Last Update: December 10, 2015.
Contributions to the field can be submitted for publication in the: International Review of Information Ethics (IRIE)
This presentation is divided into three chapters:
We draw a distinction between:
Information ethics deals with ethical questions particularly:
Information ethics as:
Information ethics explores and evaluates:
The study of information ethics within different cultural traditions, i.e., what can be called intercultural information ethics, is an open task. The following text gives some hints about the Western tradition.
In the Western tradition information ethics has its roots in the oral culture of ancient Greece. Agora (marketplace and meeting place) and freedom of speech (Greek: parrhesia) were essential to Athenian democracy. The cynics cultivated freedom of speech as a special form of expression. Socrates (469-399 B.C.) practised his thinking in public places and never published his arguments. Plato (427-347 B.C.) discusses in his dialogues the transition from an oral to a written culture. Under the influence of Christianity a book culture was developed which was mainly centered on one book, namely the Bible.
The invention of printing by Gutenberg in 1455 and the Reformation, which profited from it, brought back, in the Modern period, the idea of freedom of communication, which implied the freedom of communicating ideas to others not just in a written but in a printed form.
The French Revolution brought about the transformation of the private libraries owned by nobility as well as by the church into common property. Projects like the one of the French Encyclopédie and the public access to libraries created a new awareness of freedom of information which culminated in the principle of freedom of the press as one of the foundations of modern democracies.
The Western tradition of information ethics from ancient Greece until the beginning of the 20th century is characterized by two ideas:
A third element arises now, in the age of a networked world of electronic information, namely
See the contributions to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)
See the contributions to the CATaC Conferences on Cultural Attitudes Towards Technology and Communication as well as the contributions to the International ICIE Symposium in the International Review of Information Ethics (IRIE 2004/2).
The following ideas were originally inspired by the research done by Thomas J. Froehlich: Survey and Analysis of the Major Ethical and Legal Issues Facing Library and Information Services. IFLA Publication 78, München 1997, a survey prepared under contract no. 401.723.4 for the General Information Programme (PGI) of UNESCO.
See also the contributions to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
A basis for ethical thinking on the responsibility of information specialists are the following articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948):
Information specialists have a moral responsibility with regard to the users at a micro (individuals), meso (institutions) and macro (society) level.
The question concerning the protection of the intellectual property is one of the most important and difficult ethical, moral and legal ones in the field of information production. Different traditions with regard to technologies and products have lead to different protection laws in different regions of the world:
Ways of harmonization:
Digitalizing makes copying and re-making (re-modelling) easier. Internationalization through the Internet changes the dimension and prospective of national legislation and control. This new situation gives rise to questions such as: Should information (content and/or software) be regarded as an intellectual property? Should the notion of knowledge sharing become predominant with regard to the notion of ownership? How can the public access to electronic information be guaranteed?
Ethical questions concerning collection and classification of information are related to censorship and control. The answers to these questions vary historically according to the interests of political, economic, religious and military power using and abusing of censorship and control. Cultural and moral traditions play also an important role concerning for instance what is considered as offensive. We draw a distinction between censorship and selection:
Selection procedures may be biased with regard to certain groups of subject matters. This leads to a loss of ethical balance. The main ethical question in this field may be formulated as follows:
Are there limits to intellectual freedom?
The will to exclude bad information is itself an ethical paradox as far as any exclusion, limiting intellectual freedom, should be avoided.
There is a tendency in liberal societies to less control. But this leads to ethical as well as moral and legal conflicts. Codes of Ethics as well as official international statements and agreements may help against arbitrary censorship and selection pressures.
Classification systems, thesauri, search engines and the like are not neutral. This non-neutrality concerns not just the fact that they are necessarily biased but that specific unethical prejudices are not recognized as such. Problems of this kind arise in the Internet because of the massive amount of information and different kinds of search methods and search engines.
Ethical questions concerning information access and dissemination are related to problems of public access and reference/brokerage services as well as to the (human) right to communicate. The question of access can be studied as an individual as well as a societal issue.
See the Declaration of Principles of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
Individuals and groups are interested in a free and equal access to information as well as to free communication (one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, many-to-many). Information is in many cases product of work and has an economic value that should be protected. The question is then what information for whom should be free (of charge). The problem of user education is also connected to this question.
The question of access as a societal issue concerns the problem of creating equal opportunities of access for nations or groups of nations avoiding the gap between the information rich and the information poor (societies). The right to communicate, i.e., the right to read (r2r) and the right to write (r2w) in the electronic environment should be considered as a human right.
The question of reference/brokerage services can be studied with regard to institutionalized services as well as a question concerning the end users. Ethical conflicts may arise regarding for instance the right to confidentiality and the one to protect life. Organizations may ask information professionals to break confidentiality.
Information professionals are supposed to inform their users about the limits of their sources and methods.
Finally there is the question of misinformation (or information malpractice) that can cause great (economic) damages to the users.
All these questions become more critical as a result of the globalization of information in the Internet. Questions arise such as: Who should control the information (content and/or software) coming from another country and/or another culture? How can national laws, being geographically limited, meet the challenges of cyberspace?
Solutions to these questions may be found at different levels:
Cyber-Geography Research: The analysis of the networked society is basic for ethical reflection, for instance on the question of distribution and access to information and knowledge. The Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London (an initiative by Martin Dodge) has explored the geographies of the Internet, the Web and other emerging Cyberspaces.
Chinese translation by Zhang Hui.
Polish translation by Valeria Aleksandrova.
Russian translation by Abdul Sattar.