The Web Industry and Ethics


We all face this from time to time; an ethical dilemma of what to do when a client or project request crosses one of our own self imposed ethical lines in the sand.

Now various types of ethical issues have been debated by Molly and John Allsopp in the past. What they’re planning, for me, is not what people are focusing on. The problem is that Molly and John are focusing on the solution, a code of ethics for web designers.
We even have a (still) empty for it. Frankly I can’t see this happening in the short term. The industry is just too full of practical people that aren’t focusing on the level of corporate governance. However all is not lost. It’s the local web industry professional associations that will over time produce their own code of ethics. And slowly from the bottom up the industry will regulate. They will be adopted and over time the industry will clean them up, rework them purge and recombine. Simple, it just takes time.

From a day to day basis some of the ethical tests we often face are often of several types:

  • Breach of copyright of artwork, steal someone’s design or artwork
  • Presentation of a substandard solution at a highly inflated price.
  • Misrepresentation of work that is not all your own
  • Conflict of interest.

So in the mean while how do we handle the various scenarios that life throws at us.

Scenario One – Copyright issues.

Client insists on using artwork/design or stock photography that they clearly have not paid for or have license to use. They demand that the images concerned are to be used. Technically you are not really that responsible for the content or the approved design. That’s the client’s responsibility. However I wouldn’t bother trying to use this as a defence in court.

Do you respect the rights of the artist who created the work or do you just rip them off. “You know if they really didn’t want their work used then it wouldn’t be on the web,” you say. But if that were the case then everything on the web would be fair game. Including all your work.

You can discuss this with the client. Most of the time I find they have no idea about copyright, some don’t even care and think all artwork is a lot of wank and should be free anyway. Some will be shocked and will toe the line. Or you can walk away from the job. But what if you are an employee, do you mention it, but do the job, do you quit, or do you just shut up and collect your salary.

My View

I work hard on a design, I sweat over it. It doesn’t just happen in a few minutes it takes time. So I consider that behind every picture, design or artwork is someone like me. So would I rip them off? No, never, well not knowingly.

If the client demanded it and after discussion they still demanded the use of the artwork and they have rejected any alternatives, I usually get them to sign a indemnifying waiver on the artwork concerned. In almost all cases they stop and this point and reconsider. However if they still pushed the point, well then we would part ways.

Scenario Two – Upselling a substandard solution.

You know how to design and develop via a web standards based approach with perfect accessibility, with the content, function and presentation separated. However you are asked to cut corners and do the site cheaper, but you have chance to charge at the full rate as if the site was fully standards compliant.

Do you take the extra money and rip off the client? After all it is business, and frankly there is sucker born every minute. Or do you do the job, non-standards compliant, let the client know its not standards compliant, and charge the lesser rate. Or finally do you do the site as a standards compliant site, absorbing the extra cost in the hope of making in up on future projects with the client. I know this scenario is especially hard on freelancers where you are not at all in direct contact or control of the specifications.

My View

This is simple, I produce standards complaint sites on all new work. However with non standards compliant sites, we slowly inject standards into the site. That way over time the client may get a standards compliant site.

Scenario Three – Misrepresentation of Work.

You take over a site from another firm. Do you re-badge it as your work. After all they are now your client. Or do you remove the other firm’s credits for the site and leave none. Or do you leave the other firms credits till the site has a makeover. Or do you credit the other firm, but note you are now managing the site.

However this does present an interesting side aspect that most people are not going to think of. With a large use of open source, and creative commons material and software in use on the web these days; do you credit the authors of these scripts, from entire applications / cms, script libraries or presentation ajaxian scripts somewhere on the site? Or just leave the credit in the source? Or do you not bother at all? And just present the work as your own? Or do you present the job as an integration project and state as such with the client?

My View

I’m one for crediting people when credit is due. Or removing all credit from the site such that we are not credited either until a makeover occurs. On the hidden open source conflict. I’m straight up; I tell the client it’s an integration project in the beginning. If they want a fully costed coded solution (which some people do) then that’s going to cost more, a lot more.

Scenario Four – Conflict of Interest.

You have a long-term client, you know their business well, and they know yours too. You have worked with them for years, building up their web presence till what it is today. There have been mistakes made, and there have been worthwhile gains achieved. You get approached by one of their direct competitors. They are willing for your to develop a siet improving on the one of your existing client. Do you take the job, and just not tell the other client, and hope it does let slip in their industry. Or do you take the job but approach it like any greenfields client and attempt to build them a site based of what they need not referring to your existing client site? Or do you just not take the job and maybe shuffle it off to a colleague? Do you tell your existing client? That’s another topic. This will depend on the business relationship you have with your client.

My View

It’s a hard one. If you don’t have a close relationship, I would say it would be possible to build the second site without reference to the first client. It will be hard, but it will be possible. However if the relationship is close (as indicated) frankly you are better of passing the work to a colleague.

The Bottom Line

The question with all these scenarios is what would you do? Would you look at the bottom line, the dollar value and just take the money with disregard to the consequences of your actions?
Or do you enforce you ethics, approach the client and voice your objections or even reject the job outright?

Does ethics have a place in the Web Industry? Does ethics have a place in business at all?

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1 comment

  1. If the client supplies me with images, then I will get them to certify that they have obtained permission from the owners of those images to use them. Sometimes I’m dubious about how thorough they’ve been in tracking down the correct rights owner but if they say they’ve done the research and received consent then that’s good enough for me.

    If however I know that they have not obtained authorisation to use an image or in any other way request me to use unlicensed material then I will not proceed. I’ve never had to part ways with clients over this – once you explain that it’s illegal then they’re ok with it; it’s amazing how many people don’t even know what copyright and licensing is.

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