Information Ethics

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Information Ethics is a branch of ethics that proposes a “unified approach” to the relationships of creation, organization, dissemination, and ultimately the use of information that is associated with ethical standards and moral codes governing human conduct in society. The philosopher and mathematician Luciano Floridi are the most prominent proponents of information ethics ideas. It provides a theoretical model for moral issues concerning the interaction of people and information, moral agency (e.g. whether artificial agents may be moral), new environmental issues (especially how agents should behave in the infosphere), and problems arising from life-cycle (creation, collection, recording, distribution, processing, etc.) of information (especially ownership and copyright, digital divide, and digital rights). Information ethics broadly examines issues related to ownership, access, privacy, security, and community. Information Ethics is related to the fields of computer ethics and the philosophy of information.

Models of Information Ethics

Illustration of Floridi's External Resource Product Model
Illustration of Floridi's Internal Resource Product Model

These all fall under Floridi's External and Internal Resource Product Target Models (shortened to ERPT and IRPT).

  • Information-as-a-Resource Ethics

Attempts to scope the ethicality of an action is based on the agent's knowledge base: moral responsibility ∝ agent's "degree of information." Floridi defines a basis for this approach as "the triple A:" Availability, Accessibility, and Accuracy. What does X know of Y.

  • Information-as-a-Product Ethics

This ethics covers "moral issues arising... in the context of accountability, liability, libel, legislation, testimony, plagiarism, advertising, propaganda, misinformation, etc." Thus the product that is targeted here is the Y produced by X.

  • Information-as-a-Target Ethics

Aiming at actions and items are related to hacking, security, vandalism, piracy, intellectual property, open source, freedom of information, expression, censorship, filtering and contents control. The situations under analysis here comes under the form X targets, or engages Y. The protections require the restriction of the information because they are the target of hacking and other security concerns.

  • Limits of External Resource Product Model

Simplistic: This model does not cover interactions among the elements, like censorship and misinformation, and treats each individual discretely.
Insufficiently Inconclusive: Surveillance society is not factored in. Our day-to-day actions are embedded in evidence that is drawn from surveillance.

Levels of Abstraction

Floridi defines Levels of Abstraction (LoA) in a more basic form than its discrete mathematics form. He interprets them as, in general, a set of interpretations on or of an object with a well defined set of values or outcomes. They can be grouped into an interface, or Gradient of Abstraction (GoA). Methods of Abstraction can be derived from levels "at specified gradients."

Methods of Abstraction

  • Typed Variables: conceptual entity with a set of allowed values
  • Observables: an interpreted typed variable (discrete if finite, analog if infinite)
  • Levels of Abstraction: a set of interpretations with a well defined set of values
  • Behavior: free variables are observable at the Level of Abstraction
  • Moderated Levels of Abstraction: A Level of Abstraction together with a behavior at that Level of Abstraction [1]

Moral Agent

Floridi defines a moral agent as "an interactive, autonomous, and adaptable transition system that can perform morally qualifiable actions." He notes that a transition system's "precise definition" is dependent upon the LoA it takes: interactive with the surroundings, autonomous with respect to the environment, and/or adaptable to the environment and various experiences. Morally qualifying simply means good or evil can result from an act (or in the words of Aristotle, the act is either noble or base).

It is this definition that permits Floridi's brand of IE to cover natural and artificial agents, including computer programs (viruses), robots, animals, etc. Everything is placed on a level playing field for judgement under this system. Humans are considered objects of information in this level.

Informational Organisms

Informational Organisms, or inforgs, act in the infosphere as biological organisms act in the natural environment. Because of inforgs and the infosphere, information ethics now acts as universally. Through the re-ontologization of our environment, information and communication technologies highlight the informational nature of human agents.[2]

Applications in the Infosphere

In "Information ethics, its Nature and Scope," Floridi asserts that the infosphere is the information environment. Any alteration or readjustment to the infosphere affects it directly; and on the other hand, any harm done within or to the infosphere itself causes a disarray in a natural system, or entropy. Namely, entropy is defined to represent the destruction or corruption of informational objects. Floridi insists that entropy, or wrong doing, should not be done in any infosphere; it should be prevented and avoided.

