The LIS infoethical survival kit

From an infoethical perspective, the issues of privacy, accuracy, property and access are paramount when assessing how librarians and information professionals can best meet the challenges of the information age and knowledge economy.

Ethics, librarianship and information science
Derived from the Greek ethos (custom), ethics today signifies the philosophy of morals or the science of moral values and correct action. In this sense, the enduring values of librarianship have always been ethical. As the profession adjusts to the information society and the knowledge economy, the relevance of ethics will become more apparent. New Public Management, new technologies and e-users are making their impact felt in all types of libraries, as are the wider issues of globalisation, digital literacy, the digital gap, digital rights management, commodification of information, privacy, authenticity, confidentiality, censorship, copyright, intellectual property rights, grey literature, and electronic filters – not to speak of the impact of GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) and WTO (World Trade Organisation)/ TRIPS (Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). The librarian is fast becoming an information professional, and new competencies, including infoethics, are called for, both in the profession and in Library and Information Science (LIS) education and research.

As defined by the Association of College and Research Universities, ‘information literacy’ includes understanding the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, as well as accessing and using information ethically and legally. At Oslo University College, ethical awareness is an institutional priority, and within LIS ethics and infoethics are taught at both BA and MA level. At the doctoral level, Oslo University College has just received accreditation of its first doctoral degree in the study of professions, where professional ethics is a major component. Internationally, there are around 70 universities and research institutes which currently engage in research on information ethics, according to the International Centre for Information Ethics. This figure is likely to increase as information science and theory evolve with new developments in constructivism, systems theory, action theory and modernisation theory.

In August 2005, Norway will host the 71st Annual IFLA General Conference and Council. Almost 4,000 delegates from well over a hundred countries are expected. It is therefore appropriate to reflect on the four core values of IFLA which member associations are committed to:

  1. The endorsement of the principles of freedom of access to information ideas and works of imagination and freedom of expression embodied in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  2. The belief that people, communities and organisations need universal and equitable access to information, ideas and works of imagination for their social, educational, cultural, democratic and economic wellbeing
  3. The conviction that delivery of high quality library and information services helps guarantee that access
  4. The commitment to enable all Members of the Federation to engage in, and benefit from, its activities without regard to citizenship, disability, ethnic origin, gender, geographical location, language, political philosophy, race or religion.

IFLA/UNESCO guidelines and IFLA/FAIFE codes of ethics
Building on these four core values, the IFLA/UNESCO recommended guidelines for the development of public library services note that “Public library staff have a responsibility to maintain high ethical standards in their dealings with the public, other members of staff and with external organisations” (IFLA 2001:65).

It is significant that IFLA defines its Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE), whose secretariat is located in Copenhagen, as one of its six core activities. The adoption by many library associations of codes of ethics or conduct is an indication of the level of commitment in many countries to IFLA values and FAIFE activities. No less than 31 such codes are currently listed by FAIFE, many of recent origin. The codes can be compared to compasses which can provide ethical guidance to staff in difficult situations and dilemmas regarding users, colleagues, information and collections.

While the national library associations of Iceland and Sweden, and partly also Finland, have agreed on codes of ethics for all types of librarians, this is not the case in Denmark and Norway. Since 2002, Norwegian academic, research and special libraries have had recommended ethical guidelines for all staff.

In addition, several public libraries such as Oslo Municipal Library and Bærum Public Library have adopted ethical guidelines, consistent with the IFLA/UNESCO recommendations. Codes per se are not crucial, but underlying ethical awareness and debate are.

Over the last four years I have lectured on ethics to many librarians and information professionals in and outside Norway. My impression is that there is growing ethical awareness, especially regarding free access, privacy and censorship. This is promising.

The LIS infoethical survival kit
Whereas laws focus on legality, ethics is concerned with legitimacy. Civil disobedience is a reminder that some laws can be felt to be unfair or unjust. Some laws can also be simply unethical or wrong, which slavery in America and the Holocaust in Nazi-Germany are two examples of. Today many would also include in this category religious laws such as Islamic sharia law, and laws regulating divisive issues such as abortion and embryo-based research.

How librarianship as a profession relates to ethical practice is influenced by ethical theory and research. These often distinguish between two basic approaches: consequentialist theories advise us to select the action with the best possible consequences, as when utilitarian theory states that our chosen action must benefit the greatest number of people. This approach may lead to sacrificing the rights of a minority. The second approach consists of deonthological theories, according to which it is our duty to do what is right. This perspective can lead to conflicts when there are contending views of duty.

To prepare for the outlined challenges, I propose ‘the LIS infoethical survival kit’: This is in condensed form a model showing the main sources, issues and relationships in contemporary infoethics, which are also expected to be essential in the years ahead. In the figure below, three sources of four ethical issues and four associated individual rights are identified. To simplify, I shall mostly comment on the four ethical issues raised: privacy, accuracy, property and access.

