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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. 


                                                                                   - Thomas Froehlich              

An Introduction to the field of Information Ethics


Scholars and practitioners of Information Ethics draw a distinction between:

  • Morals: customs and traditions

  • Ethics: critical reflection on morals

  • Law: norms formally approved by state power or international political bodies.

Morals | Ethics | Law
Information Ethics as Applied Ethics

Information Ethics as Applied Ethics 

The practice of Information Ethics encourages critical discourse on questions about: 

  • Digital Ethicscomputer ethics, AIethics 

  • Bioinformation Ethics: biometrics

  • Media Ethics: whistleblowing, responsible journalism

  • Library Ethics: information access, intellectual freedom 

  • Business Information Ethics

  • Intercultural Information Ethics: global digital citizenship, internet governance, internet inclusion

Information Ethics as a Descriptive and Emancipatory Theory 

Information Ethics as a Descriptive and Emancipatory Theory 

Information Ethics:

  • as a descriptive theory explores the power structures influencing informational attitudes and traditions in different cultures and epochs.

  • as an emancipatory theory develops criticisms of moral attitudes and traditions in the information field at an individual and collective level. It includes normative aspects.

Information Ethics explores and evaluates:

  • the development of moral values in the information field,

  • the creation of new power structures in the information field,

  • information myths,

  • hidden contradictions and intentionalities in information theories and practices,

  • the development of ethical conflicts in the information field.

Ethics for Information Specialists


Educational goals:

  • to be able to recognize and articulate ethical conflicts in the information field,

  • to activate the sense of responsibility with regard to the consequences of individual and collective interactions in the information field,

  • to improve the qualification for intercultural dialogue on the basis of the recognition of different kinds of information cultures and values,

  • to provide basic knowledge about ethical theories and concepts and about their relevance in everyday information work.

Ethics for Information Specialists


We understand historical aspects of the study of information ethics within different cultural traditions as Intercultural Information Ethics. The following exposition reflects on the nature of the western tradition of information ethics in contrast to the eastern tradition and reflects on the differences therein.

The Western Ethics Tradition


The Western Ethics 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 but 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, 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.

A networked world of electronic information

The Western tradition of information ethics from ancient Greece until the beginning of the 20th century is characterized by two ideas:

  • freedom of speech,

  • freedom of printed works and particularly freedom of the press.

A third element arises now, in the age of a networked world of electronic information, namely

  • freedom of access / right to communicate.

See the contributions to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).


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).

Human Rights and Responsibility 

A basis for ethical thinking on the responsibility of information specialists are the following articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948):

  • Respect for the dignity of human beings (Art. 1)

  • Confidentiality (Art. 1, 2, 3, 6)

  • Equality of opportunity (Art. 2, 7)

  • Privacy (Art. 3, 12)

  • Right to be protected from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Art. 5)

  • Right to own property (Art. 17)

  • Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Art. 18)

  • Right to freedom of opinion and expression (Art. 19)

  • Right to peaceful assembly and association (Art. 20)

  • Right to economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for dignity and the free development of personality (Art. 22)

  • Right to education (Art. 26)

  • Right to participate in the cultural life of the community (Art. 27)

  • Right to the protection of the moral and material interests concerning any scientific, literary or artistic production (Art. 27)

Information specialists have a moral responsibility with regard to the users at a micro (individuals), meso (institutions) and macro (society) level.

Ethical Issues of Information Production

Ethical Issues of Information Production


The question concerning the protection of intellectual property is one of the most important and difficult ethical, moral and legal questions 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:

  • The European tradition emphasizes the moral rights of the authors (droit d'auteur). These are related to the person of the author and concern the integrity and authorship of her/his work as well as her/his reputation.

  • The Anglo-American tradition emphasizes the property or economic rights (copyright). These rights can be transferred. According to this tradition "original works of authorship in any tangible means of expression" (17 U.S.C. sect. 102(a)) should be protected.

  • The Asian tradition(s) consider copying as a matter of emulation of the master. Conflicts arise when national and international laws and moral traditions protect different aspects of various media.

Conventions towards Harmonization

Conventions towards Harmonization

  • The Berne Convention (1886, revisions) Protects: books, sculptures, architecture... Duration of a copyright: the life of the author plus 50 years. It makes a difference between economic and moral rights: In case I grant economic grants to another person this does not include moral rights. The USA joined the convention in 1989.

  • Universal Copyright Convention (1952) (UCC). The protection is national and concerns the rights of reproduction. Duration of protection: the life of the author plus 50 years. Both treaties are administrated by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

  • Copyrights directives from national and multinational parliaments (such as the EU).

Challenges of Information Dissemination

Challenges of Information Dissemination

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 Issues of Information Collection and Classification 

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:

  • Censorship means the active exclusion of information based on religious, political, moral or other grounds.

  • Selection concerns the activity of choosing information according to the objectives of an institution.


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 Aspects of Information Access and Dissemination 

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:

  • Self-control: this is the ethical solution propagated by the Internet community particularly through the use of filtering software. Its basic and most primitive form is the netiquette. Other kinds of self-control are for instance operated within newsgroups through moderators. Sanctions, beginning with flaming, through spam, may reach the level of a mail bomb. Finally there are the cyber angels who take care of (free) decency self-control in the net.

  • Campaigns: such as the Blue Ribbon Campaign against different kinds of discrimination and censorship.

  • Codes of Ethics: of different institutions and societies.

  • Legal regulations: at national, multinational and international level (UNESCO, WSIS), see for example:

  • Technical regulations: such as filtering software and rating procedures.

  • And last but not least through teaching and research, see for example:

    • 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.


The International Review of Information Ethics

For detailed iterations of the issues that make up the field of Information Ethics, or for submitting academic contributions to the field, the International Center for Information Ethics provides and manages the International Review of Information Ethics (IRIE), a journal published twice a year, that deliberates on the evolving issues of the field. Please visit the journal homepage for submission guidelines, format guide and publication terms. 

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