Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Information Technology

By Tim C. Mazur

The city of Cupertino, California, recently created City Net, a computer network designed as an information "bridge" linking local government, business, and residents. The network offers several services: parents can track daily homework assignments and communicate with teachers and administrators; residents can follow city council meetings and relay comments to council members; and businesses can execute transactions with the city electronically, reducing paper waste and bureaucratic delays, etc.

Yet, as fascinating as City Net may seem, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the amazing array of new information technologies on the horizon (see box on page 4). Interactive cable television, information services by telephone, a national data superhighway, electronic personal communicators — the list goes on and on, and each new development may bring with it significant social change. For example, consider how we gain access to information: instead of traditional libraries, any book will be accessible by computer; instead of traditional banking, an interactive television will allow 24-hour access to our accounts. Most everyone will benefit from technological advancements such as these, except, of course, those without access to computers or interactive televisions.

Information access requires four conditions:

  • knowing that the information or information service is available,

  • owning or having access to the equipment necessary to

  • connect to the information source (e.g., computer, television, telephone, software, modem),

  • gaining access to the information service (e.g., afford cable or online charges), and

  • knowing how to operate the necessary hardware and software (e.g., be "computer literate").

A deficiency in any one of these areas inhibits access. In other words, someone who cannot afford the right television or who never learned how to operate a computer may want, or need, information but cannot gain access to it. Persons without access represent one end of a social imbalance that increasingly is aggravated by technology: the gap between the information poor and the information rich. The growing size of this gap provokes the question: As information technologies become the primary, sometimes exclusive, means of communication in our society, what moral rights must be considered regarding access?

There are several types of rights. Legal rights, on one hand, assure certain entitlements by guarantee of law and vary according to the jurisdiction involved (e.g., international, federal, state, municipal). Moral rights, on the other hand, are entitlements based on ethical standards rather than legal standards or laws. Moral rights might include the right to physical security, to subsistence (i.e., adequate food, adequate clothing, adequate shelter), to minimal preventive health care, and to unpolluted air and water. A special type of moral right is a subsidiary moral right. Subsidiary moral rights protect the conditions necessary for the exercise of moral rights.

The right to telephone service, for example, can be considered a subsidiary moral right. Most states legally require that telephone service be subsidized for low-income households so that all citizens have access to police and fire departments, among other basic necessities. The motivation for these laws is the reasoning that, in modern society, telephone service is necessary to exercise our moral right to physical security. In this sense, when something (telephone service) is necessary to exercise a moral right (physical security), one is considered to have a subsidiary moral right to it.

Information access can sometimes be considered a subsidiary moral right. Educational services and employment information, for example, are increasingly available via new technologies. Compuserve and America Online, two information service companies, carry special job listings for their computer subscribers who pay $9.95 to $14.95 per month or more. In addition, many colleges and universities offer students classes over cable television while others can earn a M.B.A. degree from the University of Phoenix on the Prodigy computer network.

Many ethicists maintain that persons have a moral right to equal opportunity to jobs and college/university admission slots. Yet, if certain job opportunities are available only through electronic services, qualified candidates among the information poor may be shut out. If tomorrow's better classes or course registrations are conducted via cable television, the information poor may be denied a fair chance to earn a quality education. In this sense, access to information about jobs and college classes is a subsidiary moral right, because access is necessary to exercise one's moral right to equal opportunity.

Following this reasoning, if states subsidize telephone service to honor subsidiary moral rights, then they should also subsidize online services and cable television. The bottom line is: as new technologies increasingly affect society, we must acknowledge that any denial of information to which a person has a right or entitlement is immoral; and it is also immoral to place an undue burden on the exercise of a right (e.g., by making information owed a person unreasonable difficult to obtain).

Now is the time for us to analyze the moral issue of information access. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a national public-interest organization, recently concluded that a current stalemate among major corporations over who should control which information technologies has created a unique opportunity — a narrow "window of necessity" — for the public interest to be asserted, for the debate to be reframed in terms of the larger democratic and social consequences, and for the public to become centrally involved in answering key questions of public policy. The decisions we make today will greatly influence the 21st century and the roles education, work, and culture will play in it. We should design and institute a cooperative effort to promote the most equitable distribution of technology possible.

Information technology (IT) is the collective term for a wide variety of electronic communication media that increasingly will influence our lives. IT products and services that already exist or are just around the corner include:

  • FIBER OPTIC CABLE: just one of these glass-like cables can carry 60,000 pages of typewritten text per second, a figure up to 10 times the carrying capacity of current cable and over 400,000 times the capacity of telephone lines

  • WIRELESS DATA COMMUNICATIONS: more and better satellites will make it possible to run telephones, computers, and other products from any place on the globe

  • AUTOMOBILE INTERNAL NAVIGATION SYSTEMS: those satellites are being put to good use — cars are being fit with automatic systems that will detail the route a driver should follow between two points, even suggesting alternate routes in response to traffic jams

  • INFORMATION SERVICES BY TELEPHONE: new high-speed computer databases are widening the market for purchasing products from groceries to office supplies by telephone

  • ELECTRONIC PERSONAL COMMUNICATORS: ever-smaller microchips are making palmsize computers increasingly inexpensive

The U.S. government has set its sights on having just about everything, everywhere linked with everything else through a web-like, high-speed, digital communications system called the National Information Infrastructure (also known as the "national data superhighway"). The National Information Infrastructure has yet to be designed. Several interests are vying to shape its future and the future of information access, including cable television companies, newspaper publishers, telephone companies, cellular phones services, computer makers, and public-interest organizations (e.g., Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility). At the heart of the debate is whether the superhighway should be developed by the government (along the lines of the highway construction projects in the 1950s) or by private interests (e.g., toll roads).

Further Reading:

Capurroe, Rafael. "Moral Issues in Information Science." Journal of Information Science 11 (1985): 113-123.

Dunlop, Charles and Rob Kling, eds. Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices. Boston: Academic Press, 1991.

Johnson, Deborah G. Computer Ethics Engleqood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

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