Sources, issues and individual rights (adapted from Zwass 2003:1056)

The pervasiveness of information technology, leading e.g. to video surveillance in libraries, is an ethical issue and can affect the individual rights of privacy and free consent. Database matching and misuse of statistical databases with large quantities of personal records in particular threaten privacy invasion. In the US in the wake of the Total Awareness Act a virtual grand database is being created with financial records, medical records, communication records and travel records plus intelligence data of a great number of people. The objective is to track individuals through amassing as much information as possible about them, including their possible use of library services. Knowledge discovery tools will find patterns and associations, and presumably make it possible to pre-empt possible terrorist action.

The EU Directive on Data Protection from 1995 offers Europeans in general better privacy standards than Americans. This includes Norway where the Personal Data Act of 2000 is modelled on the EU Directive and is vigorously enforced by the Data Inspectorate. Still, even in Norway anti-terrorist legislation following September 11, 2001, seems to take precedence: In Norway some universities and colleges were asked in early 2004 to report the names and identities of all foreign students.

The primary targets are presumably foreign students in sensitive disciplines like physics or toxicology from countries that have not signed non-proliferation treaties. The issues of privacy (and accuracy) are obviously at stake for all those registered, whether they are potential terrorists or not. As for possible long-term effects for all those involved, e.g. later difficulties in security clearance and possible Berufsverbot, one can only speculate.

The complexity of information systems lead to errors, and inaccurate library records may prevent you from borrowing books. Inaccurate information can also prevent you from obtaining a credit card, or a job, and incorrect medical information can in an emergency prove fatal. An ethical approach to information accuracy serves to secure the individual right of due process, and must allow individuals to correct inaccurate information concerning themselves. Similarly, inaccurate sources should be identified and dealt with. Secondly, there must be regular information audits. Thirdly, an information professional should not misrepresent his/her qualifications to perform a task, and should also make clear to the employer expected consequences of overruling his/her professional opinion. The EU Directive offers a single information privacy standard whereas U.S. federal privacy requirements vary according to industry sector and type of information collected. Moreover, the EU Directive imposes a much stricter privacy standard than in the US, e.g. the “unambiguous consent” provisions, requiring individuals to “opt-in” to having their information collected and stored, and the “right of access,” which allows any individual to request a copy of stored information about him or her, and in some cases, demand its deletion. The EU Directive furthermore does not allow the transfer of personal information to any country that does not have ‘adequate’ privacy laws.

Property is most affected by the intangible nature of information and software. Intellectual property such as software or digitised music is protected by several legal mechanisms. Propertyrelated issues such as patents, copyrights – the two most important forms of intellectual property – trade marks, industrial secrets, are at the centre of the activities of WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation). Some do not accept restrictions on the free utilisation of intellectual property, e.g. in countries where piracy is openly justified or covertly condoned. One sometimes meets arguments that poverty bars paying high prices for imports, or even that piracy sets the score right for colonial exploitation. Faced by digital piracy and illicit copying, proprietary software producers in addition frequently restrict or limit use e.g by anticopying measures such as copy bars.

Digital Rights Management is nowadays sometimes referred to as Digital Restrictions Management, and it is safe to say that there remain a number of unresolved problems in the borderlands of law and ethics. The difficult balancing of ownership versus access interests are well reflected in the reactions by many consumer groups to the new EU Directive for the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights, which came into force in the spring of 2004. The protests point to the directive’s alleged extreme provisions and harsh treatment of ordinary consumers even for non-commercial or accidental infringements. The directive means that the reverse engineering of software products in order to produce competing, compatible products would be subject to sanctions. It is feared that this would greatly affect the free software movement and the growing use of open source software.

The pervasiveness of information technology and the complexity of information systems both have a bearing on the ethical issue of access and the individual right of fair treatment. Access may refer only to the open versus closed access of users to library materials. Here the trend has been from closed to open access almost everywhere except in archival and research collections or the library systems of totalitarian states. Yet in a wider context access can include the digital divide among and within.What is fair treatment of those on the wrong side of the digital gap? A specific aspect of access which particularly worries the academic and research community is the increasing cost of access to electronic journals. Initiatives like SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) and OAI (Open Archives Institutions) reflect the academic community’s concern with growing restrictions to access. Strained library budgets and the spiralling costs of electronic journals not only restrict access, they may contribute to the digital divide. Related to this is the struggle between proprietary and public domain software, e.g. illustrated by the Microsoft-Linux competition. The appeal of freeware, public domain software, is obvious not only to poorer countries but also to affluent countries as cost saving measures.

In the information age and knowledge economy, the librarian is becoming an information professional, increasingly exposed to the complexities of information systems, where infoethics provides a necessary compass. The profession, as well as LIS education and research, must take this into account. The outlined LIS infoethical survival kit with its emphasis on sources, issues and individual rights, will hopefully prove useful to LIS students, practitioners and researchers alike.

associate professor Oslo University College