A Report on Working Groups' Discussions at the International Symposium
"Localizing the Internet. Ethical Issues in Intercultural Perspective"

Rafael Capurro & Rupert M. Scheule


The proceedings of the ICIE Symposium were published in the International Review of Information Ethics (IRIE). This report was published in: Rafael Capurro, Johannes Frühbauer, Thomas Hausmanninger (eds.): Localizing the Internet. Ethical Aspects in Intercultural Perspective. ICIE Series 4, Munich: Fink 2007, 324-332. 

localizing the internet

The Promising Field of Intercultural Information Ethics. Rafael Capurro, Johannes Frühbauer, Thomas Hausmanninger (Eds.): Localizing the Internet. Ethical Aspects in Intercultural Perspective.  München: Fink  2007, 9-18.
Intercultural Information Ethics. Rafael Capurro, Johannes Frühbauer, Thomas Hausmanninger (Eds.): Localizing the Internet. Ethical Aspects in Intercultural Perspective.  München: Fink  2007, 21-38.

Since Plato, we know that Symposia don’t necessarily have to be wild carousals; even without the help of alcohol philosophy can be investigated in an entertaining manner. Symposia in quite this sense were the working groups of the international meeting “Localizing the Internet. Ethical Issues in Intercultural Perspective” which took place in Karlsruhe/Germany between 4th and 6th of October 2004. With these ‚symposia in the symposium’ water and fruit were distributed while we talked about the great ethical questions the Internet raises in an intercultural context. The results of these discussions were so significant that we summed them up in the following article.

Each group focused on one of the topics listed below:

  1. Basic Issues of Information Ethics (Chair: Herman T. Tavani, Bernd Frohmann,  Thomas Froehlich). Chair in Plenum: Charles Ess.
  2. Internet for Social and Political Development (Chairs: Frances S. Grodzinsky, Vikas Nath, Richard A. Spinello). Chair in Plenum: Thomas Froehlich.
  3. Internet for Cultural Development (Chairs: Frances S. Grodzinsky, Elizabeth Buchanan, Toni Samek). Chair in Plenum: Thomas Froehlich.
  4. Internet for Economic Development (Chairs: Paul Sturges, Wolfgang Coy, Daniel Pimienta). Chair in Plenum: Lucas D. Introna.

About two weeks before the meeting took place the impulse statements were offered on a special website, so that every participant of the symposion was able to note them. So the statements only had to be briefly presented in the working groups and there was more time to discuss them intensively. There was a chair and a raporteur coordinating the discussion. The reports were presented in the plenum chaired by a nominated participant.


TOPIC 1 : Basic Issues of Information Ethics.

WG 1 (Chair: Herman T. Tavani, USA; Raporteur: Charles Ess, USA): First the group made sure that the understanding of ‚information ethics’ is not to confused with either computer ethics or media ethics.

Some definitions of information ethics are oriented towards objects, and others towards persons. The object ‚media’ is quite ambiguous. Likewise, medical ethics is more than just the problem of doctors, or media ethics are more than just the problems of journalists. Computer ethics was established in the US 1960s. In the case of information ethics, we don’t deal with information as an object (contrary to Luciano Floridi’s conception) but with a process of information, which means the way we use information. Finally, the group couldn’t find a catch-all phrase that fits.

Globalization shows even more difficulties for the problem of interculturality: culture includes certain ways of settling ethical issues – and different cultures use different ways; for example, the case of the EU Data Privacy Protection guidelines contrasting the guidelines of the US.

Yao-huai Lü (PR China) referred in his paper to cultural differences and aspects in common which have to be harmonized by confuzian tradition. Following Levinas – culture can become a very violent category; it can stereotype and short-cut one’s responsibility to get to know an individual per se.

Makoto Nakada (Japan) remarked, that the Western attitude toward privacy could hardly be used for weblogs in Japan. The concept of privacy here just becomes meaningful after the information has been shared with others.

Whereas in Germany the discussion about culture and Kulturwissenschaft” has a tradition rooted in the 19th century (W. Dilthey) and a philosophical climax in the Davos discussion between Cassirer and Heidegger (1923). The question arises as to which basis a future cultural science’ can be applied to the Internet.

Today, we see the discussion being influenced by biology (genetics), on the one hand, and cultural studies on the other. In the (South) African context, modern IT is just adapted selectively. Portable phones, for example, are widespread.

Japan and China use the system of SMS, because it makes it easier to send long messages with few characters.

