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World-Wide CHI: Future Ethics

John Karat and Clare-Marie Karat

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From time to time it can be useful to step back from our activities and ask broader questions -- that is some of what we try to do when we "look into the future" as we do in this issue of the Bulletin. Rather than asking how technology might contribute to world-wide interactions by envisioning future technology, we thought it might be interesting to ask how consideration of professional ethics might impact our future.

Jack Rosenfeld, editor of the IFIP Newsletter, prepared the following item for the September issue of that publication. We include parts of the article here as information about what the international information processing community thinks are important ethical considerations in the development of technology. These are issues that should be of particular interest to the human-computer interaction community, since this community has long been interested in much more than just user interface issues.

IFIP Publishes Book on Ethics of Computing from an International Perspective

Jack Rosenfeld

On 1 May, IFIP published Ethics of Computing; Codes, Spaces for Discussion and Law, edited by Profs. Jacques Berleur and Klaus Brunnstein. The book, published by Chapman & Hall, views ethics from an international perspective. This represents the latest step in a project begun in 1988, when Prof. Harold Sackman, then chairman of the IFIP Technical Committee on Relationship between Computers and Society (TC9), undertook to create an IFIP code of ethics. The work was later assumed by a task group of TC9 chaired by Prof. Berleur, culminating in the publication of this book. Prof. Brunnstein was chairman of TC9 during most of the period during which the task group worked.

The publisher as describe the book as follows:

Ethics of Computing represents the first attempt to confront, on a world-wide basis, the way computer associations face up to their social responsibilities in an age increasingly dominated by information and communication technology.

This major reference work deals with codes of ethics and conduct, and related issues. Some 30 codes of national computer societies are compared and analysed in depth. To put these into perspective, there are discussion papers covering methodological, philosophical, and organizational issues.

Major chapters of the book include:

  • Codes of ethics, or of conduct, within IFIP and other computer societies by Jacques Berleur and Marie d'Udekem-Gevers
  • Codes of ethics: discussion paper by Jan Holvast
  • Why a discussion on ethical issues in software engineering is overdue by Klaus Brunnstein
  • A brief history of professionalism and its relevance to IFIP by Richard Sizer
  • Policies of acceptable use at educational and research institutions by John W. Corliss
  • Integrating social, ethical and equity issues of informatics into secondary education by Tom J. van Weert
  • Ethics and systems design: the politics of social responsibility by Andrew Clement and Ina Wagner

Approximately 40% of the book comprises the text (in English) of codes of ethics and conduct of 30 computer societies, and commentary on the major codes. In addition, the chapter by Berleur and d'Udekem-Gevers presents an analysis of the codes and guidelines, in terms of topics covered, wording, groups involved (e.g., employers, employees, students), sanctions, and many other areas. An appendix provides means of locating topics in the various codes. The book also contains an extensive bibliography, in addition to the bibliographies of the individual chapters.

In his chapter, Dr. Holvast discussed general aspects of ethics. He introduced it as follows:

"At long intervals, the same question is raised: Are we (technicians, scientists, and users of technology) responsible for the problems that are caused by the introduction of technology? The answers given are not uniform, but the fact that the question is raised shows that we are beginning to realize that our technology is capable of not only constructing the world but destroying it as well. And we are becoming conscious of this destruction through the confrontation with questions dealing with environmental pollution, nuclear power, and, more recently, questions surrounding genetic engineering, such as DNA recombination and the use of test-tube fertilization on older women.

At this moment, this question is not only raised, but an answer is also expected. Very often, ethics are looked at with the full expectation of containing the answers. Through this, it is expected that norms in science, and solutions, be formulated as ethical codes. The same types of problems and questions are raised in relation to information technology. In this field, too, the demand for codes is increasing."

His chapter goes more deeply into detail on ethical norms and the possible solutions, such as ethical codes and codes of conduct, but specifically into the responsibilities that should be accepted in reference to a broad range of topics.

With regard to an IFIP code of ethics, Dr. Holvast commented as follows:

"For an international organization like IFIP, formulating a code acceptable for all Members will be an impossible task. There is clearly a certain ethical relativist thinking behind the following comment: It is impossible to formulate an ethical code for once and for all. Cultural and, especially, political differences make this impossible. Although I agree in some sense with this type of criticism, ethical relativist thinking is, in my opinion, strongly related to one of the ethical theories, consequentialism. The way in which the results (in this case, information technology) are seen depends on the cultural and political situation in various countries. In this sense, there are differences between developed and developing countries, between East and West, between democratic and less democratic societies -- all of them possible Members of IFIP. This situation is even more problematic when one considers that Members of IFIP are not individuals but primarily national scientific or technical societies.

