Information Ethics

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Information ethics is a field of applied ethics that addresses the uses and abuses of information, information technology, and information systems for personal, professional, and public decision making. For example, is it okay to download someone else's intellectual property like pictures or music? Should librarians ever remove controversial books from the shelves or monitor users' Internet searching? Should a scientist post the genome for the Ebola virus on the Internet?

Information ethics provides a framework for critical reflection on the creation, control, and use of information. It raises questions about information ownership and access to intellectual property, the rights of people to read and to explore the World Wide Web as they choose. Information ethicists explore and evaluate the development of moral values, the creation of new power structures, information myths, and the resolution of ethical conflicts in the information society (Capurro 2001). If bioethics addresses living systems, then information ethics similarly covers information systems. Where bioethics evolved from medical ethics after World War II to engage the broader implications of societal changes such as informed consent and reproductive rights, information ethics grew out of the professional ethics traditions of librarians and early information professionals in order to describe and evaluate the competing interests that sought to control the information assets of a high-tech society (Smith 1997). Like other areas of applied ethics in science and technology, information ethics focuses on social responsibility and the meaning of humanity in relation to machines.

Built from the codes and commitments of professional librarians to protect the right to read, fight censorship, protect patron privacy, assure confidentiality of library records, and provide service for everyone, information ethics has extended these traditions into cyberspace. The term information ethics first appeared in the literature of library and information science in the late 1980's (Hauptman) alongside other terms such as information technology ethics, cataloging ethics, and archival ethics. In the next few years, information ethics grew to encompass dilemmas facing librarians and information professionals (Mason, Mason, and Culnan 1995) as they introduced new information and communications technologies (ICTs) to public, academic, and special libraries and also into publishing, healthcare, and the new information industry.

Today information ethics encompasses a wide range of issues involving the creation, acquisition, organization, management, translation, duplication, storage, retrieval, and any other processes involving printed or digital texts, graphics, voice, and video. Information ethics can address any issue relating to the Information Society or the Knowledge Economy. As a field of applied ethics, it draws upon historical and philosophical insights (Floridi 1999) in order to describe current problems such as bridging the digital divide and to craft normative solutions for personal and professional conduct and for public policy (Tavani 2003).

The Historical Context

In the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable type printing press altered the parameters of information access and control and began to change the world. Widespread dissemination of printed information helped to change the balance of power in Europe, notably contributing to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, disruptions to the political power of the Roman Catholic Church, and the rise of the nation-state.

In the mid-twentieth century, Claude Shannon (1948) and others developed elegant mathematical theories that made modern information technologies possible while other advances, such as the development of the atomic bomb, made the risks and rewards of widespread scientific and technological knowledge more significant and more visible in everyday life. Since then the increasing volume of digitized information and the exponential improvements in digital processing, storage, and communication have again altered the landscape of information access and control.

Alongside the technological advances that have occurred since the mid-twentieth century, formal consideration of the uses and abuses of information began even before it was designated information ethics, or infoethics. The UN General Assembly raised many infoethical themes in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) including information access (Article 19), intellectual property (Article 27), privacy (Article 12), security (Articles 17 and 27), community (Article 27), and education (Article 26). Since then, the role of information in government, healthcare, and business, and concerns about the uses of that information, have continued to fuel public policy debates. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) uses the term information ethics to focus attention on global problems ranging from literacy, including cell phone access in the developing world, the need to protect local cultures and languages from the dominance of English on the Internet, and the ramifications of expanding databases of genetic information.

In the last fifteen years, information ethics has also evolved within and beyond its early professional and academic communities. Its academic vitality is evident in the formation of scholarly associations such as the International Society for Ethics and Information Technology (INSEIT), scholarly websites such as the International

Most Challenged Books, 2002
Book challenges illustrate the ethical tension between freedom of information and other values.
Title and AuthorSexual ContentOffensive LanguageUnsuitable to AgeWizardry, OccultRacismInsensitivityViolenceDisobedience
SOURCE: Adapted from ALA Office of Information Freedom. (2003). "Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books for 2002."Available from
Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
A young wizard studies magic and battles evil.
Alice series, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Alice searches for a female role model.
The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier
Jerry challenges the high school power structure.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Autobiography of an African American poet.
Taming the Star Runner, S. E. Hinton
A talented, urban punk exiled to a farm.
Captain Underpants, Dav Pilkey
Comic battles with Dr. Diaper and talking toilets.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Classic novel of a boy's journey down the Mississippi.
Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson
Friends reign in a fantasy kingdom in the woods.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor
African-American family struggles to stay together in the 1930s South.
Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George
Can Julie/Miyax survive with wolves in the Alaskan wilderness?

Center for Info Ethics (ICIE), and journals such as The Information Society (1981), Journal of Information Ethics (1992), Science and Engineering Ethics (1995), Ethics and Information Technology (1999), and International Review of Information Ethics (2004). The growing number of books and journal articles that address ethics in academic and professional literature indicates the expanding recognition of and participation in the field.

Key Ethical Themes

From the perspective of information ethics, there are five important themes to be considered: community, ownership, access, privacy, and security (COAPS; see Figure 1). As a framework, the COAPS themes help to guide ethical analysis and aid the discovery of underlying conflicts, as illustrated by ethical questions that have emerged since the mid-twentieth century.

  • Does the anonymity of the web encourage or detract from community formation online?
  • Who owns e-mail messages on a corporate e-mail server, and who can read them?
  • Do patients have a right of access to information about a terminal illness?
  • Do libraries and librarians have an obligation to protect the privacy of patron records?
  • Does personal security warrant the widespread use of surveillance cameras in public places?


In an 1813 letter, Thomas Jefferson distinguished goods that are lessened and ideas that are multiplied when shared:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.

The distinction has become increasingly salient over time. Future creative work builds on past creative work. All branches of science have flourished since the Royal Society of London first published the Philosophical Transactions in 1765, establishing a creative commons of scientific work for scrutiny, criticism, and derivation.

Post 9/11 U.S. Government Legislation and Programs
Legislation and government programs illustrate the ethical tensions that arise between the search for security and the desire for privacy.
Legislation or Program NameSummary
SOURCE: Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA),; Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC),; American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),
Terrorism Information Awareness Program (TIA).. "search[ing] for indications of terrorist activities in vast quantities of data."
Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT)Grants law enforcement broad rights of search and surveillance with limited judicial oversight.
Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II (CAPPS II)Focused on identifying and computing risk score for airline passengers.

While ideas on paper may be expensive to reproduce and awkward to distribute, they have demonstrated great power. Creativity requires a balance of access, to make future creative work possible, and control to make creative work worthwhile. The U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, establishes such a balance by granting inventors limited-term, exclusive rights to exploit their inventions, in exchange for full disclosure for the benefit of future inventors. Lawrence Lessig (2001) has written and spoken extensively about the intellectual and creative commons. In 2002, Lessig and others founded Creative Commons (, "devoted to expanding the range of creative work available for others to build upon and share."

For software, the open source movement, described by Eric Raymond (1999), encourages community and collaboration by requiring programmers to share software source code and to allow the creation of derivative works. The widely deployed Linux operating system and Apache web server demonstrate the multiplicative benefits of a creative software commons.


Modern technology, practice, and law allow tight control over the communication of and access to ideas, threatening the creative commons and future creative works. For example, while Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1837) exists in the public domain, digital rights management technology allows a publisher to prevent a buyer from sharing, copying, or printing the e-book version, a level of control that becomes more significant when fewer printed copies of a work exist. In practice, librarians balance owning paper journals against licensing electronic journals. Web-based, electronic journals offer economy and powerful access capabilities but also carry the risk of complete loss when the license expires. In law, the United States has extended the period of copyright protection, once fourteen years after publication, to seventy years after the author's death, seriously restricting the creation of derivative works.

The Internet hosts a dynamic evolution of morals, ethics, and laws related to information ownership and use. Freed from the limitations of identity, distance, and substance, Internet users have not always transplanted their behavioral norms directly from the real to the virtual world. Individuals and legislators face novel situations when the concept of theft is separated from both physical location and physical loss. Peer-to-peer file-sharing networks allow complete strangers to share perfect copies of digitized songs across vast distances while a presumed anonymity frees them from social constraints they might feel off-line.


The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from making laws "abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, begins "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." These declarations codify ethical principles that recognize the value of expressing multiple points of view.

But freedom of speech, while widely recognized as a fundamental right, remains controversial in detail and execution. Because members of a pluralistic society may hold different values, there are frequent conflicts about what information should be publicly available and what information should not be. The American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics states, "We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources." That commitment conflicts with the values of those who challenge the availability of some books in school and public libraries. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom reports over 6,000 book challenges (that is, " an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group") between 1990

Information Ethics in Popular Culture
Popular books and films frequently draw on infoethical dilemmas for dramatic conflict.
Film, Story, or BookDilemma
SOURCE: Courtesy of Ed Elrod and Martha Smith.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (fiction, 1818)Ownership
1984, George Orwell (fiction, 1949)Privacy
"The Enormous Radio," John Cheever (fiction, 1953)Privacy
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (fiction, 1954)Access
The Gods Must Be Crazy (film, 1980)Ownership
Blade Runner (film, 1982)Security
The Electric Grandmother (film, 1982)Community
"Melancholy Elephants," Spider Robinson (fiction, 1984)Ownership
Neuromancer, William Gibson (fiction, 1984)Access
The Handmaid'sTale, Margaret Atwood (fiction, 1986)Community
Gattaca (film, 1997)Privacy
AI: Artificial Intelligence (film, 2001)Community
Minority Report (film, 2002)Security

and 2000. Table 1 lists the most frequently challenged books of 2002 and the reasons for the challenge.

Privacy and Security

Competing values and interests in public policy and government activities also lead to ethical tensions. Terrorist attacks, whether in Madrid, London, Tel Aviv, Kashmir, Tokyo, or New York, place governments in unfamiliar ethical territories as they develop responses in the form of new laws, policies, and programs that are in turn subject to the critical appraisal of civil liberties and human rights groups. James Moor (1998) describes such circumstances in terms of conceptual muddles and policy vacuums that arise when new situations (such as terrorism) and emerging capabilities (data mining) lead to new behaviors (widespread surveillance) with concomitant ethical questions of whether familiar concepts (privacy) apply and whether the new behaviors are acceptable. Table 2 presents a selection of U.S. government actions that have raised serious ethical dilemmas of privacy versus security and that illustrate an ongoing struggle between secrecy and accountability.

To the extent that such programs occur in secrecy, they leave their scope, policies, methods, activities, and even underlying data insulated from review and criticism. They leave the participants unaccountable outside their bailiwicks. As Joseph Pulitzer observed,

There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy. (Brin 1998)

While secrecy does not presuppose malicious intent, it reduces the opportunity for accountability and opens the door for individual and institutional misuse of information.

Information professionals face dilemmas when balancing their ethical and legal obligations. For example, the USA PATRIOT Act grants law enforcement agencies broad rights to examine the records of library patrons. The ALA Privacy Toolkit describes privacy as "essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association" and urges libraries to adopt routine patron privacy and record retention policies in support of the library mission. At the same time, library policies may conflict with fulfilling the surveillance mission of law enforcement agencies.

Government responses to terrorism provide the opportunity for both practical and philosophical consideration. Practically it is reasonable to consider how much these actions enhance security, how much they impinge upon privacy, and what are the relative weights to be applied on either side of the equation. Philosophically it is valuable to ponder how government efforts to ensure security conflict with guaranteed civil rights.

Information Ethics in Popular Culture

Fiction and films frequently illustrate information ethical dilemmas, illuminating significant points that may not be apparent in everyday life. The entertainment value of emphasizing particular dilemmas and their consequences in fictional settings does not reduce the value of ethical exploration by way of popular culture.

Machines have long mimicked and extended human physical capabilities. But a physical aid such as a snow shovel presents few consequential dilemmas and appears only infrequently as the dramatic centerpiece of a film or book. At the other extreme, information technologies mimic and extend the human mind—popularly regarded as the essence of being human. The role of self-aware creations in fiction and film has increased as information and information technology permeate everyday life. Consider the Terminator (1984, 1991, 2003) and Matrix (1999, 2003, 2003) trilogies which project the ethical dilemmas that arise when the roles of information processing machines conflict with the needs, even the survival, of human society. Table 3 lists examples of films and fiction that highlight infoethical dilemmas drawn from the COAPS framework.

Professional Ethics

Ethical dilemmas also arise in the course of professional activities. When individuals adopt professional roles, they assume obligations beyond and sometimes in conflict with their personal beliefs. Librarians who order

Professional Codes of Ethics—A Sample
Professional OrganizationOf Particular Note
SOURCE: Courtesy of Ed Elrod and Martha Smith.
American Association of University Professors (CSEP)Resolution on covert intelligence.
American Library Association ( commitment to intellectual freedom, privacy, and service.
American Medical Association (CSEP)Patient right to receive information.
American Society for Information Science and Technology ( responsibilities to employers, clients, users, profession, and society.
American Society for Public Administration (CSEP)Whistle blower policy statement.
Association for Computing Machinery ( 24 imperatives as the elements of a personal commitment to ethical professional conduct. Supported by detailed guidelines.
Chartered Institute of Libraries and Information Professionals—UK ( of principles and multi-dimensioned responsibilities.
Dutch Association of Information Scientists (CSEP)Multiple responsibilities to self, profession, employer, and society.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers ( "to seek, accept, and offer honest criticism of technical work, to acknowledge and correct errors, …"
International Federation of Journalists (CSEP)Primacy of respect for truth.

only books and materials supporting their political views about capital punishment are not exercising their professional obligations to build balanced collections and to provide services for a diverse, multicultural public. Professional neutrality refers to the commitment to separate professional obligations and personal beliefs.

Many professional groups have developed formal statements to guide decision making and behavior in situations common to their professions. These are often called codes of ethics to reflect their deliberate and conscious origins. Table 4 presents a sample of professional organizations with published ethical codes in fields related to the use of information.

Ethical decision making is neither straightforward nor predictable. Codes provide public statements of ideals and intentions. However they are only the starting point for decision making in professional activities. Codes cannot foresee every situation, yet professionalism often calls for decision making and action in unclear situations. Such ambiguity can require a delicate balancing act among stakeholder beliefs and priorities, the demands of professional obligations, and short-term, long-term, and unintended consequences.

Future Prospects for Information Ethics

The published literature of information ethics intertwines with other areas of applied ethics such as computer ethics, cyberethics, journalism, communications, and media ethics, image ethics, Internet ethics, engineering ethics, and business ethics, reflecting its broad philosophical underpinnings and practical applications far beyond academia. Information ethics contributes to society when it addresses problems that affect the quality of life. Looming ethical questions may seem to arise more from science fiction than science and technology, but science fiction quickly becomes everyday fact. For example, witness the confluence of technology, biology, and national security in the increasing use of biometric identification methods. Looking forward to future technologies and ethical debates:

  • Will single-issue, virtual communities focused on abortion or animal rights, for example, reduce the tolerance for other points of view?
  • What new business models will arise if intellectual property ownership withers in the face of unstoppable copying?
  • Who will have access to the research information about cloning a human?
  • Will the privacy rights of consumers be renegotiable with every credit card transaction?
  • After the poliovirus has been successfully synthesized from its constituent chemical building blocks, does publishing the gene sequences for deadly viruses on the Internet pose a threat to worldwide security?

The future is arriving quickly in the emerging field of bioinfoethics. It signals a fresh arena for exploration using the combined insights of bioethics and information ethics. It encompasses recent discussions of reproductive ethics, genetics ethics, healthcare ethics, and computer ethics. Bioinfoethics promises to shape personal decisions, professional practice, and public policy. Beyond that, new infoethical domains will continue to emerge wherever new technologies and practices raise new dilemmas that might include applications of robots, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Figure 2 illustrates the contributions of many, diverse domains of ethical analysis to bioinfoethics and to other emerging ethical domains in the future.

An Icelandic genetic mapping project illustrates such a bioinfoethical dilemma. With parliamentary approval, a private company has begun collecting and analyzing genealogical, medical, and genetic data about the people of Iceland in the hope of uncovering diseases with genetic bases and then developing profitable new drugs to treat those diseases. Such research holds the potential for immense medical benefit and immense privacy intrusion. Genetic mapping is likely to become more widespread, thereby expanding the relevance of the bioinfoethical debate.

The COAPS framework (Figure 1) suggests bioinfoethical questions about such a database. How should communities organize and negotiate to assure that the use and benefits of genetic databases best reflect the community interests? Should ownership of the genetic and medical data lie with the individuals or the company? What financial benefits accrue to the individuals if they do own the data? Should there be widespread access to the data to maximize the scientific benefit? Does oneway identity coding sufficiently protect individual privacy when the records carry other medically relevant but potentially traceable information? What security procedures are demanded for the centralized accumulation of immense amounts of personal and medical data? The Association of Icelanders for Ethics in Science and Medicine (Mannvernd) maintains a broad collection of information about genetic practices and the corresponding ethical considerations.

The Icelandic genetic database represents the leading edge of converging medical, social, government, and information technology practices. The associated bioinfoethical dilemmas explore frontiers of emerging ethical debates and demonstrate the relevance of information ethics to everyone.


SEE ALSO Association for Computing Machinery;Communications Ethics;Computer Ethics;Cyberspace;Digital Divide;Geographic Information Systems;Hypertext;Information;Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers;Intellectual Property;Internet;Monitoring and Surveillance;Movies;Museums of Science and Technology;Popular Culture;Privacy;Science, Technology, and Law;Science, Technology, and Literature;Security;Terrorism;Virtual Reality.


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