The Difference Between Law & Ethics in Blogging

Filed as Guides on July 22, 2011 8:07 pm

Dogs on Leash LawSocieties generally have two ways that they try to encourage “positive” or “good” behavior on its members, laws and ethics.

But while both are similar in that they are ways to punish or discourage unwanted behavior, they are radically different in both what they are and how they operate.

As a blogger, you find yourself operating in a variety of societies. This includes traditional ones such as your local community, your country and the world as a whole as well as digital ones such as the blogging community and the Internet community.

This has some fairly profound implications for the laws and ethics you have to wrangle with as you’re not only caught between the duality of the two elements themselves, but in the layers of often conflicting standards of all the societies you reach and are a part of.

To unravel this mess, we have to first take a look at the differences between law and ethics and understand how they each impact bloggers in slightly different, but very powerful, ways.

Separating Laws and Ethics

The difference between law and ethics is fairly simple to grasp in the broad sense of the words:

  1. Law: Laws are written down and enforced through the courts, either civil or criminal. They have the backing of some government entity that can enforce punishment on those who violate them.
  2. Ethics: Ethics are often disagreed upon and sometimes even personal in nature. They are guidelines on what is acceptable behavior similar to laws, however, even when society roundly agrees on an ethical standard, those who violate it are not subject to punishment from government.

There is obviously a great deal of overlap between the two. Murder, for example, is very widely thought to be unethical but it is also very illegal. Same is true for most other major crimes.

However, there are areas that are only covered by one or the other. For example, driving a few miles an hour of the speed limit, in many cultures, is not considered unethical though it is considered illegal. Likewise, lying to or cheating on your spouse is not necessarily illegal, but is viewed as highly unethical.

Such a case found its way into the courts in 2004 when a woman sued her boyfriend for lying to her. The boyfriend had claimed that he intended to have children with her though he knew he was not capable of doing so. The courts ruled that, while he acted in a deplorable manner, it was not the place of the courts to punish him.

Somewhat confusing the matter is that many fields have ethics boards that do enforce a written code of ethics and some of those punishments can have some effect under the law. For example, a doctor can lose his license to practice as can a lawyer. However, those boards aren’t operated by the government and though their rules more closely resemble laws in may ways, they are still considered ethical issues.

However, bloggers don’t have such an ethics board. Despite at least some attempts to codify a blogger’s code of ethics, no such singular board exists nor does any such board hold sway over you.

Still, none of that means that ethics aren’t important in blogging, in fact, they may be more important in blogging than other industries that actually have such boards.

Ethics in Blogging

All of this raises two separate but equally powerful questions: What are the ethics of blogging? And what are the repercussions for violating them?

The first question is a very difficult one because, as with all ethics, there’s a lot of personal interpretation and variance. However, much of what we think of as “blogging ethics” comes straight from the offline world.

General morals such as not lying, cheating, etc. definitely apply with blogging. For example, plagiarism in blogging is highly frowned upon, even when it doesn’t rise to the level of copyright infringement.

That trend continues elsewhere in blogging. For example, lying in a post or failure to disclose a conflict of interest may or may not be a legal issue, but it is almost always considered unethical.

Of course, ethics, as with any kind of code of behavior, is of limited value without some form of enforcement. However, since blogging ethics are not, by their very nature, the law there’s little that the government can do unless it is an area of overlap. Furthermore, without an ethics board that can actually hand out meaningful punishments, there’s no enforcement in that sense either.

However, most ethics don’t have such an enforcement and they seem to work reasonably well. The reason is that the community itself does the enforcing, choosing not to associate with or trust people that routinely violate the code of ethics. This can, in some cases, be a more severe punishment than even what the law could have provided.

On that front, the blogging community has an upper hand in enforcing its ethical code. Easy searching combined with an instant way to reach the entire globe means that finding and alerting others to unethical blogging should be easier than ever.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Not only blogging still a very secretive activity, meaning most only see the final work, few bloggers seek and call out unethical peers. Furthermore, with so many petty squabbles online, any genuinely unethical blogger will likely be confused as just another flame war victim.

In short, even though most bloggers have a very good sense of ethics, those who don’t are rarely held accountable to them, not because they can’t be caught, but because the Web is such a big place and there’s plenty of room for liars and cheats to hide out in plain sight.

Bottom Line

If you think blogging ethics, at times at least, is a bit like the wild west, you’re probably right. The reason isn’t because most bloggers are immoral or that there is no ethical code, it’s just that on the Web there is no effective way to enforce it.

After all, even if you can successfully call out an unethical blogger, there’s nothing stopping them from shutting down and opening right back up under another name.

When identities are as disposable as an email address and it is incredibly easy to wipe the slate clean, holding others to an ethical code is a challenge. This isn’t to say anonymous blogging is a bad thing, it can be a very powerful tool used for many good purposes, but we have to realize that it comes with drawbacks.

Still, the good news remains, most bloggers do agree, even if it is an unspoken pact, on the basics of the blogging ethical code and the majority do follow it. Proof that, even without highly effective community enforcement, ethics are a major part of blogging and an element to study and follow.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for The Blog Herald. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.

Disclosure

I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.

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