This does not mean that IFIP should do nothing. It only means that it is impossible for the 1990 Draft IFIP Code of Ethics to be accepted. IFIP needs general principles that will be accepted by all national societies. In my view, these principles must consist of deontological (i.e., related to the theory of moral obligation) statements. One of the statements might be the suggestion that every national society produce a national Code of Ethics, taking into account what has already been discussed by many national constituencies."

Much of the discussion in the book concerns professionalism. In his chapter, Prof. Brunnstein cited a number of fatal or otherwise serious incidents attributed to improper system design (aircraft crashes, autopilot malfunctions, radiation overdoses, accidental shooting of civilian aircraft, breeches of computer security). Richard Sizer also concentrated on professional standards.

In concluding their comparative analysis of codes, Berleur and d'Udekem-Gevers wrote the following:

"Codes do not pretend to solve all questions, but they may help to create awareness, supplement the law, and reinforce ethical behaviour. When the role of self-regulation increases, the roles of ethics, law, and codes have to be more carefully scrutinized, but they may lean on each other. Codes offer a framework on ethics that may help to maintain openness and fuel the needed dialogue in the spaces of discussion."

The book closes with a section of IFIP recommendations. These include:

What Can IFIP Do?

IFIP does not intend to provide its Member societies with precise guidelines for codes, but to advise them to consider the recommendations outlined below when writing or updating their own codes. IFIP cannot actually state what "ethics" the Member societies should espouse. It can, however, outline certain principles that all might want to consider and take account of in their codes.

In this book, IFIP provides all the material needed for its Member societies to consider: some 30 computer societies' codes, their analysis, comments on the most important codes, the philosophical background of cultural diversity, and papers on some more sensitive questions.

In accordance with the diversity of histories, cultures, and social and political backgrounds of IFIP Member societies, IFIP regards it as essential that, when wanted or needed, codes of ethics or of conduct (or guidelines) should always be developed and adopted within the Member societies themselves. IFIP offers its expertise in assisting such developments, collecting and disseminating material-about established codes, and organizing international debates on further developments.

The analysis of the subject presented in this book shows that we have to be aware of the distinction between "codes of ethics" and "codes of conduct." The codes studied show a large heterogeneity in their titles and no systematic relationship between the titles and the contents. A code of ethics might be favoured when a society's main purpose is to develop a mission statement, giving visions and objectives. Some commentators consider that the expression, "code of ethics" is related to codes that are oriented more toward the public or society as a whole. The expression "code of conduct" seems to be related more to a profession. This distinction has to be treated with care.

Today, certain people who have been working for a long time on this issue think that "the rules of conduct have to reach beyond the well-structured body of computer scientists to the larger circle of computer users. We must shift from a deontology of informaticians to an objective deontology of informatics under the control of the law." From this perspective, codes are seen more as preparing for the law or specifying it than as self-regulatory instruments, and are written to address a large audience.

Main Topics of the Codes

Five main topics are developed in nearly all of the thirty codes:


This includes respect for the interests or rights of the people involved, for the prestige of the profession, for the interests or rights of the public, for the welfare and health of the public, and for the quality of life. Sometimes it also includes respect for the reputation of the computer society, for the quality of life of the people involved, for the public in general, for the environment, and for the differences of the public.

Personal (or Institutional) Qualities

These include conscientiousness, honesty, positive attitude, competence, and efficiency. In practice, the terms conscientiousness and honesty are frequently encountered under the expressions acceptance of responsibility and integrity. Moreover, appeals to respect for requirements or contracts or agreements and to conscientious work are also frequent. Other topics relating to conscientiousness and honesty are professionalism, credit for work done by others, good faith or goodwill, concern to meet overall objectives, and the courage of one's convictions.

With regard to competence and efficiency, two other terms are very common: professional development and training or limitation of work to the field of competence. Two others are also worth noting: general competence and effectiveness or work quality.

Information Privacy and Data Integrity

Confidentiality is required by nearly all the general codes of the IFIP societies. Privacy in general and respect for property rights are appealed to quite often. Four other topics, no computer crime, no information piracy or misuse, data integrity, and data minimization are less frequent.

Production and Flow of Information

Flow of information to involved parties or people is required by the majority of the codes. Information to the public is also insisted upon. Half the set of codes call for comprehensive information. Several codes also ask for the production of tests, evaluations, results, or specifications or for the flow of information from the involved parties or people.

