Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Matter of Ethics -- Genealogy and the Internet Part One

Some years ago, in my attorney practice, I represented a client from Chicago. He had a dispute about an apartment rental, if I remember correctly. The lawsuit was filed in a small claims or justice court in West Phoenix. Just before the case was to go to trial, I received a call from my client. In all seriousness, he asked me "who he had to pay off to win the trial?" I didn't know how to respond. He sounded serious or I might have thought he was kidding. He repeated the question, and I explained to him that in Arizona we didn't have to pay bribes to go into court and win our cases and this wasn't Chicago. At that time, I realized that if that was the way the law worked, I probably wouldn't be practicing law. In retrospect, the incident involved multiple issues of legality as well as ethics.

In the U.S., Attorneys and other professionals are almost always regulated by a code of ethics. In the case of attorneys in Arizona, the ethics rules are promulgated by the Arizona Supreme Court and enforcement of the ethics rules is delegated to the Arizona State Bar Association. Attorneys' ethics rules are in some cases, somewhat arbitrary but over all govern the way attorneys interact with their clients and with others in the profession. Compliance with the ethical rules has little to do with the mind set of the attorney, if you misuse client funds, you violate the ethical rules no matter if you meant to do so or not. Attorneys who are found to violate the ethical rules may be reprimanded or may even lose their license to practice law.

There is a huge amount of writing on the subject of various ethical systems, both formal, like for attorneys, and informal. Ethics can be a set of rules set down by some governing or licensing agency or organization or it can be a moral philosophy. In all cases, ethics deals with what is right and wrong in the context of the particular activity (such as law or genealogy) and not what is strictly legally or socially acceptable. Many of the general principles of ethics have a religious background.  

An article in the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) Quarterly, Vol XXV, Number 4, entitled "Genealogy-Internet-Ethics, Ethical Considerations fr Today's Professional Genealogist, " raises some interesting questions which should not be applied to only professional genealogists or those who claim to be professionals. Although the article confuses copyright law, contract law, right to privacy and Internet etiquette with ethics, it does raise some issues that should be discussed by everyone considering family history/genealogy research online. 

In contrast to most professions, genealogy does not have a centralized governing body with mandatory membership, that can say who can and who cannot practice genealogy. If you are a genealogist simply by virtue of the fact that you collect information about your family, the idea that there should be some sort-of code of ethics for doing genealogy may never have occurred to you. Likewise, even if you have been hired by others to do genealogical research for years, you still may have never even considered that there should a code of ethics governing how you do your research. What is more, you may not know that there are some ethical guidelines for genealogists. For example, the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) has a "Code of Ethics and Conduct." I find it interesting that the author of the APG article cited above, failed to even mention the BCG Code.

Before going too far into the issue of any particular ethical rule or guideline, it is probably more important to understand both the need for an ethical system and to define the area of concern. The question could be asked, as I mentioned above, how do ethical rules differ from issues involving copyright violations, etiquette (or Netiquette), contract law and privacy concerns?

Let me give some hypothetical situations. What if you go to your local library to do research and see a laptop sitting on a table that is not yours and pick it up and carry it home to use? Granted, that would be theft by almost any definition, but would it be unethical?  Usually, ethical systems such as the rules for attorneys make committing criminal acts a violation of the system's ethical rules. The reason a criminal act may also be a violations of ethics has to do with the status of the offender. In other words, if the thief has no professional associations, in some abstract sense it might be unethical but he or she is not governed by any formal system of ethics and will have to be dealt with by our criminal justice system not some ethics review panel.

So, in order for ethics to be an issue, there needs to be, not only general ethical guidelines, but some sort of enforcing organization or agency that can make decisions as to whether any given behavior is ethical or not according to the rule of the agency or organization. Calling for a general upgrading of ethics in the community is laudable, but without some social or organizational enforcement mechanism, will have little or no effect on behavior.

Let's face it, genealogy as an activity has no coordinated, central organization or agency which could promulgate some kind of ethical rules, notwithstanding the existence of guidelines such as the BCG Code. I doubt a very high percentage of genealogist are even aware of the BCG much less its Code.

If we lack such a central coordinating organization, can we still seek an ethical environment? I think that the answer is yes. But I am not sure how we educate those who participate in genealogy but have no other contact with any centralized ideas i.e. don't even read Blogs or genealogy magazines. Granted, those genealogists who are certified, accredited or belong the the APG, should be very aware of ethical considerations. It is also likely that if someone has taken the time and effort to join such an organization or become certified or accredited, that they have thought about the ethical consequences. BCG, for example, requires all of its applicants to adhere to the standards of its Code of Ethics.

I am essentially talking about two poles of participation in the genealogical activity; at one end we have the novice, totally unlearned genealogist and at the other a full blown, certified or accredited professional. Is there some way to affect both ends of the spectrum?

Tune in for further discussion in part two.

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