Free Software and the Computer Society Code of Ethics

The New Zealand Computer Society has recently been encouraging its members to apply for professional certification.  In working through the application process, I found myself reflecting on the Society’s Code of Ethics and its relationship to IT professionalism. In my view, being an IT professional requires me to put the code of ethics at the forefront of everything I do. A professional acts ethically not only when it’s easy to do so, but also when it’s hard — especially when it’s hard.

I have been reflecting on the following question:

When choosing software, is it ethical to choose a proprietary solution, if a free alternative is available?

A person could take one of 3 positions.

  1. The question is not applicable. Many people evaluate and choose software for purely pragmatic reasons, without considering the ethical dimension. For example, SSC says ”NZ Government Agencies … should choose based on cost, functionality, interoperability, and security.” Nothing about ethics there.
  2. No. Any software which takes away the users’ freedom is by definition unethical. Hence, to recommend proprietary software when a free alternative exists is unprofessional. As IT professionals, we have a duty to advise decision-makers about the ethical dimensions of their decisions. Ethics come first.
  3. Yes. If the convenience of the proprietary solution is more important than the users’ freedom, then loss of freedom is the price we choose to pay for greater convenience. It’s OK for ethics to come second.

What would be the Computer Society’s view on this ethical dilemma, I wonder?

Should we start referring to “ethical software” (which would also side-step the eternal debate about free versus open source)?