A2K4 Workshop: Identifying Challenges and Opportunities for an African Information Ethics

Organized by the UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies

As our contemporary information society continues to take hold on the African continent, there is a pressing need to recognize and formalize an "African information ethics", that is, understanding and applying principles of information ethics (access to knowledge, intellectual property, information literacy, intellectual freedom, privacy) within the unique context of the African information and knowledge society.

This breakout workshop will explore the challenges and opportunities for the establishment of an African information ethics, discussing issues ranging from the incorporation of African philosophy into Western ethical frameworks, the development of information ethics curricula in African universities, and strategies for focusing attention on how the dilemmas triggered by the growing information and knowledge society within Africa impact the continent’s economic, social, and political development.

Panelists included:

Johannes Britz, School of Information Studies, UW-Milwaukee
Rafael Capurro, International Center for Information Ethics
Dennis Ocholla, University of Zululand
Moderator: Michael Zimmer, School of Information Studies, UW-Milwaukee

Michael Zimmer PhotoMichael Zimmer starts off by introducing the panelists. He is a former ISP fellow and explains that his background is in ethics and technology, focusing on privacy and several other areas that intersect with a2k.

He explains that the goal of the workshop is exploring how to integrate a2k and information ethics within the African context. Information ethics is a broad term that encompasses information privacy, access to information, and many other principles, and there are specific issues and challenges involved with applying these principles to Africa.

Unfortunately, Steven Mutula was not able to join the panel because of funding and access issues -- these issues are part of the challenges facing those who wish to examine information ethics in the African contexts.

Rafael Capurro explains that he is "on his way to becoming an African, but it takes time." His introduction is based on explaining global information ethics in general. His current research is based on an article that will be published in Ethical Space. The work started with how to get these ethical principles into some type of declaration, based on UNESCO work that began about 10 years ago. Since 2006-7, after WSIS, UNESCO began to promote the idea of a universal ethics declaration for the information society. A variety of regional meetings have been organized, and Capurro's organization planned the first African regional meeting in 2007, financed by the South African government. This meeting led to the Botswana Tshwane Declaration on Information Ethics in Africa.

This meeting followed a regional meeting in the Dominican Republic in 2006, which also led to a declaration of principles. A separate meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2008 also produced a declaration, as did a meeting in Strassburg, in Europe.

The goal, after these declarations have been produced, was to fuse them into a global declaration on information ethics. He points out that if you compare the separate declarations, there are similarities with principles enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, a deeper analysis reveals different cultural assumptions and the importance of context.

One issue is the importance of privacy. Capurro points out that the Western concept of privacy is completely different than in many Eastern countries. Likewise, behind common technologies, there are often cultural or conceptual differences. For example, the idea of indigenous knowledge, access, multilingualism, etc., may be  much more important in South American countries than in, for example, Spain. Likewise, the value of human autonomy is more pronounced in the Strassburg Declaration, while the Hanoi Declaration mentions "deviant behavior," a concept that was not developed in other declarations.

He separates the "declaration" from the legal discourse that surrounds it. The discourse is the continuous critique and criticism of the concepts -- thus, "ethics" in this context is not a synonym for morality, because that would not allow us to differentiate between the object and the reflections on the object. To show an abstract declaration is not enough, because everyone will interpret it differently. What is needed is an in-depth analysis of the concepts, for deeper reflection and discussion. Currently, his organization is working on setting up a research network in Africa and in other regions for the purpose of creating a discourse on information ethics.

Britz began teaching information ethics in South Africa in 1990. He points out that the field of "information ethics" is very new -- first used in 1983. Among his goals is to establish a research community on information ethics in Africa. Things are evolving rapidly in the field, and based on these experiences, he poses a number of problems and challenges:

1. The Palin Problem -- she referred to Africa as a country. Africa is so diverse, and it is very difficult to speak of a "unified information ethics" that applies to the whole continent.

2. The Josiah Problem -- It's not who you are, it's where you're from. If you are African, and particularly black African, you are at a disadvantage. It is more difficult to travel, given immigration requirements in most non-African countries. It can be difficult for African academics to even get to other places to talk about this idea of information ethics.

