Thomas W. Cooper

Ethical issues in the cloud over Asia

Thomas W. Cooper explores some of the many ethical issues thrown up by the emergence of 'cloud computing' technologies in the Asian-Pacific region


The rapid growth of new and traditional media expansion into Asian-Pacific countries raises important ethical questions. As Popkin and Iyengar affirm (2007), the ‘center of gravity’ - not only for new media development, but also for traditional media consumer expansion and for related ethical problems - has expanded, if not shifted, to the Far East. Although new media growth is worldwide, this article will focus upon the Asian-Pacific region and upon the recent prominence of what has been called ‘cloud computing’ in that region as well as the ethical issues associated with it.

Cloud computing

‘Cloud computing’ is a term which entered the IT world in 2007. Nigel Waters, of George Mason University, points to the origin of the term in the 1990s, and generally describes cloud computing as an ‘information process in which computing needs are provided as a service, including data and software applications’ (2009). This is a massive change from the earlier pattern of self-contained computers at one’s location, but this language doesn’t adequately capture the uniqueness of cloud computing. Imagine owning a giant genie which can fulfil every digital wish - storage, retrieval, software, applications, on-line services, and much more - simply by paging the genie with your ‘thin’ device such as an iPod or Blackberry. Ultimately cloud computing, if pushed to the extreme, might make all electronic computing processes, non-secure data, and services available to everyone with any electronic portal device. Although Tara Seals, writing in Exchange (2008), is among the many who feel ‘cloud computing suffers from a lack of definition’, the term is increasingly used as if there is agreement about the spirit if not the letter of the meaning.

Since the growth of a ‘cloud system’ was not just from one corporation to another, but also from North America and Europe to the remainder of the wired and wireless world, it is also valuable to consider what impact this migration might have in Asian Pacific countries. In a 2008 article titled ‘Cloud computing coming to Asian market’, SOA WORLD announced that ‘In Japan...starting immediately, Net One Systems will offer cloud computing infrastructure and services.’ Similar growth and articles have appeared in Korea, Singapore and neighbouring countries.

Such growth has not only magnified the availability of cloud computing amenities in the Pacific region but is itself also amplified by the immense increase in computer adopters who are expected to access the cloud. Predictions agree that the largest pools of new internet users in the next decade will be China and India. The combined impact of cloud migration and increased adoption of technology in additional Asian-Pacific countries suggests that an abundance of ethical issues may also arise. But precisely what effects will this rapid and economically attractive growth have upon telecommunication and telecomputing ethics?

The parade of ethical issues

By 1997, a list of 40 internet-related ethical issues had been published in The Journal of Mass Media Ethics by the author (Cooper 1998). By 1999, there were 52 internet ethics issues in the Pacific alone. More than a decade later, the number of ethical issues is more than 80. Also, by 2008 the Philippines librarian/scholar Angela Verzosa (2008) had written that issues such as the digital divide, net neutrality, intellectual property, online pornography, the privacy invasion of email and data, and many more issues, had already reached global dimensions with strong implications for Pacific countries. To further complicate matters, the internet is amalgamated from many national and other systems without an overarching international consensual ethics code or universally accepted guidelines other than a minimum of technical standards.

Cloud specific issues

If a recent Pew ‘Internet and the American life’ survey (2008) is correct, almost 70 per cent of Americans now use cloud computing for online storage or webmail. The survey also showed that such users were concerned about cloud ethics issues pertaining to privacy, marketing without permission, and hidden demographic research. Specifically, end user concerns included that:

  • service providers might share client data (91 per cent);
  • stored data and photographs might be used in marketing campaigns (80);
  • providers might analyse clients’ use of services and then display advertisements to them based on such use (68).

Other identified issues included individuals being dehumanised by a marketer’s composite of stored data, preferences, and psychographics; magnified banking security risks due to remote storage, and the tracking of human mobility, including those persons visiting political rallies and doing private things in public locations. Moreover, despite some previous success by the International Telecommunications Union, how could a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-legal, technologically and ethically complex cloud be effectively regulated in an era of rapid technical innovation?