In African every-day-life, the digitatization of the economy mainly helps the rich. Middle- and lower-class individuals prefer cash (because they don’t have credit cards), but banks are now charging a 10% fee for depositing cash in an account, in an effort to force the digital economy. Once again, it is the poorest who are hit the hardest.

There are also cultural differences between the US and Europe concerning the question of informed consent. In US libraries, for example, information about the books library patrons check out is made available to the FBI unless individuals opt out explicitely.

But also the relation between reality and information, as well as the ways of verifying information, turn out to be influenced by the differences affecting culture. Credibility also varies from culture to culture.

WG 2 (Chair: Bernd Frohmann, Canada; Raporteur: Robert Becket, UK)
: The group first dealt with the statement of Fernando Elichirigoity (USA) which follows Michel Foucault’s theory ‚technologies of power.’ In this context the question arose about how investment information tools and search engines should be judged, specially in terms of their facilitation of time  compression and the linking of personal biological time and long term financial investments.

In discussion Robert Beckett (UK) referred to the relation between biological and technological time as well as Habermas’ terms of “system rationality” and “Lebens­welt”. Kenneth Himma (USA) was of the opinion that this time regime made by technology changes consciousness although technological development is not the main reason for social changes. Technology for him seems to produce a problem of social justice because a time regime made by technology can be used against the interests of human beings.

On the contrary Anja Ebersbach (Germany) pointed out that there are many examples of ‚benevolent’ technology, for instance But is this enough to establish the internet as a space of freedom?

The concept of freedom is again dependable on each country or culture and so realized in a huge variety of laws, as stated by Bernd Frohmann (Canada).

After this discussion Jessica Heesen (Germany) explained her views on “Totalität als Problem der Öffentlichkeit” (“Totality as a Problem of Public Space”). Following Reinhart Koselleck souvereignity is disguised by a technologically produced public. Do we need ICT-free spaces in order to oppose technological colonisation? This finally leads to the very basic question of the relation between human being and information technology.


WG 3 (Chair: Thomas J. Froehlich, USA; Raporteur: Toni Samek, Canada): First and foremost the group was involved in the following questions: Have ethics of duty overwhelmed ethics of care (Carol Gilligan)? Is justice different in different cultures? Which ethical principles fight on the Internet? Carol Gilligan’s feministic theory focuses on a local or contextual transparency and inspired the group to discuss the problem of transparency. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that all humans have certain cares in common: food, housing, clothes etc.

Different human cultures have developed different concepts of the self and of justice. Obviously there is a strong link between morality and culture. So net ethics’ can’t just be about equal net access’, as long as intercultural moral bases are in dispute. However can there be intercultural understanding at all?

The group discussed the tension between local cultures and their rules of conduct on the one hand and the universalizing potential of the Internet culture on the other. It was stated that this tension can’t be resolved, although global and local spheres overlap on the Net. Or should one rather talk about several Internets’, because many groups and societies are excluded from certain Net areas because of cultural, economical, political and lingual reasons?

During the discussion, a model for Net Culture was developed and improved upon again and again in the following meetings. This model applies local influences to moral values such as ‚empowerment’, ‚balance’, ‚preserving diversity’, ‚information ecology’, ‚harmony’, ‚trust’, ‚development’. These again influence the ‚facilitator’ and the user of the Net. By this a ‚culture of the Net’ is being established which regulates the ‚conduct’ concerning respect, tolerance, flexibility and balance.


TOPIC 2 : Internet for Social and Political Development.


WG 1 (Chair: Frances S. Grodzinsky, USA; Raporteur: Charles Ess, USA): At first we focused on the summaries of two papers: Grodzinsky’s and Tavani’s „The Internet and Community Building at the Local and Global Levels: Some Implications and Challenges“ and Introna’s “Presence and Absence: On the social and ethical conditions of virtual communities”.

Grodzinsky and Tavani examined how the definition of community has changed with the advent of electronic communities.  The dictionary definition of community (people living in the same district under the same laws) reflects the physical constraints of geography. Electronic communities do not fit geographical constraints – but have decided to live under the same parameters.

