Information ethics deals with ethical, legal and societal aspects of making utilizing the instruments of information and communication technologies. Since 1997, UNESCO has initiated a series of initiatives to address the ethical dimensions of the information society that is one of the action lines of the (WSIS) Action Plan for which UNESCO is responsible. The principles on which information ethics are based derive from the Universal declaration on Human Rights and include; the right to freedom of expression, universal access to information, the right to education, the right to privacy and the right to participate in cultural life. Promoting values and principles based on fundamental human rights is central for the development of an equitable information society and raising awareness about ethical issues related to information is one of the six priorities of the Information for All Programme (IFAP). One of the challenging ethical issues that IFAP addresses is the use of cyberspace for the radicalization of young people leading to violence.
Information use ethics extrapolates the access and use of information from the angle of legal and acceptable standards. It is a study that involves applied ethics which addresses the uses and abuses of information, information technology, and information systems for personal, professional, and public decision making. Information ethics creates a platform for critical reflection on the creation, control, and the utilization of information. It promotes 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 bio-ethics addresses living systems, then information use ethics in the same vein, encompasses information systems. Information ethics developed 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). In similarity with other areas of applied ethics in science and technology, information ethics focuses on social responsibility and the meaning of humanity in relation to information usage and machines.
Factors that Influence Information Ethics
Since the primary concern of the library and information professionals is information ethics which is deals with the use and misuse of information, with particular focus on intellectual property, censorship, data integrity, privacy, access to information, etc., they have to uphold their professional ethics as well, which relate to the application of principles to the actions and decisions taken by information professionals. Nowadays, the areas which directly and indirectly influence information ethics are:
- Globalization: One of the most important features of modern society is globalization, which is characterised by extensive use of information and communication technologies, an increasingly open society, greater sharing of information and also greater conflict among individuals and societies in asserting their dominance over others.
- Individualism over the general good: People tend to be more individualistic these days; they frequently place more importance upon individual good rather than the social and indeed, general good. As a result of this, there has been an increased need for individualized and customized services from the library and information centres.
- Privacy/information security: In this increasingly networked global space, the security of public and private data held in databases, web sites and other information repositories are always at risk. People have become more fearful about their privacy and libraries, as preservers and providers of sensitive information have to deal with this concern with the most urgent and optimal priority.
- Diversification of ‘information works’: Unlike their predecessors, today’s library and information professionals are burdened with greater and bigger responsibilities. In addition to being information providers, they now frequently have to assume the roles of educators, consultants, technology experts, translators and synthesizers, among others. They must acquire new skills and capabilities in order to enable them in successfull performance of these duties.
- Conflict between ‘right to information’ and ‘ethical use of information’: Many countries around the world have laws ensuring people’s right to receiving and using information (Bangladesh passed ‘Right to Information Act’ in 2009). However, there are certain information which cannot be regarded as ethical and its Implications for Library and Information Centres. In many instances, library and information professionals find themselves in delicate situations where they have to strike a balance between ‘restricted use of information’ and ‘right to information’.
- Access to information: The issue of universal access to information may create a dilemma for many libraries. As Fernández-Molina points out, many public and professional declarations refer unequivocally to free and public access to information. For example, the British Library Association code of conduct states that any individual should be granted free and public access to information. But there is the risk that is too great an emphasis on providing a service free of charge may result in funding problems that could endanger the survival of the information centre. Similarly, providing a service at zero cost often results in its devaluation, which also has as a consequence of undermining the cachet and feasibility of the profession.
- Intellectual property rights: With the advent of new technologies, reproduction of information materials through photocopying, scanning or otherwise has become much easier. This ease of reproduction sometimes hampers the intellectual property rights of authors and publishers. It creates friction between the desire of information professionals to obtain information at the lowest cost possible and the interest of the owners of this information. Besides, the growing recognition of information as a ‘raw material’ for development has resulted in increasing commercialization of information.
Accordingly, information is being transferred from the public sector to the private and corporate sector and ‘price tags’ are being attached to information, which is making it difficult for less affluent people to access and use. Schiller remarks, ‘in the reallocation of information resources now occurring throughout the economy from one set of users (the general population) to another (mostly corporate business users), one principle prevails. It is the market criterion – the ability to pay. This determines who will receive and who will be excluded from the benefits of the information-greased economy.’ Clearly, this poses new ethical challenges for library and information professionals because they now have to ascertain their roles and responsibilities in this complex ‘info sphere’ and determine how they could assist the underprivileged people to uphold their right to access and use information.