Ethics and Information

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The shortest definition of ethics is "moral decision making." What is moral? Morality encompasses people's beliefs and practices about good and evil. If something is moral, that implies conformity to the sanctioned codes or accepted notions of right and wrong, the basic moral values of a community. Morals can be local and/or universal. When individuals use reason to discern the most moral behavior, then they are practicing ethics.

Information ethics focuses on information, not just life. Information gains a prominent role because of its crucial importance to the health of human cultures. In other forms of ethics, only animals and people deserve to be the proper center of moral claim. However, with information at the focal point, the privacy, security, ownership, accuracy, and authenticity of information, as well as access to information, become values in themselves.

The rise in information ethics has not occurred in a vacuum. There exist biomedical ethics, nuclear ethics, and numerous other branches of ethics to coincide with two phenomena: (1) the challenges of new technologies and (2) the breakdown of historical ethical traditions and of common assumptions.

Narrowly construed, information ethics would appear to be a field for librarians. However, people grapple with thorny ethical issues daily in entertainment, news media, nonprofit organizations, governments, businesses, and the population as a whole. The ubiquity of computers means that many people make vital decisions about information on an almost constant basis.

Caring and trust are essential values to develop in a just society. In the field of information ethics, the word "trust" appears repeatedly. Trust is relying with confidence on something or someone. In a healthy society, people should be able to trust information.

Information ethics deserves special attention because of the rather human ability to view personal actions in the intangible, virtual world of information technologies as being less serious than personal actions in the real world. Among the issues open to debate are exporting software, releasing viruses on the Internet, defining copyright and fair use, and combining data from global information systems with other databases, thereby pinpointing people in ways that were never before possible.

In information ethics, a moral agent is a person or artificial agent who works or participates in the information environment and could improve it. Whether any information process is moral or immoral is judged on how the process affects the essence of the information. Information welfare, in other words, is what ought to be promoted by extending information quantity, improving information quality, and enriching the level of information in general.

The Main Areas of Concern about Information

The following example contains the most critical information issues: privacy, accuracy, authenticity, security, access, and ownership.

If a person was speeding down the highway and got stopped by the police, the resulting traffic ticket would contain true but potentially harmful information about that person. Because of the ticket, the driver's insurance policy premium might increase and other friends and relatives might lose confidence in the person's driving judgment.

What would happen if the driver was behind on child-support payments and the computer put that individual's name together with the driving infraction? Government officials might track down that person and force payment of the monthly contribution. If the driver had been drinking alcohol, matters get worse, because that individual might not be hired for certain jobs due to the evidence of drunk driving.

Now, what if someone mistyped information and the person's name was entered in the records for speeding or driving under the influence of alcohol when no such event occurred? What if someone had stolen the person's license and used it when stopped by the police? In either case, the record would not be accurate or true, since the person in question did not commit the infraction. However, what if a prospective employer uses computers to learn everything it can about the person and finds out about the phantom ticket? Although the person did not do anything wrong, a prospective job could be forfeited.

This scenario brings up key questions. What aspects of traffic tickets or any other piece of information should be private? How are unauthorized people prevented from gaining access? How should records be backed up to allow recovery from accidental or intentional destruction? How can the accuracy of information stored about individuals be ensured? Who can and should have access to that information? Who owns information about individuals? What can be done to prevent identity theft?

Throughout history, the speed of technological advancement outstrips the development of moral guidelines, and society is now scrambling to create a global consensus about ethical behavior with regard to information.

New Technologies

Until the 1980s, information ethics questions were only of interest to a few specialists. However, like a forest fire fanned by wind, information technology has spread throughout society. Its importance to national economies and individual careers grows, and everyone who uses it will need to make ethical decisions. How a database is designed directly affects how to retrieve information that citizens want so see. A widely circulated e-mail message could affect people in other countries within seconds of someone hitting the send button. Ethics and laws are racing to keep up with the changes that computers have introduced.

