How Has The Internet Changed The Way We View Legal Ethics?

by CherrellT on April 27, 2012

While the advent of the Internet has been a boon for businesses in most industries, the legal profession has been forced to approach the online world with a great deal of caution. The Internet has proven itself to be a vast source of liability, a landscape filled with endless pitfalls for practitioners of the law, particularly when it comes to ethics.

Millions of users go online everyday without having to worry about the ethical implications of their mouse clicks or Internet communications. Such is not the case with the legal professional community. Judges, attorneys, paralegals, and support staff are held to different standards when it comes to their professional conduct, particularly in the field of ethics. The Internet has changed many aspects of our daily lives, and the way we view legal ethics is being transform by our constant online interactions.

Understanding the Internet and its Relation to Ethics

The Internet, as a whole, must not be considered a centralized network. A number legislative and rule making efforts that purport to exert some control over the Internet -such as the Great Chinese Firewall and the failed SOPA and PIPA bills in the American Congress- only manage to impose some constraints.

Since the Internet was born out of a Defense-related research project in the United States, the American influence is undeniable. Some American tenets of the law, such as freedom of expression, are often implied by online users even when they are located in radically different jurisdictions.

The United States is hardly the sole jurisdiction affected by the impact of the Internet on legal ethics. As technology becomes more accessible around the world, the Internet has become the most technologically complex and culturally diverse exchange in the world. The way we view legal ethics is contingent upon our understanding of the Internet as both a venue and a civil platform; the online world is constantly fueled by new ideas, and thus we can expect that our views and thoughts will change accordingly.

Early Challenges to Legal Ethics Online

Legal and ethical challenges have been part of Internet history since the beginning. It has become a part of civil society, and thus users quickly sought to apply their own values and legal framework to it from day one. This should not be surprising, as it is similar to the attitudes taken on by early settlers, colonizers and pioneers who arrive in new territories. Some bring their own values and seek to implement them in new communities, while others may claim that a new territory needs new laws, and yet some others may clamor for lawlessness.

One of the earliest and most infamous cases involving the questionable use of online resources by American lawyers turned 18 years old this April. The case of Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, a married couple who were partners in their own law firm in Phoenix. They are notorious for having conducted the first massive Internet spam campaign with an advertisement for a Green Card Lottery scheme across thousands of Usenet boards.

What is interesting about the Canter & Siegel case is that it came crashing down due to complaints from Usenet board members who recognized the spam campaign by the married attorneys as unethical, even after the National Science Foundation had formally recognized that commercial speech had an important place in the online world. When Laurence Canter boasted of having made $100,000 from an advertising campaign that only cost them pennies, there was an outcry from netizens who considered him an opportunistic and unethical attorney.

Laurence Canter would later be disbarred by the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The case serves as a reminder to legal practitioners that there is a societal interest in the way attorneys behave online. Legal practitioners who willfully act in an unethical fashion online are subject to the court of public opinion, just like Canter & Siegel were.

Jessica Alan is an attorney that is earning an online masters degree in school counseling while helping clients deal with emotional distress.

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