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« Back Workshop at WSIS Forum 2015

The Ethics of Digital Innovation: Towards a Values-driven Information Society

The World Summit on the Information Society Forum 2015 represented the world's largest annual gathering of the ‘ICT for development' community. The Forum was co-organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). It was intended to help organisations coordinate multi-stakeholder activities, information exchange, the creation of knowledge, and the sharing of best practices. organised a workshop on the 29th of May, on "The Ethics of Digital Innovation", during which fundamental questions surrounding the many social, legal and economic repercussions of new digital technologies, and what power relations are at play were raised and addressed.

With Prof. Dr Christoph Stückelberger as moderator, four panellists gave their views on some of the ethical issues that they have come across in their own fields, and where they saw the need for a great ethical understanding and awareness.

Prof. Patrick-Yves Badillo, Director of Medi@LAB-Genève, with his presentation entitled "New digital divide, or squaring the circle?" intended to delve deeper into the preconceived notions that we might have surrounding the global ‘digital divide'. Digital technologies were seen as the key solution in the 1990s, and as a key factor for growth, competiveness and greater employment. Closing the digital divide, defined as the gap between those who have and those who do not have access to computers and to the internet, was set as a millennium goal and there was euphoria around the information society programme as a way to eradicate the difference between those that have, and those that have not.

However, there has been an exponential growth in the use of the internet in the countries of the global south, and we can see from a report by the ITU that developing countries are only about 10 years behind Sweden in terms of the use of mobile phones. Conversly, there are persistent inequalities between rich and poor among countries, and within countries (even developed ones) which hinders further development. The global divide in ICT is only the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the greater issues of inequality. Estzer Hargittai has talked of a "second-level digital divide". The new digital divide is a dynamic concept, not a static one.

The second presentation was from Ms Amélie Vallotton Preisig, Professional librarian at Alliance Sud, entitled ‘Towards a value-based information society: the role of the civil society'. Ms Vallotton intended to firstly define the kinds of information that we are concerned with and who it is controlled by, and why it matters to us to know who owns and can sell information. Ms Valloton Preisig identified four major players: the corporate world, governments, researchers, and individual citizens. The need for information by the first three groups was identified as ‘interests' by Ms Valloton, such as the corporate world's interest in growth and profitability, and individuals' information being a means to those ends. Similarly with governments, there intention is to ensure security or their own power in society by means of the citizen's private information.

However, the citizen's interest in personal information is for maintaining and supporting their values of privacy, freedom, and democracy. Ms Valloton then identified various obstructions that people might face when trying to create ethical change, and ways to maintain motivation and start working towards effective action.

In the third presentation by Dr Ganesh Nathan, Professor at the Business School Lausanne (BSL), identified the serious issue of ethical considerations not being considered during the entire innovation process. Ethical consideration far too often comes only after a product or service is produced and put on the market, meaning ethical change often comes about far too late, and as a result becomes far too ineffective.

In the final presentation by Dr Stephen Brown, Programme Director Online Libraries & Digital Innovation at, emphasis was placed on the paradigm shift societies at large have gone through because technologies have become predominantly digital, increasing their widespread use. This was qualified as a ‘paradigm shift' it has a significant role in the economy, financial markets, the virtualization of some goods and services (particularly cultural goods), changes in patterns of social interaction, relationships between citizens and the state, and impacts on cultural traditions. So it is clear to see that these changes in technologies and the changes in how they are developed, largely affects society as a whole. This affects our discussion on ethics because when we are talking about "values-driven information society, we are talking as much about the organization of society as we are about the development of new digital technologies". They become deeply intertwined.

After the presentations, several interesting questions were raised. One spoke of the challenges of access for those who are disabled, in particular in aging populations. While the  International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has produced a manifesto that addresses access to the internet, little has been done elsewhere on the issue, and very few media on the internet is available to persons with disabilities. There is also the linguistic divide. He agreed with Dr Brown about technology being social. Sometimes the technologies disrupt the social structure that leaves policy makers in a difficult position that sometimes ends up with certain interests being served and not others.

For more information on the work we have been doing in information ethics, please visit our research project page.

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