Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 9 Information Technologies and Accountability


Advances in computer technologies have almost unimaginably increased human capacity for action, for creation and for communication.  Along with this increase in possibility comes some increase in the difficulty of analyzing and deciding on accountability for what results from the applications and uses of those technologies.  How is accountability or responsibility to be reckoned?  How is moral responsibility to be conceived and argued?

Consider the Y2K problem or near panic at the thought that so many computers would become paralyzed or produce incorrect data and functioning once the date would pass 12-31-99.  Who was responsible for that situation that resulted in large numbers of people becoming engaged in efforts to rewrite the programs in time to avoid possible disasters.  A great deal of time, energy and money was expended on that "correction."  However, there was no sense of who was to be held accountable for producing that situation faced by individuals and businesses and governments around the world.

Who is responsible if someone gains access to the bulletin boards and chat rooms available on the internet and then behaves in any one of a number of ways that might produce any one of a number of harms to other people?    Some who participate in those forms of communication using their user name or adopting some pseudonym or cloaked in digital anonymity do become offensive, even in the extreme.  Some intend to cause harm directly to others through motional upset or harm to their reputations through the posting of accurate or inaccurate information about them.  IS the provider of the access to or the operator of the bulletin board in some way responsible for allowing or permitting the behavior that leads to harm?

If a software program has errors in it how is responsibility to be fixed for whatever harm results when the clients or purchasers use the application?  Are individual programmers responsible?  If so, to what extent?

If institutions contract for the development of programs that will in effect be making decisions where once they were made by human beings and a problem occurs, damages, injuries, deaths, then how is responsibility to be assigned?  Does it reside with the programmers, the client who decided to have the computer take over some of the decision making?  How responsible is the company that decided on how much to spend on the programming effort and how many levels of security would be built in and what order of redundancy to use?

As humans become increasingly dependent on computer technologies for so much of their every day life needs and for the operations of so much of the infrastructure of their environment and basic services those who provide for computer programming  and services will be increasing called upon to account for what they do.  A growing sense of professionalism on the part of computer programmers, designers and operators and on information technologists is leading to a sense of responsibility for what they do. 

In this chapter ideas of accountability and responsibility are examined.  What are the moral arguments in support of a claim that computer designers, engineers, operators, programmers and information technology managers are to be held accountable in some way for the results of what they do or omit doing?

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents