Rafael Capurro


This paper is a contribution to the international ICIE Symposium "Localizing the Internet. Ethical Issues in Intercultural Perspective" that took place in Karlsruhe (Germany) in 2004. The proceedings of the symposium were published in the International Review of Information Ethics (IRIE). It was published in: Rafael Capurro, Johannes Frühbauer, Thomas Hausmanninger (eds.): Localizing the Internet. Ethical Aspects in Intercultural Perspective. ICIE Series Vol. 4, Munich: Fink 2007, pp. 21-38.

See also my Intercultural Information Ethics. Foundations and Applications presented at the The Third Asia-Pacific Computing and Philosophy Conference. Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, 2-4 November 2007. (PowerPoint), published in the Journal of Information, Communication & Ethics in Society (2008) Vol. 6, No. 2, 116-126. A longer version was published under the title "Intercultural Information Ethics" in: Kenneth E. Himma and Herman T. Tavani (eds.): The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. New Jersey: Wiley, 2008, pp. 639-665.

On the impact of these ideas see: Philip Brey: Is Information Ethics Culture-Relative? International  Journal of Technology and Human Interaction 3:3, 2-24 (2007). Special Issue Information Ethics: Global Issues, Local Perspectives. Charles Ess, Guest Editor.




1. Intercultural Philosophy
1.1 Is There a European Philosophy?
1.2 The Path of Comparative Philosophy

2.  Beyond Meta-Cultural Universality: Intercultural Ethics
2.1 Intercultural Information Ethics
2.2 Spherical Projects in European History

3. Intercultural Information Ethics at the WSIS
3.1 Is there a Human Right to Communicate?
3.2 The Issue of Cultural Diversity

4. Case Studies and Best Practices

5. Beyond Cultural Conventions: A Sophistic Argumentation





The paper addresses theoretical and practical aspects of information ethics from an intercultural perspective. The first part deals with the paradigm shift within philosophy itself towards what is being called intercultural philosophy. This paradigm provides the framework for intercultural ethics. One main point of the ongoing discussion in the field of intercultural ethics is the question of universality. The second part of the paper deals with the quest for an intercultural information ethics. Some of the main points of the discussions on intercultural and ethical issues at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), particularly the question of a human right to communicate as well as the question of cultural diversity, are presented. A brief report on the evolution of the concept of globalization is given. Some case studies and best practices on intercultural information ethics are outlined. Finally the classic opposition between culture (nomos) and nature (physis) is used in order to point to the limits of the intercultural and of the universalistic discourses.



The concept of ethics as reflection on morality is widely accepted among philosophers going back to Aristotle as the founder of ethics as an academic discipline. Today’s constructivists such as Niklas Luhmann underline the critical function of ethical theory with regard to morality (Luhmann 1990). The Aristotelian techne ethike is in fact oriented towards the formation of an individual character. It belongs together with the techne oikonomike, that is the science of house administration, and the techne politike, that is the science of the polis, to what he calls  philosophia praktike or practical philosophy (Bien 1985). Aristotle’s conception of practical philosophy is concerned with the reflection on the ways human beings dwell in the world, with their ethos, and their search for good life (eu zen). According to Luhmann (1990) the ethical discourse should not provide a given morality with a kind of fundamentum inconcussum or even become a meta-perspective beyond all other societal systems but, quite the contrary, it belongs to the self-referential process of morality itself. As a self-referential process ethics is an unending quest on explicit and implicit uses of the moral code, that is to say of respect or disrespect, with regard to individual and social communication. In other words, ethics observes the ways we communicate with each other as moral persons and the ways this moral identity is understood. There is, indeed, no unbiased ethical observer.

The German philosopher Hans Krämer has remarked that Western moral philosophy follows basically two lines, the older one which was predominant until the 18th century and which deals with “striving for the good" (“Strebensethik”), and the modern one beginning with the Enlightenment which tries to determine what we ought to do (“Sollensethik”) (Krämer 1992). If we restrict moral philosophy to the second view most of the questions about the ways we construct the social world, that is to say human culture, do not belong to the realm of ethics. This narrow view puts also aside the ancient meaning of philosophy as a practice of “care of the self” (Hadot 1993, 1995; Foucault 1984, Capurro 1995). Both traditions, the striving for universality and the care for locality, are intertwined in an open-ended process of self-reflection

Our present life-world is shaped by information technology. The Oxford philosopher Luciano Floridi has coined the term “infosphere” to capture this point (Floridi 1999). I use instead the term digital ontology in the sense that this world view of the digital embraces today all dimensions of our being-in-the-world (Capurro 2001). This predominant digital world view is not the cyberspace or “the new home of mind” proclaimed by John Perry Barlow in 1996 (Barlow 1996) but the intersection of the digital with the ecological, political, economic, and cultural spheres. Intercultural information ethics addresses questions concerning these intersections such as: How far is the Internet changing local cultural values and traditional ways of life? How far do these changes affect the life and culture of future societies in a global and local sense? Put another way, how far do traditional cultures and their moral values communicate and transform themselves under the impact of the digital “infosphere” in general and of the Internet in particular? In other words, intercultural information ethics can be conceived as a field of research where moral questions of the “infosphere” are reflected  in a comparative manner on the basis of different cultural traditions. The Internet has become a challenge not only to international but also to intercultural information ethics as I will show in the second part of this paper. But, indeed, intercultural information ethics suggests a paradigm shift not only within traditional (Western) ethics but also within (Western) philosophy itself to which I will first briefly refer.


