Towards Ethical Frameworks for Cyberspace

Oppressors in social issues are often characterized along racial, gender, class and political lines. However, these traditional lenses may, at times, obscure fully understanding the thoughts, mindsets, and actions that lead to irresponsible, negligent, unethical, immoral and illegal actions. In the case of the Flint Water Crisis, and other similar crises, where those in power are charged with protecting the public, it is important to understand the root-cause of their failing. Likewise, it is important to understand who the victims are and understand their suffering first-hand. While an understanding can be gained through research, it is often constrained and even biased by the dominant narrative.

In this case, it may benefit us to look beyond traditional social and political lines of demarcation to understand what possessed those in power to hold onto their positions of power at all or any costs. We need to ask, what drives power actors to do, or not do, what they ought? How should social and economic factors be considered, weighted and balanced? To date, five different government officials have been indicted, and the common denominator is that each held and misused high-level positions of power. Each seemed to choose to act in their own best interest rather than in the best interest of society.

An often-overlooked element, which may represent the real crisis among the ‘power elite,’ is a lack of a guiding moral ethic, a plumb line that, regardless of the personal or professional fallout, they would not cross. The Flint water crisis illustrates a desperate need for governing officials, at all levels, to operate transparently by a set of values and norms rather than depend solely on the law. But where do these values, norms, and standards come from? Who sets these standards and who do these standards benefit? Once in place, how do citizen gain voice or agency to hold those in power to these moral and ethical standards so that the best interest of society is considered before a crisis reaches criminality?

Once a crisis becomes a legal issue the ‘ethic’ defaults to liability and plausible deniability, not the public good. While legal justice may prevail in the end to the point that one feels vindicated but in most cases cannot and does not erase the hardship, suffering and loss that has transpired. It’s time that we set aside the most obvious divisional lines, and to look at how power unchecked, regardless of the social stature, corrupts.

The Flint case serves as a useful case from which we can explore the role and importance of an ethical framework for traditional professions and professionals (doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, etc.) and government workers who have a specific and stated obligation to the public. Lessons learned from the Flint case can be applied in other disciplines or areas of inquiry.  An emerging socio-technical ecosystem that is of interests to me, and that needs such a framework (e.g. guiding values, ethics, norms, and laws, etc.) is cyberspace, as it touches and shapes the lives or more than half the world’s population.

About rogerskd

I am currently a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech's in the School of Science & Technology Studies. I have a diverse business background with continued academic professional training including graduate degrees in science and technology policy, information systems & technology, international finance/management, and in development economics and graduate certificates in Asian Studies, International Political Economy, and CIO/CTO Innovation. Currently, I am seeking ways to apply my experiences, academic endeavors and lessons learned to strengthen the role and effect of diplomacy around the world. Diplomacy has been referred to as a soft or smart power and today 'good' diplomacy is in high demand. In the world system, a failed state has global implications and diplomacy, including economic and social development, are essential tools needed to prevent fragile states from failure. In seeking ways to strengthen diplomacy, I am specifically looking at how ICT’s, and the emergence of cyberspace, can be leveraged in this process.


  1. I find interesting the gap you zoom in on between a) regulations that are designed to protect the public good and b) morality that seems to be required to actually protect the public good. When regulations are in place, should we have to also trust that the people charged with implementing and enforcing them are moral? Perhaps, as you seem to suggest, the limitations of regulations necessitate full transparency and robust public participation in how they are designed, implemented, and enforced.

    I agree that it’s important to understand the root causes of government officials’ failing (especially when their job is to protect the public), but I wonder why you believe this to be the case. I have the same question about the importance to understand who the victims are. Why? Also: how do dominant narratives constrain our ability to arrive at such understandings, and how do we know that the actors in Flint acted in their own best interest versus (or in addition to) other interests? 15 government officials have been charged so far. What did they gain personally from their failures?

    Finally, what ethical framework/s do you suggest? I am curious!

  2. As you know from my discussions in class – I am very interested in how our government should begin to think about a new ethical framework for risk management. It has to be bottom up instead of top down.

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