March 23, 1998
TAKING IN THE SITES / By SREENATH SREENIVASAN
Business Ethics on the Web
he World Wide Web is not exactly a haven for good business ethics. It can be a lawless place filled with unscrupulous operators pushing get-rich-quick schemes and other scams.
Naturally, those who study business ethics worry about the Web. "Every possible abuse of integrity and decency takes place on the Web," said Laura Pincus Hartman, director of the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University in Chicago.
Randy Pennington, an ethics consultant based in Dallas, said there was "a sense that moral and ethical values are not important" on the Web. But that does not surprise him. "There is no standardization in technology on the Web, so why do we expect standardization in behavior?" he said.
The Web is a great place to learn about and research the issues of business ethics, both within the Internet and beyond.
Pennington said that to avoid an attempt at "regulation of ethical behavior in the future, the online community must regulate itself."
"This country has a history of regulating those industries that do not control themselves," he added. Despite the global nature of the Web, he sees the possibility of government intervention.
The Netcheck Commerce Bureau is one attempt at self-regulation. The agency, which has 700 corporate members in about 80 countries, maintains a list of companies involved in electronic commerce. Visitors to Netcheck's site can register consumer complaints about anything from unsolicited e-mail to copyright disputes. There is even a place to compliment a company. The site's philosophy is that "public pressure is the only real deterrent in this new frontier."
The Web is also a great place to learn about and research the issues of business ethics, both within the Internet and beyond. An excellent starting place is the site of the institute at DePaul that Hartman heads. The site provides an introduction to business ethics but goes well beyond that. It is home to the Online Journal of Ethics and has comprehensive links to other sites that deal with the topic.
The business of domain names and how they are registered involves some of the worst breaches of ethics on the Internet. Corporations and nonprofit groups are being forced to spend a lot of time, money and energy to fight piracy of high-profile .com and .org addresses. Even in the world of business ethics, names can be less than clear.
For example, Business-ethics.org is the home of the International Business Ethics Institute, and Businessethics.org belongs to the Council for Ethics in Economics. The institute, which has a truly global background, has a site that contains a sparse brochure. The council -- which is trying to "strengthen the ethical fabric of business and economic life" -- has a more substantial site with articles from the quarterly publication Ethics in Economics, and texts of speeches on ethics organized by the institute, based in Columbus, Ohio.
The Ethics Resource Center is a leading nonprofit ethics consultancy. The site offers information about the center's work with large corporations in developing ethics programs.
The Center for Business Ethics, at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., is home to the Ethics Officer Association. This group represents the executives that help police many of the nation's large corporations.
Few industries have been mired in as many questions about ethics, both real and perceived, as the military industry. One attempt to address its problems is the Defense Industry Initiative on Business Ethics and Conduct, a group of large military contractors, which has an in-depth site about the organization and aspects of government contracting. Much of the information is applicable to other industries.
Unlike many other sites, the Better Business Bureau site, which is run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, is aimed at consumers in addition to the corporate world. It provides tips on various consumer frauds. It also has a guide to "establishing an ethical business" and a detailed code of advertising that explains common abuses and misleading claims.
Establishing an ethics code is an important step for any company or industry, and a growing number of sites carry such codes. The DePaul site has compiled a list of direct links to a variety of codes, including Johnson & Johnson, Northern Telecom and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. Also included is the code of ethics of the International Ethical Business Registry, a Canadian organization that promotes ethics codes. Among the aims of the registry: donating at least 10 percent of its gross income "toward the betterment of mankind." Its site has pointers about setting up a first-time code and answers a common question: "Is a code of ethics like a mission statement?"
(Answer: "No. A mission statement states what you do. A code of ethics states how you do it.")
At first glance, a site that promises "business ethics from an Islamic perspective," as the Islamic Training Foundation does, would seem to be far removed from other business ethics sites on the Web. But in a closer look at some of the material, readers learn that Allah describes successful people as those who are "inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong." What non-Islamic business ethicist would have trouble endorsing such a view?
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.
- Institute for Business and Professinal Ethics.
- Netcheck Commerce Bureau
- Online Journal of Ethics
- International Business Ethic Institute
- Council for Ethics in Economics
- Ethics Resource Center
- Center for Business Ethics
- Corporate Conduct Quarterly
- Defense Industry Initiative
- Better Business Bureau
- DePaul's Institute for Business and Professional Ethics - Various Codes of Conduct