‘Green’ and ‘red’ ethics implications

In 1986 Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, initiated use of the helpful dichotomy between ‘green light’ and ‘red light’ ethics. ‘Red’ implied caution and the traditional ‘thou shalt not’ approach to ethics while ‘green’ symbolised a more ‘thou shalt’ positive notion of what should be done to model professional ethical behaviour. Although the term ‘ethics’ itself often raises a ‘red flag’ (or light) in some cultures, there are also ‘green’, pro-humanitarian, ethical uses of technology which may counter-balance more negative use.

Among the negative effects of cloud computing, according to Kraemer and Dedrick (2002) and others, are salient issues in Asian-Pacific countries such as the growing digital divide between rich and poor users. Other issues such as copyright, patent and trademark infringement or ‘piracy’, privacy, fraud, denial of the right to reply, cultural erosion, conflict of interest, ‘spam’, data loss or destruction, monopoly, third-party interference, security, environmental waste, censorship, competing moral and ethical traditions, and obscenity are also widespread.

There also are many benefits attributed to cloud computing. As Oscar Mondragon (2008) notes, one may access the cloud from even remote internet cafés in Mexico (or Samoa or the Cook Islands for that matter). Thus it may be argued that such a cloud increases inexpensive remote access, and thus reduces rather than increases the digital divide. Indeed, the increasing sustainability, security, scalability, reliability, lower cost, and multi-tenancy of the cloud could be advanced as reasons that it:

  1. is customer friendly;
  2. increases service to the ‘have nots’, and
  3. is potentially friendly to democratic process and universal service.

Looking at this ‘green light’ potential, one may argue that the ‘cloud’ is a step towards widely available encyclopedic resources, greater humanitarian relief and projects, omni-access, remote health and education, wide-spectrum applications and services, and ‘on-demand’ information.

Hence, as is the case with most communication technologies, counter-balancing arguments may be made for both the pro-social and anti-social use of cloud computing in the Pacific. However, to ground such conflicting observations and aspirations in reality, it is important first to survey the extent of actual ethics cases involving the internet in Pacific countries.

Types of ethical issues in the Pacific

Since its initial public use in the Asian-Pacific region during the early 1990s, the internet has been a subject of debate in different countries to different degrees. Hence, the ethical (and political/legal) issues of censorship, government intervention, regulation, and freedom of information have been widespread while having different application in each Pacific country.

Vietnam, for example, has been an example of tight internet control by the government, as reflected in Decree No. 55, ‘On the management, provision, and use of internet services’ (2001, English translation) and more recent documents issued by the Ministry of Information and Communications. Verzosa (2008) has tracked much more government internet intervention such as the 1995 disconnection of all but one internet provider in Hong Kong by police for ‘failure to obtain licences’, China’s 1995 requirement for users and ISPs to register with the police, and Singapore’s requirement that both religious and political providers register with the state.

Such issues as censorship affecting both the state and society have been complemented by a host of other issues. An article in The Business Times Singapore (Yong and Ui-Hoon 2008) notes that there are both pros and cons to internet dating. The cons include such dangers as misrepresentation, online stalking, cyber-seduction and on to rape and homicide, as well as more mundane technical glitches leading to mismatches.

Many of the issues formerly identified with the West - such as cyberbullying, cyberstalking, anonymity violations, spam, privacy, fraud, harassment, security problems, obscenity, defamation - are now faced by individuals in the Pacific as issues of internet content limits and regulation confront Pacific governments and religions. Similarly, ‘green light’ applications in which the internet may be a ‘friend’ to governments and individuals have already shown themselves. During tsunamis, monsoons, earthquakes, and other emergencies, the internet (including email and texting), in conjunction with satellite and other communication distribution media, has been used to save lives.

Many important philosophers dealing with technology have suggested that each new technology has profound effects upon society. Indeed, Marshall McLuhan argued that there are ‘laws of the media’ in which each new medium or technology:

  1. enhances or amplifies (whether in its size, scope, or impact) a previous one;
  2. retrieves or brings back an older form;
  3. eventually ‘reverses’ or flips into another form, and
  4. makes obsolete a previous medium or service (McLuhan 2005).