Before there was e-mail or the Internet, individuals could not send unsolicited commercial messages to millions of people. Now it can be done in a process called "spamming." Does the fact that the financial burden of unsolicited advertisements falls on the recipient rather than on the sender create the need for new rules? Although undetectable manipulation of chemically produced photographs had once been extremely difficult if not impossible, digital photography has made manipulation simple and undetectable. What obligations do communicators such as newspaper publishers have to present an undoctored photograph, even if its message may not be as powerful as one that has been digitally "enhanced"?

Before the 1950s, the microchip did not exist, nor did voicemail or the cell telephone. Technologies are in constant metamorphosis, creating new ethical issues on a daily basis. If ethics is about moral decision making, then what ethical guidelines, what laws are best to deal with information? Can communities agree on these? Can different cultures adopt a global ethic for information? It is not enough to develop only an American consensus or only a German consensus; national borders are quite irrelevant in the Internet age.

Both fear and romance usually accompany new technologies. Movies such War Games (1983), The Net (1995), and Mission Impossible (1996) capitalize on the public's unfamiliarity with communications technologies and make ethically questionable actions (such as breaking into secure computer systems) seem heroic or, at least, condonable.

Models for Decision Making

For people who seek to act ethically in real-world situations, the code of ethics of their organization or profession may be helpful. Yet, acting ethically is not as simple as following an algorithm set down by a professional body. People need skills to make ethical decisions about handling information. According to C. Dianne Martin and her colleagues (1996), those skills are (1) arguing from example, analogy, and counterexample, (2) identifying ethical issues in concrete situations, (3) identifying stakeholders in concrete situations, (4) applying ethical codes to concrete situations, and (5) identifying and evaluating alternative courses of action.

Think about a special species of action, such as copying proprietary software. The bits and bytes are replicated, with no harm done to the original item. Is that theft, when the original remains whole? Can it be equated with auto theft or copyright violation? Most people would never walk into a computer store and shoplift a computer program. Yet, the illegal duplication of computer programs costs the computer business billions of dollars each year. Most people would not steal a CD (compact disc), but on the Internet, downloading sound files created from CDs is common. There is a physical risk when a person is breaking into a real office, but that physical risk does not exist when a person is hacking into a computer database in some remote location. All of these cases are instances of examples and analogy. Intellectual property in digital format can now be duplicated with incredible ease, so creating analogies helps to define the problem.

Identifying the ethical issues is far from simple. Sometimes the ethical ramifications of a technology are not clear until after the public uses it. In 1998, Sony released the Handycam video camera. The infrared technology of the camera was intended for filming nocturnal animals, but it proved capable of "seeing" through people's clothes.

A stakeholder is anyone who will be affected, directly or indirectly, by an action that is about to be taken. Stakeholders could be computer and Internet users, the software staff at a business, the clients of an organization, or a person's friends and family. All stakeholders should be considered before an individual acts.

There are two main schools of thought with regard to ethics. At one end of the continuum is the rule-based approach, and at the other is the consequences approach. According to the rule-based approach, certain behaviors are mandatory and must not be violated. The rules are laid down in codes of ethics for schools, professions, and cultures. For example, the American Library Association (ALA) advises information professionals that they should treat online information just as they do hardcopy information in their libraries. According to the ALA, all information is to be considered constitutionally protected speech unless decided otherwise by a court of law; only the courts can decide to remove materials from library shelves. At the other end of the continuum is the consequences approach, where people must consider the result of their action, not just the action itself. Utilitarian and social contract theories emphasize that the goal for an individual is to arrive at a course of action that satisfies the code of ethics and the desired outcome—the most moral behavior.

Blindly following codes without taking into account the specifics of a situation could result in deeply offending community standards. Therefore, individuals should always consider what alternative courses of action are available that would satisfy their personal goals and still not offend others. Thus, ethical decision making cannot come from simply following rules. All the participants, the competing values, and the ramifications of each situation have to be considered.

See also:Archives, Public Records, and Records Management; Copyright; Information Industry; Intellecutal Freedom and Censorship; Interpersonal Communication, Ethics and; Privacy and Encryption; Psychological Media Research, Ethics of; Retrieval of Information.


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Marsha Woodbury

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Ethics and Information

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