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Ethics & Human Rights in the Information Society

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Fri, 2007-09-21 13:57.

Global Partners Report on UNESCO and Council of Europe Conference

Ethics and Human Rights in the Information Society,
Strasbourg 13-14 September 2007

This conference was the third in a series of regional consultations by UNESCO exploring the ethical dimensions of the information society. Previous consultations have taken place in Latin America and Africa, with a fourth consultation planned for Asia in January 2008. These consultations are part of UNESCO’s obligations to facilitate the fulfilment of Action Line C10 of the WSIS Geneva Action Plan:

Action Line C10. Ethical dimensions of the Information Society
The Information Society should be subject to universally held values and promote the common good and to prevent abusive uses of ICTs.
a. Take steps to promote respect for peace and to uphold the fundamental values of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, shared responsibility, and respect for nature.
b. All stakeholders should increase their awareness of the ethical dimension of their use of ICTs.
c. All actors in the Information Society should promote the common good, protect privacy and personal data and take appropriate actions and preventive measures, as determined by law, against abusive uses of ICTs such as illegal and other acts motivated by racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, hatred, violence, all forms of child abuse, including paedophilia and child pornography, and trafficking in, and exploitation of, human beings.
d. Invite relevant stakeholders, especially the academia, to continue research on ethical dimensions of ICTs.

The conference brought together stakeholders from various sectors including governments, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, corporations and academia. Discussions were based around 4 thematic panels:

A major theme throughout the conference was the relationship between ethics and formal human rights instruments in the information society. There was general agreement that ethics are not only an outcome of formal human rights standards, but are also a manifestation of how human rights standards play out in everyday life, guiding what they mean and how they apply to specific cases and scenarios. Ethics thus flesh out and inform human rights.

Most participants at the conference shared the view that there is no need to define new rights for the internet as existing international human rights standards are adequate and applicable in the information society. However, there is not yet common agreement about how the internet has affected the ethics that are associated with human rights or, in other words, how these formal human rights standards play out and apply in online situations. The question of how to bridge the gap between high level human rights principles and everyday online life has yet to be addressed adequately, resulting in ‘jungle law’ on the internet.

To address this issue, UNESCO is currently working to produce a Code of Ethics for the Information Society to be signed by member states. A draft has been produced and will be discussed further in next general meeting of member states. The aim of the code is to translate general values into concrete guidelines for hard and soft-law/self-regulation on the internet.

Some participants at the meeting were keen to stress that universal values will be hard to develop. International human rights standards form a good base, but differences in how they are interpreted exist across the world. For example, ‘privacy’ in the UK means a different thing to ‘privacy’ in China. One panellist stressed that such differences are rooted in different conceptions of what constitutes ‘good’ between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Whilst the good of the community forms the basis of society in the East, individual freedom is prioritised in Western thinking. Intercultural dialogue and understanding is required to find a middle ground for the creation of intercultural values or ethics. However, a former judge from the European Court of Human Rights stressed that, whilst different interpretations of human rights exist across the world, people everywhere believe in the fundamental principle of human dignity which forms the basis of international human rights standards. It is important to build on this shared principle rather than attempting to loosen up current standards which could only lead to a slippery slope away from human rights standards.

Recognition of the importance of multi-stakeholder, bottom-up processes to build common values and ethics in the information society was also shared by participants. As stakeholders will be relied upon to maintain ethical standards online, they need to be fully involved in the definition of these standards. The question of what role different actors should have in defining and maintaining ethical standards was posed, with particular emphasis placed on the private sector. For example, building ethics into technology itself through value-sensitive design is just one important role for private companies. Private sector stakeholders hadn’t responded well to invitations to attend the conference, with the exception of Google who committed to moving forward on setting standards for privacy in the internet environment. Google stressed that general codes of ethics like that proposed by UNESCO are not likely to be very useful to the private sector which requires more focussed, issue-specific guidelines. Government and civil society stakeholders should also recognise that the private sector will want to move forward more quickly and decisively than current inter-governmental processes of policy deliberation allow. However, the threat of replacing current ‘soft-law’ and self-regulation with more restrictive, top-down legislation should act as an incentive for the private sector to take ethical dimensions of their work more seriously and engage more actively with multi-stakeholder policy processes .

The conference did not reach concrete conclusions or policy recommendations, and there was a sense that the discussions were part of an ongoing effort by UNESCO to define and develop ethics in the internet society. One important conclusion that did emerge was that there is a need to map out the various existing international agreements and instruments that are relevant to ethics and human rights online. These include the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity, the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime and the International Bill of Human Rights. Although further work needs to be done on defining how they apply to specific issues in the internet environment, these conventions and agreements could form the basis of a value system for the internet. Lessons learnt and approaches taken during the formulation and passing of the Council of Europe Convention on Bioethics could be applied to efforts to develop a code of ethics for the internet.

Click here to read European Digital Right's (EDRI's) report on the conference.

Click here to read a statement from the Internet Society concerning the need for an information society code of ethics based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the overarching principle of "the internet is for everyone".