Is there a European philosophy? This question sounds strange not just because we speak about, for instance, Indian, Chinese, Latin American or African philosophy, but also because Europe is anything but a homogenous cultural phenomenon. But even in case we would answer it positively, it sounds chauvinistic and finally irrational because it presupposes that universal rationality could be the specific property of a local culture, or even that other similar cultural formations of human rationality should not be addressed as philosophical. Philosophy would be then a mono-cultural property of Europeans or even only of its name givers, namely the ancient Greeks. This Eurocentric or Hellenic-centric view of philosophy has been criticized particularly in the last years by what is being called intercultural philosophy (Wimmer 2004).

1.1 Is There a European Philosophy? 

Is there a European philosophy? One prominent philosopher of the last century, namely Martin Heidegger, has apparently given an affirmative answer in his book “What is Philosophy?” by saying that only the “Western world and Europe” (“das Abendland und Europa”) as heirs of the Greeks have developed on the basis of Greek philosophy modern sciences that now pervade the whole planet (Heidegger 1976, 7). This Eurocentric thesis has been criticized for instance by the Indian philosopher Ram Adhar Mall (1996, 12) who at the same time remarks that although Heidegger does not seem to see the difference between the Greek word philosophy and its subject matter, he also remarks in the “Conversation on language” that the different answers given by  Western-European and Far-East traditions to the call of language, that is to say to the hermeneutic shaping of our being-in-the-world, might be able to converge on the basis of a dialogue (“Gespräch”) that would then come out of a common and single source (“einer einzigen Quelle”) (Heidegger 1975, 94). In other words, Heidegger would be considering what we could call not just an intercultural but a transcultural philosophy.

According to Heidegger the word “philosophy” points to a specific way of questioning of the kind “what is?” (ti estin), and more precisely “what is being?” (ti to on) that arose within Greek culture (Heidegger 1976, 9). But already Plato and Aristotle, no less than Kant or Hegel, gave different answers to what is meant by the word what in the sense of what is meant when we ask for the essence of something. In other words, the original Greek question opened different paths of thinking in such a way that, according to Heidegger, the answers do not build a kind of dialectical process but a “free sequence” (“freie Folge”) (Heidegger 1976, 18). This means that philosophy from its very beginning and in its further development in Western culture is not restricted to the Greek origin or that it is not mono-ethnic. Moreover, it opens, on a first step, an inner-cultural dialogue in which those who share this questioning, are already embedded without the possibility of an immediate liberation.

But the fact of asking the question ‘what is philosophy?’ already points to a situation of distance with regard to what we are asking for (Heidegger 1976, 11-12). According to Heidegger the different answers given to the question of what things are, have something in common, namely the conception of language (logos) as a gathering of the whole of reality which is what the Greek called science (episteme). We, as human beings, are responsible or in charge of this gathering which means no less that the possibility of giving grounds or reasons for what is (Heidegger 1976, 16). Philosophic questioning is of the nature that it binds questions with the essence of the questioner. To answer the question ‘what is philosophy?’ is then by no means possible by referring to one of the possible answers alone, nor is it the result of looking for what is common to all of them as this would provide just a “void formula” (“leere Formel”) (Heidegger 1976, 19). It is also not sure that our answer, or Heidegger’s own, will be a philosophic one. In fact, this situation of disturbance or insecurity  may be a hint and even a “touchstone” (“Prüfstein”) that we are on a philosophic path (Heidegger 1976, 19). What is basic for grasping the differences among philosophic answers is their corresponding mood, including the sober mood of planning and calculating which is a characteristic of modern science and with it of what we use to call ‘modernity.’ In fact, as Heidegger states, it is not possible to be able to ever go back to the original Greek experience of logos and it is of course not possible just to incorporate it. We can only get into a historical or creative dialogue with it (Heidegger 1976, 30).

1.2 The Path of Comparative Philosophy

This dialogue is thus not only an inner one but also an intercultural and finally a transcultural one that goes beyond the local tradition of Western philosophy as well as beyond any mono-cultural foundation of philosophy but remaining attached to it at the same time in the different voices that articulate it. When Heidegger states that we can only get into a historical or creative dialogue with the original Greek experience, “we” is then of course not restricted to Europeans who must overcome their own tradition starting with an inner-cultural dialogue. This dialogue changes the meaning of the word “we” that is to say, the matter of philosophy. The concept of comparative or intercultural philosophy fosters this paradigmatic change. It makes explicit the difference between traditions of theoretical and practical thinking that arose and were developed more or less independently from each other, on the one hand, and the dialogical appropriation of Western philosophy by non-European traditions and vice versa, on the other (Elberfeld 2002, 11). This intercultural appraisal gives rise to a new kind of philosophic thinking, particularly of ethical thinking. An outstanding example of an intercultural philosophic dialogue between Western and Chinese thinking tradition(s) that does not level the differences by looking for some kind of universal human rationality lies the work of François Julien (1998). When this intercultural philosophical dialogue deals with information technology as the pervasive medium of today’s being-in-the-world, we speak of intercultural information ethics as well as of intercultural philosophy of information.

The journal polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy (polylog 2004) addresses the prospects of the field in this way:

We understand intercultural philosophy as the endeavor to give expression to the many voices of philosophy in their respective cultural contexts and thereby to generate a shared, fruitful discussion granting equal rights to all. In intercultural philosophy we see above all a new orientation and new practice of philosophy – of a philosophy that requires an attitude of mutual respect, listening, and learning. It entails a new orientation because, in acknowledgment of the cultural situatedness of philosophy, claims must prove themselves interculturally, and culture and cultures must be consciously kept in view as the context of philosophizing. It entails a new practice because this consciousness demands a departure from an individual, mono-cultural production of philosophy and seeks instead a dialogical, process-oriented, fundamentally open polyphony of cultures and disciplines.

