Generation Y E-Ethics and Internet Misbehaviors
by Oliver Freestone and Vincent-Wayne Mitchell
Cass Business School, City University of London
Overview of the Research
Consumers who behave unethically costs firms millions of pounds a year and the Internet has provided young techno-literate consumers with a new medium to exploit businesses and in which to develop their ethics. This paper addresses Internet related ethics and describes the ways in which young consumers behave unethically on the Internet. From 12 focus groups and an online survey of 219 generation Y consumers, the study identified 24 ways in which young people can abuse the internet and companies which grouped into five factors; illegal, questionable activities, hacking related, human internet trade and downloading which contained the action which they considered as least wrong namely, 'Downloading movie and music files from the Internet for free'. The Internet enhances temptation, opportunity, and anonymity and reduces the perceived illegality of unethical behaviours which is likely to worsen as access increases and has implications for public policy.
Significance of the Research
Illegal and unethical internet behaviour such as the “Love Bug”, which caused over £8 billion worth of damage, and software piracy, which rose from 37% of all software in 2000 to 40% in 2001, costs the industry nearly $11 billion (The New York Times, 2002). In some countries, 78% of companies have suffered from hacking with the average cost of each attack estimated at £30, 000. Other misdemeanours include: fraud, piracy, pornography, cyberstalking, online pharmacies, organ sales and identity theft; the latter of which insurance firm PromiseMark, estimated affects 700,000 people annually and costs $4 billion in the US alone. At the same time, access to computers and the Internet is growing rapidly with the latest conservative estimate that the worldwide Internet population is nearly 445.9 million and is projected to reach 709.1 million by 2004. The greatest internet penetration is achieved in the young and almost two thirds of US Generation Ys with Internet access buy or research products on-line (Cravatta, 1997). Generation theorists propose that, as these changes in the environment occur, they will change consumers’ behaviour (Strauss & Howe, 1999). In particular the Internet offers the ‘advantages’ of anonymity, a reduced chance of being detected owing to the difficulty of gathering tangible evidence, allowing unethical activities to remain somewhat ‘faceless’ and perpetrators to remain in their home.
The internet has paved the way for many new forms of unethical activities and the research showed that many are not seen as unethical. For example, only two thirds of teenagers thought falsifying log-on details on pornographic sites was wrong, and nearly half thought sending soft-core porn via email to friends was NOT wrong. Other findings included: 85% thought downloading music and 70% downloading movies was not wrong; 75% say purchasing human organs on the Net was acceptable; 48% said online gambling was not wrong; 34% thought purchasing prescription drugs as not wrong; 32% saw nothing the matter with lying about who you are in an internet chat room; 31% of teenagers thought that purchasing pirated software via Internet auctions or other means was not wrong; 14% believe it is OK to adopt or purchase children online.
Implications for Public Policy
Given the difficulties in policing the internet, self-regulation might offer some additional way forward. A world hotline or ‘hot site’ for unethical activities might be established, such as Spamnet, whereby fellow net users could report any knowledge of misuse of the Internet. However, some of these unethical actions require changes in legislation, e.g., Spammers, malicious emailers and cyberstalkers. Other activities require industry codes of conduct which could be policed by an industry association or internet watchdog. Codes of Internet conduct already exist for various institutions such as schools, universities, and libraries, but in order to be adopted and followed we need greater social consensus regarding the guidelines that should apply to the Internet, and the technology must achieve a “critical level of social diffusion sufficient to engender popular controversy” (Marshall, 1999, p.84). To solve some problems, the U.S. Better Business Bureau (BBB) and two leading European business organisations are developing a "trustmark" program to provide international standards for Internet transactions. Meanwhile, specialist Internet police which are becoming established in the UK and North America, need establishing elsewhere too and appropriate versions of the UK government’s ‘Safe Surfing’ campaign, which provides information for parents on how to ensure safe Internet browsing for their children, could be disseminated in other countries. However, the slow pace of regulation can be explained by the cultural lag idea which proposes that material culture advances more rapidly than non-material culture, and social consensus, law provision and subsequent ethical guidelines are playing a game of 'catch-up’ (Ogburn’s 1964).
Freestone, O. and V.-W. Mitchell (2004) “Generation Y Attitudes Towards E-Ethics and Internet-Related Misbehaviours,” Journal of Business Ethics, 54, 121-128.
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