A brief history of information ethics

[Versió catalana]

Thomas Froehlich

School of Library and Information Science
Kent State University


Information ethics has grown over the years as a discipline in library and information science, but the field or the phrase has evolved and been embraced by many other disciplines. What will be sketched here is a brief summary of the strands that have now come to make up information ethics. In fact, it can now be seen as a confluence of the ethical concerns of media, journalism, library and information science, computer ethics (including cyberethics), management information systems, business and the internet. In the process of showing this evolution, several bibliographic references will be highlighted, although given the brevity of this article, the set of references provided is in not intended to be comprehensive.

In the United States the field of information ethics has had a 20-year evolving history, pulling together strands from librarianship at first and then from computer ethics. For example, one of the key figures in the field is Robert Hauptman who wrote several works and articles on ethical issues, one of the most well known and seminal being Ethical challenges in librarianship.1 This work addressed some of the problem areas of librarianship: censorship, privacy, access to information, balance in collection development, copyright, fair use, codes of ethics, and problem patrons, to name a few. At this time, when schools of library and information discussed ethical issues, these issues would be included in the content of some other, larger subject matter: for example, a course in reference work might discuss ethical issues in reference, such as competency in supplying adequate or correct information. However, there were no courses whose sole concern was ethical issues in the field of library and information science. When courses solely devoted to ethics emerged in America, they tended to move away from a sole concern of ethical issues in librarianship to a broader concern of ethical issues in information science, information technology and information in society. In fact, even at its beginning the domain of concern in information ethics spilled over to other areas: computer ethics, information systems ethics, ethical issues in management information systems, and information policy.

Persons who first used the phrase, information ethics included Robert Hauptman in the book mentioned above and who started the Journal of information ethics in 1992 and Rafael Capurro who wrote an article in German in 1988 in “Informationethos und Informationsethik”2 [Information Ethos and Information Ethics]. However, some the issues in information ethics were raised as early as 1980. Barbara J. Kostrewski and Charles Oppenheim wrote an article, “Ethics in Information Science” for the Journal of information science3 where they discussed such issues as the confidentiality of information, bias in information provided to clients or consumers, the quality of data supplied by online vendors, the use of work facilities, etc.

One of the first schools of offer a regular course on ethical concerns of information professionals was the University of Pittsburgh (http://www.sis.pitt.edu/~ethics). It was taught by Professor Stephen Alamagno, O.F.M. and Toni Carbo, who was Dean of the School of Information Sciences for many years. In 1990 they offered a master's level course on Information Ethics. Around the same time, Kent State University offered my Master's level course on “Ethical concerns for library and information professionals” and Simmons College offered a course, “Organizational/information ethics”.

Unfortunately, most schools of library and information science in the United States still do not have courses devoted regularly and solely to ethical issues, and even today most ethical and legal issues are presented in the context of another topic. Shortly thereafter I produced a work for the Annual review of information science and technology (ARIST),4 entitled “Ethical considerations of information professionals”, which provided an analysis of ethical principles applied to ethical concerns of information professionals. Several years later, for the International Federation of Library Association's (IFLA's) professional series, Survey and analysis of the major ethical and legal issues facing library and information services.5

As the years have progressed, the term information ethics was also adopted by faculty in schools of computer science. Depending on the academic institution in the United States, many departments of Computer Science focused on theoretical dimensions of computer science (for example, they would be concerned with the completeness or consistency of a programming language) while others have included the applied dimensions. Many of these departments are called “Computer and Information Science”, information science representing more of the applied side of computer science. In this area, there have emerged textbooks like Richard Severson The principles of information ethics6 for whom the major principles of information ethics are respect for intellectual property, respect for privacy, fair representation, and nonmaleficence (or “do no harm”). Another textbook, Marsha Cook Woodbury's Computer and information ethics,7 addresses a broader variety of topics: computer crime, copyright, privacy, software reliability, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce, which continued a tradition established by one of the foundational books in computer ethics, Deborah G. Johnson's Computer ethics.8 Associations or symposia devoted to computer ethics include: Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquiry (CEPE) (http://cepe2005.utwente.nl/) and ETHICOMP (http://www.ccsr.cse.dmu.ac.uk/conferences/ccsrconf/).

Another textbook that tried to span issues in computer ethics and ethical issues in information management systems, with some treatment of library issues, was the Ethics of information management,9 by Richard O. Mason, Florence M. Mason, and Mary J. Culnan. It discusses issues in professionalism and ethical concerns in information systems, organizations and society. For a good summary of the evolution of information ethics up until 1997, see Martha M, Smith, “Information Ethics” in the Annual review of information science and technology (ARIST),10 which contains an extensive bibliography of sources.

Cyberethics, a particular branch of computer ethics, has also emerged as an area of ethical concern. According to Patrick Sullivan,11 cyberethics may replace computer ethics. Cyberethics is particularly concerned with ethical issues related to the internet or cyberspace. Topics in this area include expert systems, artificial intelligence, and the ability of robots to reason. Several important works are associated with this topical area: James Boyle's Shamans, software and spleens: law and the construction of the information society,12 Lawrence Lessig's Code and other laws of cyberspace,13 and Richard A. Spinello's CyberEthics: morality and law in cyberspace.14

Another strand of information ethics emerges from media ethics. A reader in media ethics, at least in the later editions, uses the phrase information ethics: Philip Patterson and Lee Wilkins, Media ethics: issues and cases.15 Matthew Kiernan, Media ethics: a philosophical approach,16 a lecturer in philosophy at Leeds University, addresses such issues as news and the fourth estate, impartiality as a regulative ideal, and deceit, lies, sexuality, censorship and violence in the press.