This was the case with the first electronic communities based on values like commitment and trust (Howard Rheingold). On one hand these cross-national communities offered social exchange, emotional support, etc. dispelling feelings of isolation but, on the other, they also enabled people to congregate on-line around negative values as manifested by hate web sites. In both cases, they reduced the need for face-to-face communication. In the long run these e-communities could have implications for democracy, and information justice. Following Gordon Graham the Internet may unwittingly bring out the worst aspects of democracy, e.g., social fragmentation, polarization. Filtering allows people to hear what they want to hear. The Internet may confirm their prejudices. Those who have power have the ability to advance their positions. Grodzinsky and Tavani examine the digital divide on both the local and global levels.  They also address the question of whether a universal service plan would help bridge these divides. Lucas Introna started with the question ‚What is community?’ and stated following Heidegger that community has to be understood in the sense of coexistence, which is carried by common concern. A community shares a common world, which means that it constructs its own identity. The negative aspect of this is that it is getting more and more difficult for outsiders to join. In this context Introna referred to Emmanuel Lévinas. For Lévinas contact with the other especially with his/her face’ is the most important ethical aspect. But ethics assume the consistence of all the others, too. Together with my responsibility for them, which is called justice’ for Lévinas virtual communities have the possibility to organize themselves around a common concern; and  at the same time separate from all the others. That means that intercultural communities can be very powerful in the question of those cultural limits. In other words, virtuality enables with the help of Levinas’ terminology ethics as well as justice. The question remains whether there is an ethical face to face shock (Lévinas) thinkable in the medium of interface. It might also be the case that virtual communities blur the borders between community and society. The Internet seems to answer a need for community that society doesn’t feed (anymore). Again proximity with Lévinas should not be understood literally. The face of the other also stands for those absent. What connects us is not the physical proximity in the first place but it’s the common concern. So the group talked about Hegel’s term of “Sittlichkeit” and Charles Taylors interpretation as “solidarity”. The question arose of how far traditional terms like community and society can be used in this medium at all. The term group’ seems very often to be much more appropriate. The borders between group/community will be less clear cut in the future.

WG 2 (Chair: Vikas Nath, India/Switzerland; Raporteur: Robert Beckett, UK): Elementary questions of the Internet as discussed in this symposium mainly concern the balance between economical development and cultural identity.  At the same time community building on the Net doesn’t only cling to economic values. Toni Carbo interprets Enzensberger in the way that there are a series of key question about Internet and cultural development:

1) Reliability between people and government, 2) improvement of democracy through the Internet, 3) improved health care with the help of local information based on the Internet, 4) establishment of common interests.

It was stated that the local balancing of globalization might also be useful for human local cultures. Not everything local is superior. Local cultures could also be put under pressure and be destroyed by the Internet. The question remains when a group starts to use the Internet in a destructive way. The source for this problem is cultural difference, that can’t be clearly defined.

Gustavo Navarro (Argentina) reported of a network among 100 universities and NGOs trying to develop an alternative to Microsoft and its very expensive products. They experimented with Internet radio and local wireless networks. Wolfgang Hofkirchner (Austria) sides with the subversive power of local traditions infiltrating globalisation. According to Britta Schinzel (Germany) formal language is mostly global, informal languages are local. The consequences are cultural problems with certain communities trying to learn formal languages (e.g. Namibia).

Elizabeth Buchanan (USA) said the Internet might be used to protect local knowledge from foreign standards. Following Tadashi Takenouchi (Japan) the English language rules the Internet, which is a huge obstacle for Japanese trying to enter the Internet community. This is an intercultural question as well as an ethical one.

WG 3 (Chair: Richard A. Spinello, USA, Raporteur: Toni Samek, Canada): The group asked whether the Internet is of any help for local communities in their economical and political life. On the Croatian Islands the Internet is a part of positive social changes for example in schools but it is very expensive. This is one reason why many people still leave the Islands (Tatjana Aparac, Croatia).

Technology is no enabler’ in any aspect. Democratic institutions have to be established first, where for example intellectual freedom can be realized for every Internet or library user. So is the Internet overestimated in regards to democratic development? The group also discussed the recent problems of the Bush administration in the US as well as the actions of IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations). Furthermore it was talked about the various forms of Internet communities and their possible political potentials ranging between the two extremes isolation and activism.

TOPIC 3: Internet for Cultural Development.


WG 1 (Chair: Frances S. Grodzinsky, USA; Raporteur: Charles Ess, USA): The group listened to the summaries of two papers: Philip Scherenberg’s (Germany) „Contribution to Information Ethics from an Antique Point of View”) and Peter Fleissner’s  (Austria) „Can Religious Belief Systems Influence Technological and Social Innovation?”