Following Ernst Cassirer’s insight about the historical construction of reality on the basis of “symbolic forms” we can say that culture is the shaping or in-formation (“Formung”) of human self-consciousness as well as of the material world. The “philosophy of symbolic forms” and the “philosophy of technology” are two sides of the same coin or different forms of sense production (“Sinngebung”) (Cassirer 1994, Vol. 2, 258-259; 1985). Both processes are based on the processes of selection, conservation, and reconstruction of meaning being accomplished by a plurality of actors and leading to what Jan Assmann calls “cultural memory” (Assmann 2003, 2000). Cultural identity is a relative concept as it points to a permanent exchange of messages between social actors (Capurro 2003). Today’s digital globalization has accelerated the process of cultural hybridization leading to glocal cultures, to use this neologism suggesting the merging of the global and the local suggested by the sociologist Roland Robertson (1992). Although the outcome is not just homogenization or MacWorld new forms of ghettoization, marginalization, and social exclusion might also arise even within democratic societies (Agamben 2002).

The path of comparative philosophy has several important landmarks in the last century. The first East-West Philosopher’s conference took place 1939 in Hawaii and was followed by subsequent meetings since 1949. Günter Wohlfart and Helmut Pape have organized similar meetings of the Académie du Midi starting in 1989 one of which was particularly concerned with the question of  “comparative ethics” (Elberfeld 2002). What does “comparative” mean? It does not mean the mere juxtaposition of different ethical theories, a sort of mere relativism or multiculturalism. It means, in contrast, a dialogue between them following Nietzsche’s aphorism that we live in the “age of comparison” (“Zeitalter der Vergleichung”) in which cultures, customs, and world views that were in former times mostly isolated are being compared and can be “lived through” (“durchlebt”) leading to an epoch beyond the “culture of comparison” (“Cultur der Vergleichung”) (Nietzsche 1988, 44). We may speak of multicultural ethics in which case we just juxtapose ethical views instead of comparing them. A mono-cultural view of ethics conceives itself as the only valid one. In order to avoid this kind of ethical chauvinism and colonialism it is necessary that transcultural ethics arise from an intercultural dialogue instead of thinking of itself as universal without noticing its own cultural bias. In contrast, a mere meta-cultural view is eventually metaphysical or essentialist as it pretends to have a definitive true knowledge on human nature and human reason.

But, indeed, human reason is genuinely plural. We constitute a common world on the basis of exchange practices. This is indeed the key question with regard to the discussion on the theoretical foundation of human rights. This foundation cannot be provided by methodological or meta-cultural rules alone, i.e., by formal-logical principles or so-called anthropological constants. Not just because such principles and constants are the object of interpretation and evolution but also, as Gregor Paul himself in his final statement to a comprehensive project sponsored by the VolkswagenStiftung remarks, because the foundation of, for instance, such a basic human right as the respect for human dignity, for instance, remains problematic in either of the following foundational possibilities, namely: on authority, on a pure methodological or empirical basis, or on positive law (Paul 2001). In other words, universal principles can only be founded on a permanent critical and, I would add, intercultural exchange. This hermeneutic circle between morality, ethics, and law builds also a condition for political legitimacy from the beginning Modernity in opposition to its foundation in natural law or in metaphysical or religious presuppositions. But it is indeed an open question whether modern nation-state oriented political theories can be analogically expanded to include the present digital globalization. Intercultural ethics can provide a ground for an intercultural and not just international dialogue on these matters.


The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity defines the concept of culture in line with the conclusions of three world conferences: the World Conference on Cultural Policies (Mexico City, 1982), the world conference of the World Commission on Culture and Development (1995),  and the world conference of the Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development (Stockholm, 1998) as follows:

Reaffirming that culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs. (UNESCO 2003)

The question of  culture is, as this Declaration also stresses, at the heart of contemporary social and political debates particularly since the appearance of Samuel P. Huntington’s influential book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1997) and the events of September 11, 2001 and March 11, 2004. The current discussions in the field of intercultural philosophy and sociology (Hoffmann 2003) show that there are no clear borders among cultures and that cultures are not homogenous and static. A closed and static vision on cultures as largely presupposed by Huntington, argues with clichés and does not pay attention to the complex diachronic and synchronic hybridizations or “polyphonies” inside as well as between cultures (Jammal 2004). Even the idea of humanity that lies behind universalistic approaches to ethics, rests on an essentialist paradigm and can be considered only as a regulative one, as I will show (Merwe 2000). When we speak about cultures we deal, as the UNESCO Declaration stresses, with fuzzy and contingent sets of life styles, value systems, and beliefs that are themselves the product of hybridization.

Michael Walzer distinguishes between “thick” and “thin” morality, i.e., between moral arguments as rooted or located in a culture as opposed to disembodied ones (Walzer 1994). It is a misunderstanding to envisage the intercultural “thick” ethical dialogue for instance in relation to the validity of human rights as a kind of moral relativism (Paul 2003). Universality is, in Kantian terms, a regulative idea that can only be perceived and partially achieved within the plural conditions of human reason, i.e., through a patient intercultural dialogue on the maxims that may guide our actions. The fixation of ethical principles in a moral or quasi-legal code such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHC) has highly pragmatic and indeed political significance, namely as a global strategy for global survival and well being. But the idea of a universal code of morality remains problematic in the Kantian sense of the term. According to Kant problematic concepts are those whose object we cannot know about. For the kind of questions arising from them there is no solution ("Lösung"), but only a dissolution ("Auflösung") of the problem on the basis, for instance, of the difference between the empirical and the transcendental (Kant 1974, A 339). The concept of humanity and consequently the concept of human rights are problematic concepts. In order to deal with them we need a permanent intercultural ethical dialogue, on the one hand, as well as a pragmatic and contingent transcultural consensus, on the other, by retaining universality only as a transcendental or regulative idea. The insight into the theoretical contingency of universal moral codes and their practical utility is not in the same sense valid, I believe, for projects like the one of a “world ethos” (Küng 2001) as far as such a distillation of theological norms retains a religious dimension that is deeply rooted in different “thick” moralities. Thus the real challenge is intercultural theology which is not the same as the question of theological inculturation (IIMO 2004, Wijsen 2001).

