The internet’s own ethical code

Note: I should mention at the offset that this post is from an Australian perspective and may not relate to (the laws of) your region.

The internet seems to have its own ethical code that contrasts fairly dramatically with the legal system in a number of areas. By “the internet” I clearly don’t mean the millions of machines connected by cables; I mean the people who comprise the internet. Predominantly those that run websites and participate actively in forums and social networks.

Here are a number of key areas in which I think that internet culture deviates significantly from the law. I feel the internet community generally regards that:

  • Looking at porn is fairly normal (or at least very common)
  • Downloading shows that have been broadcast on television is alright
  • Downloading roms to play on emulators is alright
  • Hotlinking is theft. Copy and link to the source.


Porn is incredibly big business on the internet and most people associate the internet with porn to a large degree. If porn is in such high demand and downloading porn is so strongly associated with internet use, why can it only legally be sold (at retailers) in the ACT? All other states and territories in Australia absolutely prohibit the sale of porn (even to adults).

TV Shows

Although this is soon to change, it is illegal in Australia to record television shows or rip your audio CDs to your MP3 player. I think that the general consensus from the internet community is that it’s alright to share videos of shows that have been publically broadcast. I think that the argument is that public broadcast puts the show in the public domain. Legally, this isn’t the case.

Emulators and ROMs

The internet community tends to regard very old games or software as abandonware. This seems to include video game ROMs for old arcade machines and superceded consoles. ROMs and emulators are very popular downloads, but using an emulator to play a ROM is generally illegal (even if you have the original game). Legally, games companies still hold copyright on these games and they cannot be copied or downloaded.


Hotlinking is probably the most contrasting example here. Giving credit to an author doesn’t give you a legal right to copy their image. It’s still a copyright violation unless you have explicit permission to use their image. Now, linking to a website is not copyright infringement (because you do not make or host a local copy). So arguably hotlinking is the most appropriate thing to do legally. However, it is widely frowned upon online. The general feeling seems to be that you should create a local copy (which is illegal without permission), but always provide a reference link to the site where the content was originally found.

Avoiding stereotypes

Mainstream media tends to pander to viewer insecurities and associates very negative attributes to “internet geeks”. I want to be clear that one shouldn’t extrapolate too much from the views I mentioned above. I feel that those that believe the above will (like most people) still assert that:

  • Downloading complete DVD rips is pretty dodgy
  • Selling burnt copies of games downloaded from the internet is wrong
  • Using fake credit card details is very wrong
  • Child porn is absolutely reprehensible

Reconciling our legal system

Do these internet views reflect wider social mores? If so, it seems that many of our laws are out of sync with current social values, and I believe they should be brought into line.

5 thoughts on “The internet’s own ethical code”

  1. I would agree that the law, in general, is slow to adapt to new technologies because the way that it’s formed (through the legislature) is inherently made of molasses. There just aren’t any processes that allow the community to dynamically change the law to reflect how society wants to use the Internet. On the flip side, arguably, stability in law is something that we should value.

    I think the biggest problem (and you’ve touched on this above) is general ignorance of the principles of intellectual property – and I think this ignorance starts with offline material. I’m sure that most people would be hard-pressed to explain what you are legally able to do with TV shows recorded with your VCR, or how much you can photocopy, for instance, so I’m not surprised that people don’t have much of a clue when it comes downloading off the net.

    As for porn, when you say porn is “normal”, you are a little ambiguous as to whether you mean that you think it happens or the time, or whether you think that it’s acceptable… probably the former?

  2. Good points Enoch. 🙂

    I guess a problem with the law being *too* slow to move is that it becomes regarded as irrelevant and is ignored by people (including law enforcement officials). Case in point, the sale of VCRs and MP3 players in Australia. I think it would be better if the ban on using these as copying devices was more strictly enforced. It would provide an impetus for people to demand legal changes. Selective enforcement (eg. suing high-school kids for having MP3s) really doesn’t help the law’s credibility.

    In regards to porn, I think it both happens a lot (just look at the percentage of internet traffic that is porn) and that people accessing porn (if they want to) is acceptable to the broad internet community (look at how much people joke about using the internet to download porn). I should qualify what I mean by “acceptable” though. I think it is seen primarily as a personal freedom, and not considered a strongly negative personality trait. Definitely not something that must be criminalised because it will necessarily lead to rape, abuse of women, drug addiction, or violent crime.

  3. Internet views and so called laws are merely an outlet for people to discuss, generate and enforce their own social laws and moral standards independant of actual country laws. If we view the Internet as a interesting case where laws are made (and broken) much more rapidly than in the real world, it is an ideal testing ground for how rules/laws can be applied and tested before going to the effort to make it official.

    At this point in time country laws (ie, Australian law) are woefully at a disadvantage when it comes to the fact that people are now much better connected, can research more, and can discover that other places may have better laws than what your country has. So in general, country laws protect people fairly well, but the lack of organisation (ie, 1 country’s laws doesn’t apply to another country) and the lack of the ability to update them rapidly is a big problem.

    I imagine that we’ll see the social Internet laws maybe start influencing country law to the point where countries will co-operate together to enforce a common goal (ie, we ban all child pornography, in all countries, or we pool resources together to eradicate spam or software piracy). It’s a good thing.

    However, like all things, there is usually a wide audience and that not all views will be considered “correct”. Just because a majority holds the current view doesn’t mean in history it will be proven correct, and all majority views started off as minority views in one form or another. It’s part of the process that what we thought was a good idea turns out to be incorrect later on, not a lot you can do except admit it was a bad idea, and move ahead. Most people don’t seem to be keen on that.

  4. “Internet views and so called laws are merely an outlet for people to discuss”

    I think there are a couple of fundamental difference that you’re missing from this description

    1) Internet views are implicit, but laws are (supposedly) explicit.

    2) The consequences of breaking internet rules is shame and disrespect, but breaking the law can see you fined or jailed!

    However, I appreciate what you mean. The internet community is more immediately affected by a set of laws that other people can often put out of their mind (eg. copyright), and the communication afforded by the internet allows these people to discuss and experiment with their opinions in a fairly unrestricted space.

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