McLuhan’s first step might be called the ‘law of amplification’. Ethical issues which exist in one technology such as print, TV, or the internet are largely amplified (in scale, volume, or impact) and transformed when introduced to other media or technologies and services such as the ‘cloud’. For example, content which is being censored in one culture or country may leave the jurisdiction of that country when stored in the cloud, and may be quickly replicated, manipulated, and distributed to multiple countries and cultures and then recycled in another package or medium back into the censoring country.

Inaccurate information retrieved from the cloud may also be magnified and distorted so that someone who is falsely accused in one news story in, for example, Japan, may quickly become a criminal, suspect, hero, or villain in other stories in, for example, Singapore, Chile, or numerous other countries in which the subject is completely unknown. Information which is already subject to theft, tainting, reframing, virus infusion, and sabotage multiplies and may marry new platform partners in the cloud.

The character of the internet already lends itself to the magnification of multiple ethical breaches such as privacy invasion, data fabrication, widely distributed libel, hacking/theft, and fraud. However, once data is transmitted to the cloud, it is subject to the further errors, motives, appropriation, deception, duplication, and secret distribution by third parties. For example, those who ‘park’ their credit card data, political secrets, health records, and shopping trail in the cloud are more likely to suspect greater security risks, hidden deals with telemarketers, profiling, identity theft, and much more.

Examples of cloud amplification issues in the Pacific

One of the most basic issues in media ethics is the notion of fairness. One aspect of promoting at least the appearance of fairness is by some law, code or policy which guarantees the ‘right to reply’ to those who are ‘accused, attacked, defamed, or given a one-sided mediated account of an issue’. In keeping with this spirit, the Philippine House of Representatives approved a ‘right to reply’ Bill in 2009. However, once rumours, malicious attacks, fabrications, and accusations are circulated online, it is impossible for the accused to track and respond to each of them. Within the cloud, once a one-sided report or unethical allegation is stored or broadcast, it may be cloned, retouched, retrieved, sold, manipulated, and circulated to millions, even many years later, without the accused ever knowing the multiple conduits of distribution nor the numerous variations, if not fabrications, of the initial story. Technical errors within the cloud may further complicate such issues (Turockzy 2008).

Among many other cases, there have been recent instances of online ‘Pied Piper’ activities (i.e. large groups of victims blindly following a charming scam artist), fraud in Sri Lanka (Gunawardene 2008) and cyber-plagiarism and false advertising in the Philippines (Verzosa op cit).

Whatever the issue - an unconfirmed report, an advertisement which makes false promises, confidential information which is not fully secure although advertised as such, stolen data, inaccurate information, state secrecy extremes, pirated entertainment, child pornography, plagiarised texts, libelous accusations, biased reporting, or laundered money - once it is in the cloud, it can be distributed, distorted, concealed, lost, fabricated, sold, replicated, leaked to third parties and repackaged in new ways.

Summary and recommendations

Despite this litany of possible ethical ‘cloudbursts’, the cloud may also be used for benign ethical purposes. Indeed, a first recommendation based upon this research is that cloud professionals, owners, providers, analysts and educators should use the growing infrastructure in greener ways to promote humanitarian, educational, health and artistic purposes.

Nine recommendations below provide a starting point:

