Information Ethics Library: An Online, Open Access, and Community-Based Resource for Information Ethics

Bernd Carsten Stahl, N Ben Fairweather, Simon Rogerson and Robert Beckett


1) Introduction

In this paper we present a project that the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (CCSR) has undertaken in the area of information ethics. The project was funded in the second Quarter of 2004 by the East Midlands Development Agency under the Innovation Fellowship scheme. That means it was intended to be a commercial venture of a university working in collaboration with a private sector partner. The key objective of the successful application was to develop a database for information ethics which could be used for teaching information ethics.

There are two streams of thought in this paper which should be of interest to the CEPE conference . Firstly it was decided during the development stage that the database could only be viable if it were populated by the community of scholars and practitioners interested in information ethics. The team looked at the potential quantity of information and deemed it impossible to provide sufficient relevant information about such a large discipline with the resources of scholars from just one institution, each of whom are also involved in teaching and other research projects. The content provision was therefore imagined as similar to an open source software project, or the current wikipedia project (, with a few differences that will be mentioned later. As with these projects, one key issue is the uncertainty as to whether the project will attract the interest and collaboration of those likeminded scholars. The first part of the paper will therefore explain what the database is and does and how ‘community researchers can participate in its development.

The second consideration of interest is a reflection on the ethics of the development process itself. The development team found that in many respects the project was typical of many information systems development cases, with all the attendant problems of unclear definition, lack of agreement of functions, function shift during development etc. It is thus worthy of an ethical analysis in its own right as it provided the authors with first hand experience of IS development. However, it is even more interesting to the project team in terms of the ethics of IS development because of the purpose of the project, namely to provide an online ethics resource which could also be used for teaching purposes. This paper briefly reflects on whether and how building a database concerned with ethics and the teaching thereof requires specific ethical considerations.

2) Technical Description

The academic starting point of the project was the intention to undertake research on how teaching computer or information ethics is affected by the use of information and communication technology (ICT). Briefly, we wanted to know whether there is a significant theoretical or practical difference in terms of learning outcomes between face-to-face teaching and computer-mediated teaching. Unfortunately there were no freely available online information ethics programs or modules available, which is why we considered it would be best to develop a programme specifically for this purpose.

This coincided with a call by the East Midlands Development Agency (EMDA), in collaboration with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), for proposals for an Innovation Fellowship. The aim of this programme is to create innovative projects that linked universities and private sector organisations to disseminate university knowledge in the local community. We contacted Communication Ethics Limited (CEL), a consultant and agency specialising in communication ethics. CEL agreed that it would be a worthwhile commercial activity build an e-teaching system for information ethics, which they would then market to potential companies.

The proposal was accepted and the project team commenced the design for the system. Originally it was planned to be a stand-alone database that could be copied on a CD and sold to companies. However, during the design process it became clear that an e-teaching system would require a large scale fully supported demand quantity of background support and technical information and the design changed to accommodate this. Instead of building an e-teaching system, it was decided to create a library of material for the discipline of information ethics, on top of which and using this information, the team would build an e-teaching application. These decisions meant that suddenly the project faced the problem of providing content for the entire discipline of information ethics, which could not possibly be done by a single institution . Given the success of open source software and, more recently, the wikipedia, the team decided that it would be the good solution to ask the community of people interested in information ethics to share their knowledge to build a common resource. It is hoped that this will lead to a wide variety of contributions that over time will develop into a valuable resource for everybody interested in information ethics. It will allow scholars to bring their own work to the attention of others and to ensure that relevant topics are available to the community. It will facilitate an exchange of teaching material as well as shared access to research resources.

The key features for the information ethics library consist of word seaches for key concepts, authors, bibliographies, text, and multimedia. All content will be ordered and linked according to key the concepts that provide a cross referenced hierarchical structure to locate information via different pathways. The current top level of the hierarchy is a set of braod information ethics issues: Diversity, Privacy, Professional Issues, Remote Interaction, Theoretical Issues, and Social Issues. When clicking on one of these top level key words, the next level of key words related to each of these is displayed. The screen shot displays key words: Privacy / Surveillance / Surveillance by the State. When the user has selected a key word all entries related to this key word are displayed. The system will then display a description, texts (such as case studies, theoretical definitions etc.) a list of authors who have published in the area, a bibliography, and possibly multimedia content.

