[OPINION] Why it’s important to teach information ethics

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The African Centre of Excellence for information Ethics (ACEIE), housed by the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, was officially established in May 2012.

Its purpose is to formally reflect on the activities relating to, and history of information ethics in Africa. But one of the main objectives of ACEIE was to develop a curriculum for teaching information ethics in Africa.

The rollout of broadband in South Africa and Africa made information more readily available.

There are three SEACOM cables touching down on South Africa – two on the east coast, one on the west coast. They’re to facilitate the expansion of broadband capacity on the continent and to put an end to internet connectivity issues.

But what we’re experiencing in South Africa (as well as in other developing countries) is the “last mile roll-out”. So the infrastructure is there internationally, but now the challenge is about getting this infrastructure into rural areas.

Information ethics is important because you’re essentially dealing with technologies that not all people know (or understand) how to handle. In fact, it was found that students were not properly introduced to information ethics and did not fully understand the concept and purpose as well as the practice of this discipline.

The information life cycle

Information ethics is not just about working with IT and the ethical sphere that surrounds it, it’s what we broadly refer to as the information life cycle at ACEIE.

How do we collect, compile, structure and distribute information to the people that are making use of these technologies? And in the end, how do we make the information available? Do we print everything using an abandunce of paper, or should it go online. And if we choose online, is the information something you have to pay for, or do you use Creative Commons and Open Access? And what about e-waste?

Information ethics tries to understand and address all of these issues and more.

When people hear the term “information ethics” along with ICT, they presume it’s only IT-related. So you need a backing in computer science before you can deal with the subject matter fully. The other opinion connotes ethics, philosophy… a complex discipline many don’t understand or see as making a real difference.

But what we seek to do is make the concept real, because information ethics is something we deal with every single day.

Today, everyone has a cellphone. In fact, the average entry age is 11-years old. And a phone (for the most part) means access to the internet. What we’re doing is creating awareness. It’s like driving a car – you need to learn to use the breaks, obey the rules of the road. And with the internet too, rules have to be set in place.

The law is always the last to catch up. As technology and accessibility changes, we’re exposed to so much more and only then legislation comes in place to sensor child pornography, as one example, and adjust the formal publications act or protection of personal information act. But this takes time, and up until the point when the law is passed, when it is black and white, your ethical regulations have to come into play. It’s a bridge to try and keep people safe and aware.

The technology is here to stay and while there truly are incredible things happening (such as Tshwane’s Free Wifi roll-out, Project Isizwe) and it is great to have all this access, you’re not going to be able to stop people using it because there are some dangerous elements. Technology enabling. It’s new. But we cannot foresee everything that might come to the fore which is why it’s important to handle this information and ICT in an ethical manner. This is information ethics.


Coetzee Bester is the head of the African Centre of Excellence for information Ethics. This opinion piece is part of a special series focusing on IT in Education, brought to you in association with Intel. See the complete collection (so far) by clicking here.



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