Philip Scherenberg’s leading question was how the current information ethic discussion can be acknowledged from Plato’s and Aristotle’s point of view. The term poiesis can be used for media like television and radio, because it refers to mimesis-like use. In Plato’s eyes there is a danger of poetry deverting human mind from truth. The only ethic value of the media consists in their promotion of the state. For Aristotle mimesis can only then become katharsis, which means purification of the feelings if the viewer realizes mimesis as such. He has to be able to see the difference between reality and virtuality. Both Plato and Aristotle think poetry touches the human soul. This leads us to the question whether perception of the media is passive or active.

Peter Fleissner asked why the Internet and other technological innovation had spread so quickly. Econonmic approach (utility, demand, costs) alone can’t give an answer here. Are there any cultural or even specific Christian reasons for this? Can the theology of God’s qualities be recognized in the Internet? The Internet with its broad structure might aim after God’ s omniscience and omnipotence.

Then the group discussed in how far Scherenberg’s question for activity and passiveness of perception could be transferred to modern media. We always seem to be active and anticipating in a certain sense. A British study illustrates that even children are able to see the difference between play and real life in the media. Medial perception is mimetic, too.


WG 2 (Chair/Raporteur: Elizabeth Buchanan, USA): The group worked on all three perspectives: the cultural, social and political, because they can’t – in theory nor in practice – be distinguished. There is always a tension between the local and the global, the modern and the postmodern or, even more basic, the general and the specific. A first try to differentiate these perspectives led to the question whether there is a conflict between economic development and cultural identity. Does it make any sense at all to compare different cultures and is there something like an ethics of world construction? If this is the case, which role does the Internet play then? In light of the Internet, building of community can be positive as well as negative. There is a high potential for breaking up communities into fragments. The group sees it as reality that with the help of the Internet a cultural standardization has taken place. But there is also the possibility to use the Internet to protect local communities. The Internet may have a democratic effect because of the greater transparency of information dissemination. One participant even thought the Internet might accelerate intercourse of different cultures. We would recognize differences and so negotiate values which might avoid cultural colonialism. But what if local traditions are inhuman? Is the willingness or desire to change them morally right or wrong? From the beginning of the ascent of computer culture itself this problem exists because computer culture has always been said to be ‚male’ and ‚western’.

There are alternative perspectives in feministic ethics and with the guidelines of Association of Internet Research (AoIR). Still no resolution could be found to the question whether a peaceful revolution on the basis of information technology is possible.


WG 3 (Chair/Raporteur: Toni Samek, Canada): The group continued the discussion of the 4th of October and referred to different threats or problems in development of the Internet (‚ideological agendas’, ‚propaganda’, ‚gaps’). ‚Knowledge sharing’ is a decisive aspect in the current discussion and relates to ‚empowerment’. The Net is not static, but is influenced by social and political incidents, for example with the standardizing and control after 9/11. Furthermore through a so called ‚Informationsökologie’ (‚information ecology’), our relation to information should be regulated and measured out. Nonetheless the will of human beings to survive and their wish to preserve and protect the differences in humankind demand ethical reflection. This leads to a specific ethic of care that is supposed to balance local and universal rights. Diversity can only be a condition of ‚net morality’ but not one of moral drivers’ itself. Instead of  ‚moral drivers’ one could also use the term ‚key drivers’ or ‚common values’.


TOPIC 4: Internet for Economic Development.


WG 1 (Chair: Paul Sturges, UK; Raporteur: Charles Ess, USA): The discussion was opened by a talk of Johannes Britz (South Africa/USA): „The Internet: The missing link between the information rich and the information poor?“ Today we think that we are living in a community of knowledge (‚Wissensgesellschaft’) and an economy based on knowledge. But so far all communities have been based on knowledge. So what’s really new? Following the old paradigm there is a contrary relation between ‚reach’ and ‚richness’. The new paradigm is maintained by interactivity and customization. IT allows a dissociation between information and informer and leads to a dematerialized economy. This economy is not distinguished by the allocation of scarce resources, but by the management of plenitude. This mainly influences two sections: first education and second the system of payment.

Jeremy Rifkin stresses in his book „The Age of Access“ that it is not ownership but service that counts. The new economy is based on ‚connectivity’, ‚usability’ and ‚education’. This leads to the following ethical questions: What is the political economy of informational allocation? What is a ‚common good’? What about the political economy of the access to information? But digital economy is again not separated from so-called reality. It doesn’t make any sense to order a book from when you don’t have any address of a real accommodation to have it sent to. The debate on ethic and economy on the one hand concerns the access to information and on the other the right for communication which is the right to send and receive information. The most important elements of the new economy are personal data (name, customer’s habits). How can scientists research under the condition of copyright? In Great Britain there is a deep gap between people in the country and the inhabitants of cities in using the Internet.

