or not coming to do the washing up, can also lead to isolation within the home.

Not in front of the children?

Who controls? Should we control?

The Internet is not a physical system but millions of links. No one controls it, because there isn’t an “it” to control. There is much debate and effort going on into what levels in the Internet it might be possible to introduce controls of a sort to restrict the access of pornographic material, especially into the home. The subject is proving both controversial and technically difficult.
It is controversial because there is widespread cultural opposition across the Net to any sort of policing or control of a system because its entire evolved ethos is the free passage of all and any information, safe from interference by Government, police, commercial or political interests, or simply by “busybodies”. That is a freedom much cherished by many Net users, and an expression of the alternative, virtual community which, to some extent at least, the Net provides. Its values are almost archetypally post-modern. There is almost certainly something there to suit the most bizarre of tastes, and if there isn’t, you can always start one. No overarching world view holds sway, everyone is free to express on the Net the values they feel, especially within the privacy and internal etiquette of their Newsgroups. You do your thing and let me do mine. If you don’t like something, then you have the choice not to look at it, but do not have the right to impose your standards on it by objecting to its existence. A Christian message offering help posted to a newsgroup known to be dubious as a cover for paedophilia was greeted with several abusive responses, telling the author sharply to get his nose out of their area and stick to religious groups. The church would do well to recognise that for those for whom the Internet represents an icon of post-modernity, or just simply the freedom to do their own thing, the idea of censorship or controls is likely to be received as the church or others seeking to exert power over them.
Pornography, violence and related questions

At its most basic level, there is no probably no reliable way of distinguishing technically between a pornographic image being transmitted electronically and fine art or a family photo on the beach. It is not merely that the human eye’s ability at pattern recognition is so much superior to anything we might realistically expect from a computer, but the association and contextual information we weigh up without thinking when we look at an image, which sees a difference between, say, Edinburgh’s famous Scottish National Gallery exhibit “The Three Graces” and “hard core” pornography, and anything in between.
At first sight, there seems to be more chance of controlling the type of sources of material actually being offered for viewing or groups for participating, but this is not straightforward. Many newsgroups and Web sites are fairly obvious. There are a growing number of programmes written which can be installed on to a computer to filter out certain parts of the Internet known to be pornographic or otherwise unsuitable for children. There are various ways of doing this, depending typically on an updateable blacklist of Web sites and newsgroups, defined by categories or certain keywords. Even at their best, these could never be foolproof.

Firstly, competent hackers simply regard such controls as a challenge waiting to be cracked. Again, the “list” of forbidden sites could attain a mystique, and almost inevitably someone would find out what was in it. Only certain families in the neighbourhood might buy the control software, and it could lead to clandestine surfing parties at the home of someone whose parents didn’t censor the Net in any way. Human ingenuity to get around rules, given a sufficient incentive, knows few bounds.

The more important questions these methods raise, however, is abrogating parental responsibilities to “technological fixes”. It is one thing to have such a piece of software as an aid to something you are doing already, in keeping in touch with what your children are watching, and it also sends a clear message of the standards of behaviour expected for the whole family. But the temptation is to use it as a substitute for the much trickier task of educating a child on what the world is like, what people are like and what sort of standards are good ones to live by.

Another method is for the “service providers” through whom people are connected to the Internet to refuse to give their subscribers access to certain sites and groups, or to have such groups located on their computer. Only some do this. The free ethos of the Internet as a people system, beyond the interference of “them” is always likely to militate against universal restrictions. And, again, someone down the street could be linked to a non-restricted provider. Even if legislation were introduced, the more obvious “banned” sites and newsgroups would simply disappear beneath another level of encryption, move to a site with a less obvious name, and communicate the taboo key words by using euphemisms, like the original use of Cockney rhyming slang in London. It is true of censorship in general that the more pressure is put on groups, up to a point the more they find clever ways of hiding themselves.

A further aspect is that pornography is by no means the only disturbing feature of widespread access. The same freedom that has several times enabled human rights abuses to reach the outside world via the Internet, where all other communications channels were too dangerous to the “dissident”, also allows organised crime and commercial abuses to transcend societal controls. Another area of currently concern is that alliances are being formed that will enable a few trans-national media barons gradually to control the global communications media through the newly emerging technologies, of which the Internet is one. Whereas nobody could control its use, the possibility of manipulation by a few companies controlling either the services or the software media is a factor which needs vigilance. This raises afresh the question : to what and to whom are such consortia answerable, since their business does not belong to any normal community of society, and so escape and transcend the normal ways societies have of exercising control?

In the long term, if its promise really is fulfilled, how is a medum which is international, stateless and structureless going to affect national issues of trade, banking, defence, and even identity. At the moment what we have is a bundle of questions, and few of them will be easy to answer.

Using the Technology Well

So much depends on the discipline and imagination brought to bear in the use of this remarkable technological development. It is much too easy to let its potential dictate terms to us, instead of the other way round. It is a tool to be picked up, used for its purpose, and put down again, not something which dominates us. We need to work at its potential, as some are already doing to give positive alternatives to the things that others will undoubtedly find to do with it. It is a potential means, by the exercise of our imagination, of developing and sharing the things about life and living which we as Christians believe are of eternal value - treasures in heaven. We who see value in wisdom and understanding as well as mere knowledge and in self-giving love than mere individual experiences alone should welcome this new development, but see it in its place and not beyond it.

Printed from on Tue, October 17, 2017
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