Charles Taylor (1993) has pointed to the tension between the modern idea that all human beings are equal with regard to their dignity as stressed by the Enlightenment, and the idea of respect of the uniqueness of human life in its particularity. This tension has less to do with the so called Eurocentric origin of the human rights as stated in the UDHC (Wimmer 2004, 171) as with the fact that for instance Article 27 of the UDHC explicitly protects “the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This right to individual and social cultural identity or autonomy has been also stated by the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity as follows:

The defence of cultural diversity is an ethical imperative, inseparable from respect for human dignity. It implies a commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular the rights of persons belonging to minorities and those of indigenous peoples. No one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope. (UNESCO 2003)

It is a permanent task of intercultural ethics to reflect on these principles as well as on their factual collisions. There are two dangers that may affect this reflection. One is the use of mono-cultural or multi-cultural arguments in order to undermine the ethical imperative of universality. This is the danger of moral and cultural relativism. The other one is a one-sided plea for meta-cultural universality that does not open itself to an intercultural dialogue. This is the danger of moral universalism. In both cases ethical thinking does not meet the challenge of grasping and holding the tension between universality and particularity. The search for good life and the imperative of universality need a permanent work of translation or exchange that with regard to information society can be called intercultural information ethics. This concept of intercultural ethics is prima facie related to Jürgen Habermas “discourse ethics” (Habermas 1991) But intercultural ethics does not address the question of consensus as a transcendent or counter-factual goal of the evolution of human society. It aims, as already stated at the beginning of this paper, at observing or working out the differences in the uses of the moral code within and between societies in order to keep the process of communication between different cultural systems going on (Rombach 1996). Luhmann’s idea of ethics as a critical reflection on morality means nothing else than the opposition against moral fundamentalism that could even become worse if ethics would provide an apparent solid foundation.

In other words, one main task of intercultural ethics is to foster cultural identities not through their isolation or mere addition or even collision but through a process of communication being held more and more on the basis of the digital “infosphere.” This process concerns not only the pragmatic level of everyday life but also the theoretical level of reflection on their implicit and explicit philosophic traditions. When this reflection refers to the communication process itself between cultures we speak of intercultural communication ethics in a broad sense or of intercultural information ethics in case communication is conveyed via digital information technology.

2.1 Intercultural Information Ethics

Digital information technology has at first sight changed the horizon of human thinking and action in such a way that we have to deal with many problems for which classic ethical theories do not have only any answers but they cannot even provide a sufficient basis to deal with them. This insight into the somehow unique ethical challenges of the technological civilization was clearly seen by Hans Jonas (1979). But, as Rolf Elberfeld remarks, Jonas dealt with this question only within the horizon of European philosophy (Elberfeld 2002, 16). It is indeed necessary to undertake an intercultural dialogue on information technology which means not only to become aware of the conditions under which different life styles and life projects can coexist within the new digital environment but also in order to explore how it affects and is being appropriated by different cultures particularly as they are conditioned by this new environment. As far as information technology pervades our being-in-the-world itself on a global scale and influences all aspects of life including philosophical thinking itself (Floridi 2004), the question about the uniqueness of computer ethics can be discussed (Tavani 2002). As far as I can see, the impact of information technology on a global scale and on all aspects of human life gives, on the one hand, a plausible argument in favour of the uniqueness approach not only with regard to the subject matter but also to the theoretical approaches so far. But this does not mean that, on the other hand, the moral code itself and its ethical reflection will be superseded by another one. The basic question concerning the status of moral persons, their respect or disrespect, remains unchanged although we may discuss as to what are the candidates and what this respect means in a specific situation. We may also discuss as to how this code has been interpreted (or not) within different ethical and cultural traditions and how it is being conceived with regard to the challenge of information technology.

Cultural reflection on information technology, with particular emphasis on the Internet, has already a history. Charles Ess (Drury University, USA) and  Fay Sudweeks (Murdoch University, Australia) have been organizing biennial conferences on cultural attitudes towards technology and communication since 1998 (CATaC 2004, Ess 2001). Other important meetings in the field are: Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquiry (CEPE 2005), Computing and Philosophy (CAP 2004), Ethics and Computing (ETHICOMP 2005), Ethics of Electronic Information in the 21st Century (EEI21 2004) as well as the ICIE Symposiums (ICIE 2004). The leading journals in the field are Ethics and Information Technology (ed. by Jeroen van den Hoven, Lucas D. Introna, Deborah G. Johnson and Helen Nissenbaum), the Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society (ed. by Simon Rogerson and N. Ben Fairweather), the Journal of Information Ethics (ed. by Robert Hauptman) and the International Journal of Information Ethics (ed. by Rafael Capurro, Thomas Hausmanninger and Felix Weil) (ICIE 2004). Particularly since the question of information ethics was addressed by the United Nations that it became part of the international political agenda. But, how did we, Europeans, get there where we are now?