In sum, information ethics has evolved over the years into a multi-threaded phenomenon, in part, stimulated by the convergence of many disciplines on issues associated with the Internet. In the past, there existed a clear distinction between ethical issues associated print media such as newspapers and the credibility of reference sources, as in the field of librarianship. With the advent of the world wide web, publishing has become quick and easy and so issues of credibility that used to be different for journalists and librarians now have become a common concern, e.g., in assessing and evaluating the credibility of web sites, especially those that purport to provide information.

A good example where all of these strands have coalesced lies in the International Center for Information Ethics (ICIE) (http://icie.zkm.de/), established by Rafael Capurro in 1999, an organization which embraces scholars and scholarships from all over the world. Scholars and practitioners from all of the topical areas mentioned above, as well as others, are included as members of the association. A recent symposium (October, 2004, http://icie.zkm.de/congress2004) at the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (Germany) sponsored by VolkswagenStiftung brought together 45 scholars and practitioners from at least 19 different countries and many varieties of disciplines, reflecting in part the diverse membership of the ICIE. The disciplines included computer science (informatics), computer engineering, library and information science, software engineering, philosophy, law, and management. While the majority of participants were from academic institutions, several institutes and associations were represented: for example, the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility http://www.ccsr.cse.dmu.ac.uk/), and Fundación Funredes (http://funredes.org/). While the general concern of the symposium was information ethics, its specific focus was “Localizing the Internet: ethical issues in intercultural perspective”.

In his keynote address on “Intercultural information ethics”, Rafael Capurro17 raised important questions about the foundations of philosophy and ethics and its historical Western roots. Western philosophy has a strong tradition in European and particularly early Greek history. It is problematic in our global information society to assert that the grounds for ethics, in particular information ethics, lies in this Western tradition. If we are trying to create a genuine dialog about ethical values and ethical reasons in the multicultural internet world, we cannot be bound solely to this tradition, because, for example, Chinese and Indians have engaged in ethical thought and ethical reasoning and the grounds for the resolution of their ethical dilemmas may or may not be the same as those offered in Western society. In fact, it would be presumptuous to assert the superiority of the Western approach. For a truly intercultural information ethics, one must take seriously the diverse cultures of the world and their own historical traditions. That would also include the feminist perspective that has long been ignored or undervalidated in both Western and Eastern cultures.

The theme of the paper was both provocative and challenging —asking the participants to think beyond their own traditions. While keeping this challenge in mind, the ICIE symposium devoted itself to the ethical role of the Internet for social, political, cultural and economic development. Addressing these themes, papers included: “The Internet and community building at the local and global levels: some implications and challenges”, “The Internet: the missing link between the information rich and information poor?” and “Gendered views on the ethics of computer professionals”. It is not possible to detail the diversity of topics discussed and presented (the papers will be soon published in the International journal of information ethics (http://www.ijie.org/). The point is these papers and their presenters and their backgrounds are indicative of pluralism that is indicated by the phrase, information ethics. That pluralism is also reflected in UNESCO's INFOethics web site: http://www.unesco.org/webworld/public_domain/legal.html.

In sum, information ethics is a dynamic and evolving field, flowing from various disciplines and perspectives and cultures, critical in these times of intercultural exchange and dialog.


1 Robert Hauptman, Ethical challenges in librarianship (Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1988).

2 Rafael Capurro, “Informationsethos und Informationsethik. Gedanken zumVerantwortungsvollen Handeln im Bereich der Fachinformation [Information ethos and information ethics. Ideas to take responsible action in the field of information”, Nachrichten für Dokumentation, vol. 39, no. 1- 4 (February, 1988), p. 1-4.

3 Barbara J. Kostrewski, Charles Oppenheim, “Ethics in information science”, Journal of information science, vol. 1, no. 5 (Jan. 1980), p. 277-283.

4 Thomas J. Froehlich, “Ethical considerations of information professionals”, Annual review of information science and technology, vol. 27 (1992).

5 Thomas J. Froehlich, Survey and analysis of legal and ethical issues for library and information services, UNESCO Report (Contract no. 401.723.4), for the International Federation of Library Associations. IFLA Professional Series (Munich: G. K. Saur, 1997).

6 Richard J. Severson, The principles of information ethics (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997).

7 Marsha Cook Woodbury, Computer and information ethics (Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing, 2003).

8 Deborah G. Johnson, Computer ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1985).

9 Richard O. Mason, Florence M. Mason, Mary J. Culnan, Ethics of information management (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. 1995).

10 Martha Montague Smith, “Information ethics”, Annual review of information science and technology, vol. 32 (1997), p. 339-366.

11 Patrick F. Sullivan, “Ethics in the computer age”. In: Kizza, Joseph Migga (ed.), Social and ethical effects of the computer revolution (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1996).

12 James Boyle, Shamans, software and spleens: law and the construction of the information society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

13 Lawrence Lessig, Code and other laws of cyberspace (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

14 Richard A. Spinello, Cyberethics: morality and law in cyberspace (Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2003).

15 Philip Patterson, Lee Wilkins, Media ethics: issues and cases, 4th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2002).

16 Matthew Kiernan, Media ethics: a philosophical approach (London: Routledge, 2002).

17 Rafael Capurro, “Intercultural information ethics”. In: International ICIE Symposium 2004, Localizing the Internet: ethical issues in intercultural perspective. Karlsruhe, Germany: Center for Art and Media, October 4-6, 2004. To be published in the International journal of information ethics.