Association for Computing Machinery

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Founded in 1947, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization devoted to advancing knowledge and practice in computing and information technology. The ACM comprises professionals, students, practitioners, academics, and researchers—a total of 75,000 members around the world. The ACM sponsors more than one hundred annual conferences and publishes magazines and journals in both print and electronic form. It provides expertise on social concerns and public policies related to computing and information technology, including ethical issues such as privacy, security, intellectual property, and equitable access to computing resources.

Major Activities

Within the ACM are several special interest groups. The Special Interest Group on Computers and Society (SIGCAS) sponsors activities in ethics. SIGCAS manages the quarterly online magazine Computers and Society, which publishes articles, book reviews, educational materials, and news reports related to the ethical and social impacts of computers. SIGCAS organizes occasional conferences and presents the annual Making a Difference Award to an individual who has contributed to understanding the ethical and social impacts of computers. The award has honored Deborah G. Johnson and James H. Moor for scholarly work on the philosophical foundations of computer ethics, and Ben Shneiderman for championing universal access to computing resources.

For many years, the ACM has promoted education in social and ethical issues in computing. The Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) usually schedules sessions on teaching computer ethics at the annual Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. Two of the ACM's series of self-assessments focused on ethics in computing and information science (Weiss 1982, Weiss 1990). In 2001 a joint task force of the ACM and the Computer Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) produced recommendations for undergraduate curricula in computer science that require instruction in ethics in the context of professional practice. Unlike accreditation standards, these curricular recommendations are not mandatory, but they have influenced the development of undergraduate curricula.

The ACM Office of Public Policy and the U.S. Public Policy Committee of the ACM assist policymakers and the public in understanding social issues in information technology, with particular attention to legislation and regulations. For example, since publishing the report Codes, Keys, and Conflicts: Issues in U.S.Crypto Policy in 1994, the ACM has advocated effectively against restrictions on the use of strong encryption. Although these restrictions were intended to thwart criminals and terrorists, they might instead reduce information security and harm electronic commerce. Recognizing ACM's concerns, the U.S. federal government relaxed export controls on encryption products. Since 1999, the ACM has criticized deficiencies in the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA), a proposed uniform state law that creates new rules for computerized transactions. The ACM believes that UCITA would threaten public safety and product quality, because the act would prevent software users from publicizing information about insecure products, and it would allow vendors to disable software remotely. Initially enacted by two states, UCITA has not been adopted by other states because of ACM's efforts.

Codes of Ethics

Like many professional organizations, the ACM has developed its own codes of ethics and professional conduct. In 1966 the ACM adopted its first codes, Guidelines for Professional Conduct in Information Processing (Parker 1968). These guidelines were expanded in 1972 into the ACM Code of Professional Conduct. In 1992 the ACM adopted the current Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (Anderson et al. 1993).

The 1992 ACM code strives to educate computing professionals about professional responsibilities, rather than to regulate ACM members. In contrast with other professional codes of ethics, the ACM code has three notable features. First, each statement in the ACM code is supplemented by interpretive guidelines. For example, the guideline for the statement on confidentiality indicates that other ethical imperatives may take precedence:

1.8 Honor confidentiality The principle of honesty extends to issues of confidentiality of information whenever one has made an explicit promise to honor confidentiality or, implicitly, when private information not directly related to the performance of one's duties becomes available. The ethical concern is to respect all obligations of confidentiality to employers, clients, and users unless discharged from such obligations by requirements of the law or other principles of this Code.

Second, a large section of the ACM code applies specifically to "organizational leaders"—typically technical managers. According to the code, organizational leaders must encourage subordinates to accept professional responsibilities, provide opportunities for subordinates to pursue continuing education, support policies that mandate appropriate uses of computing resources, and ensure that computing systems are designed to enhance the quality of life and protect the dignity of users. Third, the ACM code obligates members to "improve public understanding of computing and its consequences." It is unclear, however, whether this obligation applies to each member individually or to the computing community collectively.

Beginning in 1994 the ACM collaborated with the Computer Society of the IEEE to create the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practices, drafted in 1997 and finalized in 1999 (Gotterbarn, Miller, and Rogerson 1999). Like the 1992 ACM code, the Software Engineering Code includes a section on the obligations of technical managers. Although the ACM participated in the development of the Software Engineering Code, the ACM opposes the licensing of software engineers (White and Simons 2002). (Both the 1992 ACM code and the Software Engineering Code appear in the appendix of this encyclopedia.)

Throughout its history, the ACM has dedicated attention to ethical issues in computing and information technology, both the impacts of computers on society and the responsibilities of individuals as professionals. The ACM will continue to emphasize these issues through conferences and publications, codes of professional conduct, educational activities, and public advocacy, particularly in the United States.


SEE ALSO Institution of Electrical and Electronics Engineers;Professional Engineering Organizations.


Anderson, Ronald E.; Deborah G. Johnson; Donald Gotterbarn; and Judith Perrolle. (1993). "Using the New ACM Code of Ethics in Decision Making." Communications of the ACM 36(2): 98–107. The current (1992) ACM code of ethics, with short fictional cases that illustrate uses of the code.

Gotterbarn, Don; Keith Miller; and Simon Rogerson. (1999). "Software Engineering Code of Ethics Is Approved." Communications of the ACM 42(10): 102–107. The full text of the software engineering code of ethics, developed by the ACN and IEEE Computer Society.

Landau, Susan; Stephen Kent; Clint Brooks, et al. (1994). Codes, Keys, and Conflicts: Issues in U.S. Crypto Policy. New York: Association for Computing Machinery. Raises questions and concerns about standards, laws, and policies for cryptography in the United States.

Parker, Donn B. (1968). "Rules of Ethics in Information Processing." Communications of the ACM 11(3): 198–201. Details the background and explains the motivation for the first ACM Code of Ethics.

Weiss, Eric A., ed. (1982). "Self-Assessment Procedure IX." Communications of the ACM 23(3): 181–195.

Weiss, Eric A., ed. (1990). "Self-Assessment Procedure XXII." Communications of the ACM 33(11): 110–132. Two self-tests on computer ethics; readers analyze several scenarios and compare their opinions with experts' opinions.

White, John, and Barbara Simons. (2002). "ACM's Position on the Licensing of Software Engineers." Communications of the ACM 45(11): 91. Justifies ACM's opposition to the licensing of software engineers.


Association for Computing Machinery. 2004. Available from

Association for Computing Machinery. 2004. Special Interest Group on Computers and Society. Computers and Society online magazine. Available from

Computer Society of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers and the Association for Computing Machinery. "Computing Curricula." Available from Recommendations for undergraduate curricula in computer science, computer engineering, software engineering, and information systems.

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