Floridi's definition of entropy is an integral aspect to the information environment because it substantiates information objects' rights of 'being', or the "equal rights to exist and develop in a way which is appropriate to its nature." Moreover, this right of 'being' is especially important because morally wrong behavior is the result of a deficiency in information (i.e. entropy destroys information, creating vacuums in which there exist no well-defined policies towards an ethical approach, leading to an increase in morally abject behaviors).

Fundamental Principles

From which responsibilities as moral agents can be derived, Floridi lays out four laws (starting at law 0, in classical computer science form) quoted here:

  • 0.) Entropy ought not to be caused in the infosphere (null law)
  • 1.) Entropy ought not to be prevented in the infosphere
  • 2.) Entropy ought to be removed from the infosphere
  • 3.) The flourishing of informational entities as well as of the whole infosphere ought to be promoted by preserving, cultivating and enriching their properties and interactions.

Uniqueness of Information Ethics

"Main Article: Uniqueness Debate"

Is information ethics a unique field? Its singularity has been challenged since its advent. Traditionalists argue that information ethics is just an extension of basic ethical concepts that are fitted to a new medium while proponents argue that computers and information technology bring about a whole new set of ethical dilemmas that must be resolved and, if not, we run the risk of creating policy vacuums.

Traditionalist view

The traditionalist does not support the uniqueness of computer or cyber ethics. Their main argument is that a crime is merely a crime and that there are no unique moral issues specific to the use of computers. For example theft would be considered theft whether it took place in someone’s home or through someone’s online banking.

Computer Ethics is Unique Theory (CEIU)

This theory is discussed in Herman Tavani's article The uniqueness debate in computer ethics: What exactly is at issue, and why does it matter?. This is the theory that the twists on ethical dilemmas make in the online environment are not trivial and are unique because they are in a different medium. [3]

In the CEIU thesis, in order for one to make an accurate judgment on a particular action, a person must have “adopted an understanding of what basic reality is about” [3]. and with this understanding of reality assess whether the particular action falls in congruence with said reality. These advocators argue that traditionalists don’t fully understand both the nature of computer ethics as well as the spectrum.

Cyberstalking Example

"See Also: Cyberstalking"

An ethical issue that proponents use to argue that the field of computer ethics differs from existing fields of ethics is stalking. Offline, a stalker physically tracks a person with malicious intent. Consequently, the victim can more easily become privy to the stalker's actions and report them to the authorities. Stalking in a virtual environment is a very different situation. A cyber stalker can potentially remain anonymous and has many more tools that the offline stalker, including search engines and social networks. Traditionalist argue that the use of Internet technology would be seen simply as the latest in a series of tools or techniques that have become available to stalkers to assist them in carrying out their criminal activities.[3] Advocates claim that the relative ease by which cyber stalking can occur creates a new ethical dilemma.

Ethical Issues

The philosophy of Information Ethics poses a direct challenge to other schools of Western thought that place the human being at the top of a pyramid of value. By allowing for the possibility that artificial agents may be held morally accountable for their actions, separate from the responsibilities held by their designers, Information Ethics charges the entire information environment with ethical possibilities. By positing that existence as an information object may have greater moral standing that the fact of human life, Floridi and his colleagues establish Information Ethics as a secular competitor to religious systems that place human life second only to the divine in value. Information ethics also challenges humans to do good by fostering a flourishing information environment.

Additionally, as a result of better understanding the ethics that surround evolving information technologies, we can reshape our laws and societal norms as we better understand their consequences. However, it will be a long time before we can shape our laws to the information technology because it is growing faster. Therefore, we have to learn how to act as humans to guide ourselves through understanding the new moral implications.

See Also

External Links


  1. Floridi and Sanders 2003, Conway Lecture 3a
  2. Floridi, Luciano. Floridi Ethics After 2010. Chapter 1: Ethics after the Information Revolution.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Tavani, Herman. "The uniqueness debate in computer ethics: What exactly is at issue, and why does it matter?". Ethics and Information Technology 4:37-54, 2002.

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