3. Brain Drain and Brain Gain -- Africans who get Ph.D.s abroad tend not to return. The diaspora is quite broad, and it is a challenge to effectively harness its power. Related to this diaspora is the second challenge: pay-as-you-go. Travel within Africa can be extremely expensive, even when the distances are not great. It is extremely expensive to arrange a conference or other gathering in many African countries. The economic dynamics make African research networks very dependent on sponsorships.

4. How to reflect on African information ethics, in general? Britz believes that religion will play a role. There is a wide variety of religious traditions and philosophical reflects. If you have a country with strong religious traditions, how do you reflect on information ethics problems that may challenge certain aspects of these traditions? It is important not to use purely European-based philosophers to reflect on these ethical issues.

5. The Writing Is on the Wall -- There is not a lot published on this topic (African information ethics) -- a few years ago, only 11 publications existed. Finding and disseminating these publications is a challenge.

6. Privacy, access, property rights, asymmetric information issues all exist, but it is a different context. In the US it is a problem of plenty; in Africa, it is a problem of poverty. This is reflected in the different understandings of similar problems, such as privacy. For example, in the indigenous world in Africa, there is very little discussion of intellectual property rights. Legislation may be transferred wholesale without adapting it to the unique problems in each country.

7. Electricity -- part of the challenge inherent in these question is how to implement connectivity without electricity. But change is coming, and Britz asks an important question: "Do we move because we see the light, or do we move because we feel the heat -- is the light the end of the tunnel, or an oncoming train?" It has to do with anticipating change. Africa will soon be swamped with new technology, but it is important to reflect properly on the ethical problems that may accompany these changes.

Dennis Ocholla begins with a story that emphasizes the speed with which things are changing in many places in Africa. He explains that his work has focused on unifying theories and work on information ethics in the African context. He conducted a study on the teaching of ethics in South African and certain other African universities. The study is available online and will soon be published in a form adapted to the US, in order to help the voices it represents reach a US audience.

Like Capurro, he highlights the difference between ethics and morals in this context. Approaches to issues including rights for women, civil rights, and general theories regarding rights and duties, vary greatly. He points out that the issues that are relevant to different groups may be distinct, based on their economic status or background. These issues all present challenges for the teaching of information ethics in Africa. His university study thus focused on case studies from universities with associated libraries in about 12 countries in Africa, to which he added his own knowledge gained through a number of years of direct teaching experience.

Some of the questions posed: Who is teaching information ethics? Why -- what are the issues? When? Where is information ethics being taught? How is it being taught? To whom is information ethics being taught? It emerged that information ethics is often taught by people with little to no background in the subject -- by people who wish to teach but alight on the subject by chance, without a deep knowledge of the topic.

What do they teach? There was a lot of overlap regarding what was taught in countries and universities across the continent. Other questions were the format of the course -- semester, year, etc. Normally, the method used to teach is lectures, although the audience varied from first-year university to much more senior students.

From this initial work, the idea is to bring people back together to further explore the issue of teaching information ethics in African universities.

Discussion and Audience Questions and Answers:

Given that this work is aimed at developing not just a descriptive but a normative framework, what is the overall goal of the academic exercise of creating a normative framework? How does this work have an impact on policy and people's lives?

Britz: Some aspects of this are descriptive -- we do want to understand what is going on. Normatively, we also want to build this new field. However, there are practical effects as well. For example, the e-government and other workshops allowed these challenges to be specifically discussed an applied. One of the main topics of the upcoming Information Society summit in South Africa will be to discuss information ethics.

Capurro: Academic endeavor is often indirectly related to practice. Similarly, in Europe and many countries, there are well-established research groups on information ethics or related topics. They publish papers, and do research at both normative and descriptive level, but may not directly affect what happens in Parliament. Other organizations may be dealing with similar problems but in a political context rather than an academic one. In all cases, translating philosophical research into work that is relevant to a specific political context may be indirect, and while academics can advise, politicians may not have time to take all the advice into account. So some committees simply give policy advice, leading back to the necessity of educating leaders.