In Latin America fundamental changes take place in agricultural management. Via portable phone an administrator collects data there fills them into an Excel table and sends them to the owners in Europe with the help of e-mail.

Furthermore the privacy topic is not so important in Latin America as in Europe and the US. Economy of knowledge affects contents producers and distributors as well. In Europe and the US the dimension of content has in the meanwhile grown bigger than its infrastructure. What in former times has been the common good is now commodity. Common goods are those which are not rare. Through the declaration of information as property shortage is produced. At the same time the demand rises for control of access. Information as public good is decisive for a democratic system. Knowledge that is promoted by the public should be accessible to everyone although the inertia of the old systems with its institutions maintains.


WG 2 (Chair/Raporteur: Wolfgang Coy, Germany): The motto of the discussion was ‚the Internet as we knew it is already dead – and this is good because a lot of hype becomes obvious and visible’. Following topics were discussed:

  1. Intellectual Property on the Net: there are contradictions between global standards and local traditions of orality. The legal restrictions for public knowledge are seen as a growing danger for scientific development.
  2. Digital Divide: there are different forms of digital divide whereas links between theory and activism have to be discovered. In many countries, for example India, the access to the Net is quicker than the acquisition of computer literacy. Half of the world’s population still has problems using this technology
  3. Ethics, politics, economics: politics is growing stronger in influencing technological questions for instance matters of ‚security.’ Politics and economy are drifting apart and throw up certain ethical questions. The debate on intellectual property determines more and more the production of Internet content. Another ethical aspect is the problem of local contents in a globalized medium. The Internet has quite early become an instrument for marketing purposes. Although it links the geographic distances of cultures, it doesn’t equalize eo ipso cultural differences. It’s more about offering greater choice to people and their cultures.
  4. Man and machine: the Net is used not only for the communication between man , but also for different forms of data transfer. This produces different technical and ethical problems.
  5. ICIE symposium: ethic is the language of human behaviour. This language has to be protected on the Net. The symposium showed that it is possible to establish a learning community on the basis of the Internet as well as on the basis of personal encounter. Up to now the goal is mainly an academic one, but prospects could be gained also beyond the borders of science.

WG 3 (Chair: Daniel Pimienta, Dominican Republic; Raporteurs: Toni Samek, Canada, Simon Rogerson, UK): The discussion of the economic effects of the Internet dealt with ‚open source’ activities opposing the Microsoft imperium. It’s necessary to support the ‚open source’ initiatives although open source software still has considerable interface problems and is hard to learn.

The group also talked about questions of intellectual property. How can public interest for intellectual property be defined? Dependent on the ethical way of thinking (Kantianism, Utilitarism etc.) there are different answers. The question of ‚information commons’ is treated differently in ‚third world’ nations than in ‚developed’ countries. In developing countries actions for intellectual property are seen as very threatening. This startet a debate on ‚community building’ and the fundamental values like coherence, participation, sustainabilty and common interest. Daniel Pimienta (Dominican Republic) informed about his experiences with the group MISTICA and projects in multicultural context. For the success of ‚community building’ the following principles are decisive:

  1. Coherence: Technology should be used in a way that it serves as a link between political and social intentions.
  2. Diversity: aiming for an intercultural goal.
  3. Sustainability in technological, social and economical dimensions.
  4. Action: which means the duty to be engaged in actual campaigns.

All this has to take place in an air of openness, mutual respect and responsibility. The term ‚blended community’ was used here to put stress on the connection between the real and virtual space. The model which was developed in the previous section was completed by these insights. The mediation of key moral drivers affects individuals and community as a whole. The effect is a form of participation and empowerment based on free access to alternative media, production of personal contents, education and nonetheless on the possibility to express one’s opinion. Technology is not morally neutral. The way how we build it is in the same time the way how we build up ourselves.

‚Reality check’ is especially important in the context of the Internet in order to check whether this technology meets its expectations in real life. This demands a critical way of thinking which is a problem in the current political situation (propaganda, paternalism etc.). Counter movements are based on education, on the freedom to have a contrary opinion (freedom to speak / freedom to dissent), on the right for knowledge, autonomy, cultural literacy and face-to-face-encounter. All this completes interaction on the Net.

Last update: August  22, 2017

Copyright © 2017 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.

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