2.2 Spherical Projects in European History 

There are at least three major global or spherical projects in European history (Sloterdijk 1998ff). The first one is the globalisation of reason in Greek philosophy. Reason conceives itself – from Aristotle until Hegel – as global thinking that goes beyond nature into the realm of the divine as the eternal, infinite or metaphysical sphere. Such a sphere bursts with the rise of modern science. Metaphysical claims are criticised by modern empirical science. In this unequal fight, David, modern empirical science, is the winner over the metaphysics of Goliath. The second globalisation is the earthly one. It begins in Europe in the 15th Century and bursts in the 20th Century. The idea of a spherical earth and the attempts to circumnavigate it are indeed older, but the totalitarian ambitions of modern subjectivity are paid off, at least for a while. The third globalisation is the digital one with predecessors in the late Middle Ages (Raimundus Lullus, Nicholas of Cusa) as well as in Modernity (Pascal, Leibniz). Today we are confronted with the digital formatting of mankind. The digital globalisation not only reinforces and expands upon the divide between the digital haves and have-nots but also makes more explicit and even deepens existing inequalities (Warschauer 2002).

Philosophical, earthly, and digital universalisms are intertwined with other kinds of global projects such as modern science with its view of nature as a system of laws that underlie and determine in a partially foreseeable way at least the process of natural evolution, or the project of modern economy with the spread of global capitalism including a universal currency, identical goods for everybody, global marketing, global production and management processes etc., or the process of universal politics and universal values (United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”), or the project(s) of universal cataloguing of and accessibility to scientific literature (“Universal Decimal Classification”, bibliographic databases accessible for instance through DIALOG, the Internet as a distribution medium for all kinds of digital material, etc.). The ecological movement has made aware of the global effects of industrialisation on nature and society. Two world wars had deep effects on the physical and moral life of millions of people all over the planet.

What is new in the present situation is the fact that such global perceptions become at least partially transformed by digital media. This new situation is basically characterized by a system of world communication that allows different kinds of social systems to better interact (this is the optimist hope) with each other beyond the top-down vs. bottom-up alternative as well as beyond different kinds of cultural homogenization which is mostly nothing more than cultural colonialism. Although digital communication may not bring a solution either for single societies nor for their global interaction it can contribute to find new ways of interaction between the local and the global creating glocal cultures (Castells 1996).



In the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS 2004) the question of bridging the so-called digital divide (Scheule et al. 2004), a concern that was and is at the core of the Summit, has been addressed from two ethical viewpoints that are closely linked, namely the question of a human right to communicate and the question of cultural diversity to which I will now briefly refer.

3.1 Is there a Human Right to Communicate?

The issue concerning the human right to communicate has now raised a new dimension based on the discussions of a New World Information and Communication Order that led the United States to leave UNESCO some twenty five years ago (UNESCO 1980). In the meantime, since the rise of the Internet, a paradigm shift in human communication has taken place as the classic structure of still dominant mass media, namely a one-to-many message distribution has been superseded by a structure in which everyone having access to the Internet can receive and send digital messages not only on a one-to-one basis, but also in the forms of one-to-many, many-to-one and many-to-many. This is indeed a cultural evolution in communication that occurs for the first time in the history of mankind on a global scale and within a short period of evolution. It is not surprising that many participants of the WSIS considered as necessary to think about the significance of Article 19 of the UDHR. 

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This article was based on an understanding of the communication situation before the advent of the Internet. It is not clear whether the formulation “to seek, receive and impart information” can be applied to the possibilities of communication created by the Internet. Do we need a specific right to communicate or communication rights in order to underline the new possibilities of writing (right to write = r2w) and reading (right to read =r2r) as building together the right to communicate (r2c) (Kuhlen 2003)? The discussion of these issues is extremely controversial and even polemical. The final text from December 12, 2003 of the Declaration of Principles begins with a formulation that mirrors at least partially, this new perspective without using the formula right to communicate:

We, the representatives of the peoples of the world, assembled in Geneva from 10-12 December 2003 for the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (WSIS 2004)

3.2 The Issue of Cultural Diversity

Point 8 of the Declaration of Principles deals explicitly with „Cultural diversity and identity, linguistic diversity and local content” as follows:

52. Cultural diversity is the common heritage of humankind. The Information Society should be founded on and stimulate respect for cultural identity, cultural and linguistic diversity, traditions and religions, and foster dialogue among cultures and civilizations. The promotion, affirmation and preservation of diverse cultural identities and languages as reflected in relevant agreed United Nations documents including UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, will further enrich the Information Society.

53. The creation, dissemination and preservation of content in diverse languages and formats must be accorded high priority in building an inclusive Information Society, paying particular attention to the diversity of supply of creative work and due recognition of the rights of authors and artists. It is essential to promote the production of and accessibility to all content – educational, scientific, cultural or recreational – in diverse languages and formats. The development of local content suited to domestic or regional needs will encourage social and economic development and will stimulate participation of all stakeholders, including people living in rural, remote and marginal areas.

54. The preservation of cultural heritage is a crucial component of identity and self- understanding of individuals that links a community to its past. The Information Society should harness and preserve cultural heritage for the future by all appropriate methods, including digitisation. (WSIS 2004)

The Plan of Action of the WSIS foresees corresponding policies. The global and local challenge of WSIS is to develop an inclusive digital information society, that is to say to bridge the digital divide by fostering cultural diversity. A prima facie similar wording of the cultural article can be found in the Civil Society Declaration to the World Summit on the Information Society “Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs” (Civil Society 2004). But, in fact,  this Declaration stresses under “2.3 Culture, Knowledge and the Public Domain” the role of “oral tradition” as well as a “variety of media” as means through which the diversity of cultures and languages enrich “information and communication societies.” It binds the concepts of communication and information by using the plural form “information and communication societies.” This Declaration is as a whole and in each of its paragraphs a plea for pluralistic, interactive, and glocal-oriented communication rights. It is not astonishing that the media establishment was not happy with it (Kuhlen 2003, 396). This indeed makes a difference to the official Declaration of the WSIS, explicitly stated in the following footnote to the Preamble:

There is no single information, communication or knowledge society: there are, at the local, national and global levels, possible future societies; moreover, considering communication is a critical aspect of any information society, we use in this document the phrase “information and communication societies.” For consistency with previous WSIS language, we retain the use of the phrase “Information Society” when directly referencing WSIS. (Civil Society 2004)

The concept of “information and communication societies” underlying this Declaration is not only plural but also historical or dynamic. The Preamble underlines also gender and culture perspectives as follows:

We, women and men from different continents, cultural backgrounds, perspectives, experience and expertise, acting as members of different constituencies of an emerging global civil society, considering civil society participation as fundamental to the first ever held UN Summit on Information and Communication issues, the World Summit on the Information Society, have been working for two years inside the process, devoting our efforts to shaping people-oriented, inclusive and equitable concept of information and communication societies. (Civil Society 2004)

Under the Declaration asks for the establishment of an International Convention on Cultural Diversity as well as for a review of existing copyright regulation instruments.

During the WSIS meeting a World Forum on Communication Rights took place, which was organized among others by the campaign on Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) and the German Heinrich-Böll-Foundation. This last institution published a Charter of Civil Rights for a Sustainable Knowledge Society as a contribution to the WSIS (Charter 2003). The Charter states the following fundamental right:

1. Knowledge is the heritage and the property of humanity and is thus free. Knowledge represents the reservoir from which new knowledge is created. Knowledge must therefore remain permanently accessible to the public. Limitations on public access such as copyrights and patents must be the exception. Commercial exploitation of knowledge conflicts with the interest of society in knowledge as a public good. Knowledge as a common good must have a higher status in the hierarchy of social values than the protection of private claims.

It also mandates a special right with regard to cultural diversity and it explicitly fosters intercultural dialogue on the basis of common rights and values:

6. Cultural diversity is a prerequisite for individual and social development. Culture is realised in languages, customs, social behavior patterns, norms and ways of life, but also in human artefacts (such as arts, crafts and technology). The emergence of the global knowledge society must not be allowed to lead to cultural homogenisation. Instead, the creative potential of current information and communication technologies must be used to preserve and promote the heterogeneity of cultures and languages as a precondition for the individual and social development of present and future generations. A dialogue of cultures can only be realised in a climate of diversity and equal rights.


In his book "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace" Lawrence Lessig (1999) envisions a situation in which the universality of the cyberspace is endangered by the local codes of the market, the software industry, the laws of nation states, and moral traditions. He writes:

Nature doesn’t determine cyberspace. Code does. Code is not constant. It changes. It is changing now in a way that will make cyberspace more regulable. It could change in a way that makes cyberspace less regulable. How it changes depends on the code writers. How code writers change it could depend on us. If we do nothing, the code of cyberspace will change. The invisible hand will change it in a predictable way. To do nothing is to embrace at least that. It is to accept the changes that this change in code will bring about. It is to accept a cyberspace that is less free, or differently free, than the space it was before. (Lessig 1999, 109)

One way of keeping the cyberspace more free and to foster cultural diversity in it is indeed intercultural dialogue as taking place in the context of WSIS as well as in the UNESCO INFOethics congresses on ethical, legal and societal aspects of the information society since 1997 (UNESCO 1998). Intercultural information ethics matters not only in order to overcome the isolation of moral traditions with regard to the Internet but also in order to provide a platform for pragmatic action, for the kind of declarations and (quasi-) legal agreements that can be used as a framework for preservation and fostering of cultural differences in the new digital environment. It is still an open question how far these activities could and should be coordinated by an international agency or by one of the existing UN bodies or by some other kind of institution. Ethics, law and pragmatic actions are needed in order to keep the net as free as possible, avoiding ghettoization of group morals and encouraging intercultural dialogue (Hausmanninger 2004). But, indeed, the good is not necessarily on the side of the universal and the bad on the side of the local at least when we understand these concepts not only, as Lessig does, within a normative context but within a cultural one. In this last case the question of localizing the Internet does not mean maintaining or even creating normative ghettos or imposing the norms of one ghetto to the rest of them even with the best intentions in a kind of paternalist communitarianism. Rather it is a matter of giving communities the possibility of appropriating the Internet according to their own cultural traditions. I call this view bottom-up communitarianism (Capurro 2004). The Latin American virtual community MISTICA (“Metodología e Impacto Social de las Tecnologías de Información y Comunicación en América”) has published a document with the title “Working the Internet with a Social Vision” that clearly shows how the ethical question of justice and the Internet can and should be reflected within a specific economic, social, and cultural setting such as the Latin American one (MISTICA 2002).

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck opposes a totalitarian view of globalisation, which he calls “globalism”, to a view in which the cultural differences are preserved and that he calls, following Robertson (1992), “glocalisation” (Beck 1997). This implies a view of “networked justice” (Scheule 2004) that is not identical with the classical conceptions of commutative or distributive justice but is more related to what Tomas Lipinski and Johannes Britz call “contributive justice”:

that an individual has an obligation to be active in the society (individual responsibility), and that society itself has a duty to facilitate participation and productivity without impairing individual freedom and dignity. (Lipinski/Britz 2000, 65)

This obligation implies the society’s responsibility to enable cultural appropriation for instance through an equal right of access to (digital) information which implies a right to read (r2r) and a right to write (r2w) within the new interactive digital environment, as already said. Modern political philosophy is based on nation oriented conceptions of justice and mostly does not deal explicitly with the question of glocal cultures intertwined with cyberspace. But, as Soraj Hongladarom remarks:

[...] justice and culture are linked in many ways. Firstly, justice, if it is to be workable in a cultural entity, must be integrated to the tradition or the normal practices of that entity. Secondly, when cultures interact as closely as they are now due to globalization, one finds many cases of cultural intermingling, a result of which is that systems of practices born in one culture become “exported” to other cultures when the latter find such systems appealing and useful to them. (Hongladarom 2001)

Justice is, according to Hongladarom, both cultural and intercultural. Following Michael Walzer, Hongladarom argues that moral arguments are “thin” when they are not embodied in culture and history(ies), that is to say, if they are not contextualized or localized (Hongladarom 2001a, 318). But, on the other hand, “thick” moral arguments must overcome their “thick” mono-cultural horizon as they interact with other cultures, a process that does not start with the Internet. Thus, Hongladarom’s terminology corresponds only partially to what I call mono-cultural, intercultural, and trans-cultural (information) ethics, the latter being the result of the intercultural interaction as opposed to a purely meta-cultural or “thin” universality. The question of what kind of culture(s) will the Internet bring about is, on the one hand, a question of fact(s), that is to say, of how different cultures integrate it within their local environment(s). But it is also, on the other hand, a question of ethical reflection on these facts that we call intercultural information ethics in which “thick” and “thin” arguments are intertwined. The Kantian imperative of universalizability does not mean that universal proved maxims should be followed by the same kind of actions by everybody. It only states a basic condition for human action, a kind of elementary touchstone for conviviality. But Kant is not facing the kind of culture-oriented justice as made explicit by Hongladarom. His imperative is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a view of justice that takes care positively and empirically of fostering different life-styles as something belonging essentially to human communities, the humanness of humans not being reduced to their being rational or even to their membership in a noumenal world. Hongladarom’s ethical approach meets the older pre- and post-modern Western traditions of self-care and striving for the good. According to Eben Moglen (2003) the ethical right to share information, the principle of non-exclusion is the leading ethical principle of the information society that is not, I believe no longer, based on a market-driven information economy alone.

Charles Ess has analyzed the cultural impact of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and in particular of Western-designed CSCW systems (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) in different countries such as Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Israel, and Kuweit (Ess 2002). The social context of use or the “thick” cultural aspect plays an important and distinctive role against the widespread idea of a hard technological determinism. In fact he draws the conclusion that CMC are marked by “soft determinism” (Don Ihde), i.e., their practical implementation is partly conditioned by the local context of use and does not necessarily mean a “computer-mediated colonialization.”  He writes.

In contrast with the apparent dichotomy between a global but homogenous computer ethic vs. a local but “disconnected” computer ethic (i.e., one reflecting solely specific cultural values and preferences) […] Hongladarom’s model for a middle ground between homogeneity and diversity suggests rather a “both-and” ethic, i.e., one that serves both a global computer ethics and local values as expressed in specific traditions, policies, etc. That is: in order to avoid the ethical equivalent of “Jihad vs. McWorld,” comparative philosophers need to contribute to a computer ethic for a global communications media such as the Internet and the Web that endorses both global/universal values and decision-making procedures and the distinctive practices and values of local cultures. (Ess 2002, 337-338)

We need an intercultural informatics not only the development of software, say, accessible in different languages but its contextualization according to specific needs and cultural practices as well as a critical reflection on these practices inside and between them.

An outstanding compilation of best-practices in intercultural information has been done for instance by Yois (Youth for Intergenerational Justice and Sustainability) (2003). It includes examples from an educational system in rural areas of India, learning projects in different regions of Africa, youth empowerment in ICT in Turkey, youth and economic participation in the information society in the Philippines, software development in Bangladesh,  alternatives to high-tech computers in Romania as well as contributions from European countries, Canada and the US.


The sophist Antiphon the Athenian (ca. 480-411 B.C.) questioned legal and cultural conventions (nomos) in the name of nature (physis). He was a kind of libertarian ethicist and a psychoanalyst avant la lettre. He writes:

We can examine those attributes of nature that are necessary in all humans and are provided to all to the same degree, and in these respects none of us is distinguished as barbarian or Greek. For we all breathe the air through our mouth and our nostrils, and we laugh when our minds are happy (A3) or weep when we are pained, and we receive sounds with our hearing, and we see by the light with our sight, and we work with our hands and walk with our feet. (Citation from Gagarin 2002, 183)

Is this reasoning based on a naturalistic fallacy? The argument seems to me less ontological than pragmatic, that is to say that our common nature (physis) is based on things that we need as well as on the capacities we have in order to be able to survive than in, say, a universal human reason. In some way we are followers and antipodes of Antiphon. We are followers as far as we are universal pragmatists. We believe in the pragmatic equality of human beings with regard to the struggle for survival. But we are his antipodes as far as we believe that we can better take care of our lives on the basis of the universal nomos we call the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). And even more, we believe that artificial devices such as the Internet are as basic for human survival as the air we breathe and the sounds we hear. From a pragmatic point of view our natural capacities are no longer enough for guaranteeing survival. In other words, there are things that belong to artificiality, that is to say to culture or convention (nomos) and that are necessary to all human beings, although the capacities to use them is not given by nature. We face an ethical dilemma as far as we state de jure a kind of universality based on artificiality while de facto such a common basis is not given. A theoretical path for the solution or dissolution of this dilemma in the field of human communication is intercultural information ethics.