Similarly, context matters. The discussions of privacy in Germany and Japan are very different today, in large part because of the German experiences with privacy invasions during WWII. The approach to many topics across countries is similarly varied. It is for this reason that it is so important to have a framework that allows you to understand and approach similar problems in different social, economic, historical, and cultural contexts. There is no singular "ethics."

However, he points out that even the word "ethics" is Greek, and that behind the word are 2500 years of Western thinking. It is a problem that hasn't been solved.

If the focus is developing an African ethics based on African values, how do you allow for the existence of very different standards of ethics and standards among African countries? How do you build a common set of principles?

Britz: When they planned an African summit in South Africa, they recognized that they had to invite everyone in Africa. The highest cost of the conference was translators -- this symbolizes the very different cultures, contexts, etc. in Africa. He refers back to the Palin Problem. The word Ubuntu in South Africa is not the same as the way it is used in other countries in Africa.

Ocholla: What exactly are the factors that make an African information ethics distinct? The distinction arises from culture, religion, language, colonization, and many other factors. Part of the work must be to demystify these differences.

Ubuntu is systems theory: part is a part of the whole, and the whole cannot function without the parts. This reflects differing values placed on individualism vs. communalism in different countries.

To a large extent, international norms dovetail with what worked in the US and Europe. Thus, political and civil rights are seen as more important -- human dignity and autonomy are fundamental, while economic, social and cultural rights do not have the same clout. In what ways do you think that African information ethics can inform and support recognition and policy around economic, social, and cultural rights? Finally, could international consensus be a threat to the recognition of these differing policies?

Britz: The right of access to information is very strong in South Africa, but the evolving digital context also means that the nature of the right has changed. It has become an economic and social right, and needs to be incorporated into the right to participate in social and economic activities. Similarly, the right to indigenous knowledge is a collective right -- it was blocked in Parliament because the communal, oral nature of the right was not compatible with individual nature of IP rights in other parts of the world.

Capurro: There is a relation between the ethical, legal, and scientific discourse. Ethicists are problematizing, clarifying, and suggesting possibilities -- this is an important framework for the policy discussions, even where the moral responsibility for the decision rests with Parliament or the people. It is also important to consider the difference between "regional" and "national" frameworks and views in the African context.

What does information mean here? This is a departure from the understanding of African identities originally -- there has been a disintegration of the post-colonial, nation-based conception of identity. How will this new focus on creating standards based on access to and interaction with information interact with the re-emergence of cultural and ethnic identities? Is the idea of creating common principles too homogenizing, and does it go too far toward suppressing differences not based on nationality?

Ocholla: The concept of place is important -- your perception of ethics will be very different based on whether you come from a rural or urban context, as well as your language and many other factors. Islamic information ethics will be different from Christian information ethics. Part of what we need to demystify is what ties it all together.

Britz: There is a movement toward a political unity of Africa (e.g. changing the name of the African Union to United States of Africa). But is the African information ethics unique to African problems? We are exploring these notions because no one else has -- what can African philosophers contribute to the debate?

Capurro: There is no such things as German physics, American physics. But ethics is different from the natural sciences -- it is part of philosophy and connected to different cultural, historical, and social contexts; how does that make it different? How do we tackle these differences? When you cross from science to society, it is a different arena. How do we address globality without losing diversity?

Do you have any thoughts about how to incentivize more people to go into the field of information ethics in Africa, when economic and other pressures push them into other fields? Relatedly, how do we share the results of this research, when many places may lack the basic (electrical or other) capacity? Are there any non-electricity-based supports for access to this research?

Ocholla: The issue is to use appropriate technology for Africa. New technologies may arise, and there may be new ways to access information and other services. The issue on the ground is to popularize information ethics. We want to explore the effects of these technological, e-government, and other changes in Africa.

For twitter commentary on this panel from the audience, check out http://twapperkeeper.com/a2k4/ entries for Saturday, February 13 at 19:00h to 20:30h.

Back to A2K4: Access to Knowledge and Human Rights main page