Figure 1: Screen Shot of the IEL
Figure 1: Screen Shot of the IEL

Four main groups are envisaged as users of the database. First, there is the anonymous guest user who can simply access data. Then there is the category of reader, who can access all content while additionally being given the permission to evaluate the quality of database contributions through a rating system. Third there is the category of the contributor, who can add content and can additionally edit their own contributions. Finally, the role of editors is defined as those who approve added content, able to edit all content in the database and who jointly create policy for the system. Users get to choose which of the first two levels of access they desire and can register as a reader or a contributor as they wish. Only editors need to be approved by the administrators of the database. Each entry in the database has a link to its contributor, so that a user who disagrees with a certain piece of content can contact the contributor, who then has the chance to change / update it.

In addition to the ethics library aspect of the database, that is available to the general user community, the system provides a tutorial aspect, that can be designed for specific purposes including commercial re-sale. Each of these modules will consist of a collection of various content from the library shaped into a specific order and made available as a click through course. Access to these tutorials or units will probably be restricted.

3) Development Process

The above descriptions indicated that the development process of the database has not been a straightforward one. The development team had to square different internal and external expectations and to agree on functionalities despite the fact that content and purpose of the system was unclear until these decisions had been made. The different, sometimes conflicting elements of the project were 1. the creation of a computer-based learning system for information ethics required a variety of content and approaches that needed to be sophisticated in terms of utility and yet simple to use 2. the development of a commercially viable system was complicated by a funding system that emphasised ownership vested in an institution of education despite requiring commercial objectives, 3. the demand for successful collaboration between university and industry was a requite of funding even while the funding does not allow for long term project development and finally 4. the provision of a community based open access resource is tinged with tension between system design and support, security and optimisation, community and developer interests.

It should be obvious that these different aims were not easily combined and that decisions about which ones to give preference have been difficult. An interesting analysis of the design process from different points of view might be a research dimension of the project for further development in due course. In this paper we will only discuss the ethical problems arising.from the project to date.

4) Ethical Considerations

Ethics can enter information systems development in a number of ways. Social issues such as power distribution, questions of access, definition of roles and instructions as well as related technical problems such as security, availability etc. Each of these can probably be identified in this project. However, this paper concentrates on two most salient issues, the dilemma posed by teaching ethics online and the ethics of the underlying business model.

The teaching of ethics online can be problematic because it involves the difficult question why we teach ethics in the first place. This is related to the question whether philosophical ethics is a normative or a descriptive enterprise. If it is only descriptive then teaching ethics involves the transfer of knowledge and undertaking this online may not be particularly problematic. However, it is often supposed that teaching ethics is meant to affect students’ behaviour, they should not only learn theories, they should also act in a more ethically reflective and sensitive way. If this is the case then one must ask what e-teaching does to affect the outcome. Will students having been taught to behave differently by online teaching from those who have been taught face-to-face? The literature on computer-mediated communication suggests that there may be considerable differences between CMC and f2f. What does this mean for teaching information ethics? This was the original question that led to the design of the project. The team is no closer to an answer now, than it was at the start but the aim is to use the system to do research on this question.

The second particularity of this project is that it combines the idea of open access and community provision of information with a commercially exploitable application. This raises a number of ethical questions. Who owns the content and who can profit from it, in which way? Conventional wisdom suggests that the individual bits of content in the database will each belong to the contributors, but that the entire database belongs to the creator, which in this case is De Montfort University. Possible problems arise when the database is used to procure income, for example by the commercial use of custom-made modules based on database content. The purpose of this discussion is not to provide an answer but raise the issue with the community. The database can only be successful if the community participates. This means that the community will have to agree with what is done with the database. The project team would therefore like to use the presentation of this paper to raise the issue and find out what the community believes to be desirable. This is in keeping with the idea of open access where the community of contributors gets to provide an input concerning the use of the product.