It should be noted that information privacy and free flow of information may become contradictory. Between the two concepts, some balance has to be found.

Attitude towards Regulations

Regulations do not appear as a major theme. Less than half the codes require respect for the code, respect for the law, and respect for IT and professional standards. Few codes refer to development of standards, of the law, or of the code itself; some consider sanctions against a breach of the code. Regulation of the code itself is often taken into account outside the code, and is therefore considered in the section on procedures.

Computer-Specific Ethical Issues

Computer-specific ethical issues arise as the result of the roles of computers such as:

  • repositories and processors of information: Unauthorized use of otherwise-unused computer services or of information stored in computers raises questions of appropriateness and fairness.
  • producers of new forms and types of assets: For example, computer programs are entirely new types of assets, possibility not subject to the same concepts of ownership as other assets.
  • instruments: To what degree must computer services and users of computers, data, and programs be responsible for the integrity and appropriateness of computer output?
  • symbols of intimidation and deception: The images of computers as thinking machines, absolute, infallible truth producers, and replacements of humans who err should be carefully considered.

Other computer-specific ethical issues include:

  • computer crime and security problems
  • computer theft and piracy, and intellectual property rights
  • hacking and viruses
  • lack of reliability of information systems and quality problems
  • data storage and privacy
  • artificial intelligence and expert systems
  • computerization of the workplace.

The reader of the individual codes will observe that a very small amount of text is devoted to these computer-specific issues (CSIs). For example, the code of ethics and professional conduct of an association of information-service-industry companies makes only one reference to a CSI, as follows: "Member companies should strictly abide by the law and any contracts entered into regarding intellectual property rights." Note that this item only cautions the members to obey the law. Some topics do not appear in the codes at all, e.g., computer viruses and the use of computers to disseminate socially undesirable information. Most of the concerns of the 30 codes would be expected to be addressed in the codes of any profession: respect, conscientiousness, honesty, etc. Even some CSIs are treated in a manner that might well be appropriate to other professions. For example, one code discusses confidentiality as follows: "The information scientist should treat data, obtained within the framework of the assignment, confidentially and may only use these for the purpose for which they were given. ... It is ethically irresponsible towards people and institutions to use these data for other purposes than they were supplied for, or to treat them carelessly so that a third party could use or abuse these data." The same statement would be appropriate for codes of ethics of physicians, lawyers, or bankers, for example. Significant treatment of CSIs is difficult to find anywhere in the codes.

Broader Ethical Issues

When speaking of computer ethical issues, one cannot avoid mentioning some broader-scope issues that are real questions today and are most often examined in the literature on computers and society. These issues include:

  • the unequal distribution of information ("information rich/poor," the "haves" and "have-nots")
  • the unequal access to the technology, including networks
  • the participation in decisions that affect our lives at home and work
  • the way computer technology reinforces predominant power
  • the quasi-total lack of control on the networks
  • the denial or restriction of access to groups and individuals who do not have the resources to participate in an increasingly market-dominated system
  • the poor cultural diversity that today pervades the information, media, and communication systems
  • the necessity of promoting culturally sensitive and multicultural issues and involving cultural minorities in the design of socially-significant information and communication systems.

Spaces for Discussion

One of the main tasks for IFIP will be to create "spaces for discussion." In this arena, IFIP hopes to collect, compare, and help disseminate knowledge on developments in the national societies. In the case of controversies, it will also advise on the resolution of problems in projects with professionals from countries that have very different codes. IFIP hopes that its national societies will issue codes or guidelines along the lines suggested here, including a careful and flexible attitude to changing technologies.

In the foreword to the book, Profs. Berleur and Brunnstein wrote:

"IFIP has opened "space for discussion," creating a Special Interest Group (SIG9.2.2 on Framework on Ethics), which will, in particular, analyze issues and conflicts that may arise in the cooperation between IFIP Member societies with different codes of ethics. It aims at improving understanding and formulating ethical issues. But it will also increase international cooperation which, in specific questions such as personal liberties and privacy or in the domain of security, has proven valuable in providing general guidelines now enacted into law in many countries.

SIG9.2.2 has assembled a list of contact persons from IFIP Member societies and other organizations, in order to fulfil its mandate. Others who wish to participate are encouraged to contact the chairman:

Prof. Jacques Berleur,
Institut d'Informatique, FUNDP
Rue Grandgagnage, 21
5000 Namur, Belgium

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