Information Society, Ethics and the EU

Bethan Ilett



For many years governments have developed specific information and communication technology projects. As commercial sectors made available more Information and Communication Technology (ICT) applications and as use of ICTs has increased “bottom-up” by researchers, individuals and groups, so the reach of ICTs has extended, with impact on “top-down” decision-making. Originally sector-specific projects and policies have been integrated into new policy areas, to such an extent that the broad term “Information Society” has been accepted by many decision-makers.

The greater impact of ICTs and related policies is also shown by the now considerable research carried out in these areas by international organisations such as the OECD and ITU who have charted progress in ICT policies in global regions and member states.

The wider-reach and, frequently, the increased complexity of ICT applications have had an impact on a broader cross-section of society. It is therefore more than interesting to inquire as to the ethical impact on individuals and society of government and regional information society policies.

These policies are of course affected by the wider differences in style of government (domestic and external economic policy) of, for example, the largest ICT users – the United States, the European Union and Japan. It is a lifetime’s study to contrast the differences between each “region’s” understanding of “ethics”. This paper attempts only to compare and contrast broad lines of information society policy and ethical “impact”, focusing in particular on the European Union.

Early European Union ICT policies

After twenty years of relatively small European Union ICT programmes and varying degrees of action in individual member states, wider policy recommendations were eventually adopted by member state representatives in 1993. The major White Paper on Growth, Competitiveness And Employment – The Way Forward Into The 21st Century, called for creation of information society policies at EU and member state level, citing ICTs (amongst others) as new technologies crucial to Europe’s economic future. The key to Europe’s success, the report emphasised, would be the competitive development of ICT applications building on the specific cultural diversity of Europe in contrast with Europe’s largest competitors, the USA and Japan.

This was followed up with a rolling plan of specific policies under the umbrella of EU Information Society policy. This has included the creation of various discussion and advisory fora and new infrastructure funding. Telecommunications deregulation is another feature of changing EU information society policy and is due to be achieved (in most member states) by 1998.

Information Society, Ethics and the European Union?

Information Society actions and proposals now affect a large number of EU policies. Whether it be due to public relations “hype” or due to a drive by the Commissioners involved towards a new common European policy, Information Society has become a “buzzword” in Brussels, and on occasions, has been described in almost messianic terms. However, in order to look at the impact of EU policies on individuals and society, and whether indeed sustainable policies can be implemented, specific areas (below) will be looked at with reference to ethical concerns.

As is being recognised more and more frequently in the “business world”, all aspects of life involve ethical decisions to some degree. It is possible to put forward an “ethical impact assessment”, just as social impact and environmental impact assessments are required in a number of Commission research and development tender forms. A sustainable and ethical impact assessment can give a wider, but still objective picture and focus down on specific policies.

It is possible to explore ethical criteria applicable to the value judgements made in policy-decisions where public spending is generally finite! Furthermore these can help clarify which aims and objectives have become predominant and which have been reduced or lost during the policy-making and implementation process.

  • Education:
  • As schools and colleges are encouraged to link to others, it is highly relevant who will be able to build up such an interlinked system in and between member states. As multimedia is being encouraged in schools and partnerships are being built up between the European Commission and multimedia producers, what values will be brought to the classroom in educational software?

    It has been suggested in a number of Commission publications that the role of the teacher in an information society is to become that of a coach, guiding the pupil through teaching software. This could lead to a change in teacher-pupil relations which is necessary to explore.

    “Lifelong Learning” is commonly referred to in EU Information Society proposals. A question now being asked by policy-makers and those involved in the job market, is how this continuous upgrading and diversifying of skills can be financed and achieved?

  • Access and Availability – the “Haves and Have Nots”
  • A number of commentators have already pointed to the possible centrifugal forces arising out of EMU, whereby peripheral regions are likely to lose out to those at the geographical centre of Europe. However, it has already been EU policy to stimulate the economies of outlying, under-developed and declining regions through the Cohesion and Structural Funds.

    Seen in this context, it is of even greater importance to consider the effect of geographical development of ICT infrastructure. The EU has already taken some account of this through its proposals for creation of Trans-European Information Networks, and the recent (October 1997) EU-led international conference on standardisation.

    Universal Service Provision has already been discussed by the European institutions with the call for commitments from private providers, however, it is debatable whether this and such small-scale schemes as have been encouraged under the Telematics and TIDE programmes are likely to greatly increase access and availability through EU funds or be adapted and funded by member state initiatives.

  • “Flexibility”: With issues of environmental protection, tele-commuting and sustainability in mind, it is useful to look at EU proposals for protection of the increasing number of “flexible” workers. Here, working hours and conditions will be related to impact on individuals and families. This area includes telecottages and here relates to access and availability.
  • Freedom of speech v. Freedom from illegal and harmful acts and material: An age-old debate with distinct positions has been waged on free speech and censorship. The international nature of ICT applications has made necessary adaptation of policing, enforcement and legal in criminal cases. However, criminal law criteria balanced between free speech and protection of individuals from illegal and harmful content on the Internet can still be applied.
  • Each of the European institutions has called for action in this area, particularly with regard to protection of minors and criminal pornography rings, and racist and fascist material. A Commission report prepared in conjunction with non-governmental organisations is due to be presented to the next meeting European Culture Ministers.


In conclusion the question will be put with regard to the above, are ethics forming an integral part of foundations being set for an “Information Society” in Japan and the USA, and in particular, the European Union?