The human right to communicate (in general) is broader than the one to communicate via the Internet, but de facto the problem arises today because of the possibilities offered by the Internet as they become more and more necessary for survival. In other words, what seemed to have a relative or cultural character due to its artificiality becomes an object of universal or transcultural interest. At this point a new ethical dilemma arises as far as the usefulness of artificial products is dependent on local needs and on local nomos that would give the impression of universality. The sceptic Antiphon would probably say that this is nothing but a domination strategy, which is very often the case, and that we should make a clear distinction between things that are naturally common to everybody and other kinds of cultural things produced by artifice and subject to local laws. He would contest the idea of a universal nomos. He writes in the same fragment:

(A2) <The laws [the gods?] of nearby communities> we know and respect, but those communities far away we neither know nor respect. We have thereby become barbarian toward each other, when by nature (physis) we are all born in all respects equally capable of being both barbarians and Greeks. (Citation in: Gagarin 2002, 183)

Antiphon states a de facto cultural difference between the Greeks and the barbarians, this difference being not a natural one but a product of culture (nomos). Culture is per definitionem what makes a difference between human societies and something that, according to Antiphon, we should know and respect, although paradoxically this respect seems something very Greek in Antiphon’s view although xenophobia is indeed not something given by nature to barbarians and/or to Greeks. But it seems as if it were the Greeks that were aware of this bias and as far as they were aware they created a cultural difference based on the idea(l) that a natural meta-code makes possible that cultures respect each other. But this code itself is, indeed, a cultural product with meta-cultural ambitions, the alternative being apparently the barbarian code of ignorance and hate that might also affect Greek culture. In other words, Antiphon’s solution of the nomos-physei dilemma is on the one hand to look for a common natural basis of living together; but, on the other hand, it also requires us to state a kind of transcultural code based on knowledge and respect as opposed to hate and ignorance.

Both codes cannot be conceived as natural properties of any given society. Greeks can behave as barbarians and barbarians can behave as Greeks. The universality of Antiphon’s code does not deny cultural diversity but intends to find a modus vivendi based on the Greek way of life which is not a property of the Greek people as far as such a way of life can degenerate and become an enemy of human life. But it would be a fallacy to attribute to Antiphon the ideas of, say, French Enlightenment or of the principles of the constitution of the United States or even of the UDHR. Antiphon was, indeed, a critic of Athenian democratic order. Even his tolerant views on Greek and barbarians can be interpreted as a kind of cultural imperialism. Natural equality does not mean that we, Greeks and barbarians, are or should be cultural equals. Antiphon’s alternative to law and cultural conventions with their arbitrary character is a kind of libertarian ideology based on the individual’s harmony with himself (homonoia) in opposition to the rights of the polis. Antiphon’s ethics is eventually not only individualistic but also apolitical. Its kind of pragmatic natural universality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for dealing with the question of what we call an intercultural and even a transcultural ethics. But we can learn from him the limits of culture, law, and artificial devices when we feel the tendency to overestimate their capacity for creating social bonds.


The ongoing debate on the impact of the Internet is at the core of today's and tomorrow's global and local political decision-making in a world that turns more and more unified – and divided. Manuel Castells puts it this way:

It’s not as activists used to say, ‘think globally, act locally.’ No, no, Think locally – link to your interest environment – and act globally – because if you don’t act globally in a system in which the powers are global, you make no difference in the power system. (Castells 2001, 5)

Questions concerning anonymity, universal accessibility to knowledge, and digital surveillance, are basic to all societies. From an intercultural perspective the leading question is how human cultures can locally flourish within a global digital environment. This question concerns in the first place community building on the basis of cultural diversity. How far does the Internet affect, for better or worse, local and particularly glocal cultures? How far does it foster democratic processes inside and between them? How do people construct their cultural identities within this medium? How does it affect their customs, languages, and everyday problems?

Intercultural information ethics addresses, secondly, the changes produced by the Internet on traditional media, such as oral and written customs, newspapers, radio and TV, the merger of mass media, the telephone and the Internet, and the impact of the Internet on literary cultures, including the impact of the next generation of information and communication technologies such as ubiquitous computing in the post-Internet era. This concerns new methods of manipulation and control made possible or aggravated by the Internet.

Finally, intercultural information ethics deals with the economic impact of the Internet as far as it can become an instrument of cultural oppression and colonialism. How does it affect cultural memory and cultural sustainability? The question about the so called digital divide is thus not just an issue of giving everybody access to the global network (a utopian goal?), but rather an issue on how the digital network helps people to better manage their lives while avoiding the dangers of cultural exploitation and discrimination. The vision of a cultural inclusive information society should be stated in plural not just because there are different visions according to cultural backgrounds but also because there are different possibilities of cultural inclusion from a type of inclusion that excludes the included until different forms of homogenization and cultural colonialism. Concepts such as hybrid and polyphony are ethical markers that need to be critically analyzed in specific situations.

The key question of intercultural information ethics is thus how far and in which ways are we going to be able to enlarge both freedom and justice within a perspective of sustainable cultural development that protects and encourages cultural diversity as well as the interaction between them. Digital interaction could be used to weaken the hierarchical one-to-many structure of global mass-media, giving individuals, groups, and whole societies the capacity to become senders and not only receivers of messages. Cars and highways have lead in the meantime to a rediscovery of car-free localities within our cities as well as to a rediscovery of slowness and the value of natural environment particularly in Western societies. Shaping our daily lives with mobile communication technologies will indeed transform the ways we construct the social, political and economic world as well as the ways we reshape natural environments. Will they also bring back cultural practices of individual and social self-care such as the art of silence in the face of verbosity, the art of laughing in the face of fear, and the art of choosing paths of liberation (Capurro 1996)? These practices will take place within different cultural horizons and moral traditions that should be critically observed by intercultural information ethics.


Thanks to Charles Ess (Drury University, USA) and Thomas J. Froehlich (Kent State University, USA) for comments and criticisms.


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Last update: February 13, 2015


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