  1. Before new technologies and applications are implemented, there should be ‘presearch’ by teams of scientists, sociologists, civic leaders, parents, and others to help predict and prevent specific anti-social effects.
  2. Similarly, before any technology or application is imported from one country to another, research should be conducted by new teams which include cultural representatives to determine the likely compatibility of the new product or invention with the potentially affected culture.
  3. Education at all levels should include understanding of the newest technologies, software, and applications, and should encourage thinking about their possible social effects. The best ethical thinking from all cultures should be included. For example, the cadet system of Australia, the ombudsman intercession of Scandinavian countries, the peace journalism paradigm which Dr. Warief Basorie of the Soetoma Institute in Indonesia advocates (Asia Media Forum 2009), the press councils of more than twenty countries, and the proportional political advertising concept of Chile are all worth considering (see Cooper et al 1989).
  4. Netiquette and other positive internet courtesy which Verzosa (op cit) recommends in the Philippines should be supported.
  5. Wherever we are, our own ethical training, standards and practices must be increased.
  6. There should be universal ethical instruction at all levels (from entry to CEO) of all businesses, organisations, and agencies in computing and communications. This instruction should be enhanced as new technologies, systems and issues develop.
  7. All organisations, agencies and NGOs should be encouraged and supported to have conferences, workshops, panels and other meetings about the ethical effects of technologies.
  8. Delegates from Asian Pacific countries and cultures should convene conferences about the migration of specific technologies and products into other countries and markets and consider new media impact.
  9. Specific ‘ethics officers’ or ethicists within each telecommunication and computing corporation, agency, country, and institution should flag, evaluate, and publicise ethical issues when they first arise and keep ethical training and standards at the forefront of each possible national and corporate agenda.

In short an ethics culture should be built which prioritises the ethical implications of innovation and expansion within every social entity from governments and corporations to schools and institutes. At every stage - initiation, research, implementation, refinement and upgrade, marketing, expansion, and merchandising - ethical considerations can and should be evaluated alongside planning and profit projection, not only in the Pacific but also worldwide. Unless such steps are taken, this new computing environment’s social value will appear not only to be red and green, but also in many cases it will appear, whether ironically or tautologically, to be ambiguous and thus ‘cloudy’ in another sense.

  • A version of this article first appeared in Media Ethics magazine and we are publishing this version with their permission


  1. Asia Media Forum (2009) Worse than the disease: The Philippine media right to reply Bill, Eye on Ethics, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Manila, 13 March. Available online at, accessed on 1 June 2010
  2. Cooper, T. (1998) New technology effects inventory, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 13, No. 2 pp 71-93
  3. Cooper, T. Christians, C., Plude, F. and White, R. (1989) Communication ethics and global change: International and national perspectives, White Plains, New York, Longman
  4. Gunawardene, N. (2008) When media amplify Pied Piper tunes in Sri Lanka. Eye on Ethics, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Manila. Available online at, accessed on 1 June 2010
  5. Kraemer, K. and Dedrick, J. (2002) Information technology in Southeast Asia: Engine of growth or digital divide? Information Technology in Asia. Singapore, Institute of Southeast Asia Studies
  6. McLuhan, E. (2005) On formal causality, Explorations in media ecology, Vol. 4, Nos. 3-4 pp 181-210
  7. Mondragon, O. (2008) Computer in the cloud, Technology Review On-Line, 18 December. Available online at, accessed on 1 May 2010
  8. Pew Center (2008) Internet and the American life Project. Available online at, accessed on 1 June 2010
  9. Popkin, J. and Iyengar, P. (2007) IT and the East: How China and India are altering the future of technology and innovation, Cambridge, Harvard Business Publishing
  10. Seals, T. (2008) Cloud computing, Part 3: Deliver 'XaaS' from the cloud, Xchange. Available online at, accessed on 1 June 2010
  11. Turockzy, R. (2008) Dark side of the cloud, Read Write Web. Available online at dark_side_of_the_ cloud.php, accessed on 1 June 2010
  12. Verzosa, A. (2008) Internet ethics, Library documents, De La Salle Collection, Manila. Available online at, accessed on 1 June 2010
  13. Waters, N. (2009) GIS, cloud computing, and the internet of things and services, Geoplace. Available online at, accessed on 1 June 2010
  14. Yong, S. and Ui-Hoon. C. (2008) More places to look for love: The match-making industry in Asia, Business Times Singapore. Available online at, accessed on 1 June 2010

Note on the contributor

Tom Cooper is co-publisher of Media Ethics magazine and Professor of Visual and Media Arts, Emerson College, Boston. He may be reached at