Rafael Capurro
Published in: Byron Kaldis (ed.): Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Social Sciences, Sage Publ. 2013, Vol. 1, 471-473


This entry presents the historical backgrouond and conceptual development of moral questions as well as of methodological and scientific issues comprising the ethics of information, viewing information and communication especially in its technological form.

Historical Background

Information ethics understood as a philosophical discipline dealing with good and bad practices of human communication, has a long history going back, in the Western tradition, to the question of freedom of speech (parrhesia) in the Greek polis, dealing particularly with the Sopphists' and Socrates' criticisms of the mores, principles, and concepts underlying communication in all its practical and theoretical dimensions. Plato’s questioning of the written logos as well as Aristotle’s careful analyses of the uses of language and his theory of rhetoric are forerunners of ethical thinking on the pervasive biases and power structures of communication. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450 and the Reformation that profited from it challenged the legitimization of practices of interpretation and application of the Bible by the Roman Catholic Church, but implicitly also challenged any kind of monopolization of knowledge and its production, storage, retrieval, distribution, and criticism by any human agent based on power. The questioning of customary premodern communication practices culminated in the Enlightenment and its criticisms of political and religious censorship. Freedom of the press, the transformation of private libraries owned by the nobility and the Catholic Church into public property and several encyclopedic projects aiming at critical and broad public access to knowledge were some practical corollaries of information ethics in the mmodern era..

Information ethics became a matter of concern particularly with the invention of the computer and the widespread use of the Internet since the last decade of the 20th century. Terms like computer ethics and cyberethics became popular. The term information ethics has been used particularly in relation to the information society by international agencies such as UNESCO since the end of the 1990s. This process culminated in the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 and 2005.

Information Ethics as an Academic Discipline

The terms information ethics and computer ethics have been used since the early 1980s in the context of library and information science as well as computer science. In the mid 20th century, computer scientists such as Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) and Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008) raised ethical questions about the impact of computers on society, focusing on the responsibility of computer scientists. Computer ethics courses were introduced into academic curricula in the 1990s in schools of computer science in the United States. In the first decade of the new century, professional societies and networks such as the International Society for Ethics and Information Technology, the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (De Montfort University, UK), and the International Center for Information Ethics were set up. There is a large bibliography in the field, including specialized journals and handbooks as well as several international and regional conferences.

There are divergent views concerning the intension and extension of the concept of "information ethics"that is, both its meaning and its reference. Some philosophers criticize the focus on human communication and plea for an extension to include all kinds of beings. This view turns eventually into informational metaphysics: questions of ontology and what to include in it. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the view of information ethics as dealing only with human communication as shaped particularly by information technology. In this case, the concept of information ethics excludes nondigital communication media still used today or prevalent in other epochs and cultures. The concept of information ethics might be extended to cover all kinds of information technology applications beyond the sphere of human communication. From a digital perspective that addresses all beings insofar as they can be digitized in order to be understood information ethics is grounded in information ontology and concerns good practices of being-in-the-world in the digital age.

Key Topics in Information Ethics

The relation between information technology and ethical practices is twofold. On the one hand, it deals with the impact of information technology on good practices and their principles, while on the other hand, it has to do with the ethical reflection on information technology, which could be less reactive and more proactive with regard to the new societal challenges arising from new information and communication technologies. In both cases, information ethics has the task of discussing good practices and their principles with regard to either digital information technology or other media.

Information ethics deals with descriptive and critical issues in different cultures and epochs, giving raise to intercultural information ethics. This includes, but is not restricted to, the question concerning universal practices and principles. There might be agreement on universal declarations, but their interpretation and application might be different according to cultural traditions. An example of intercultural dialogue in information ethics is the discussion on the concept of privacy from a Western versus a Buddhist perspective. Practical consensus might involve different reasons that are the object of analysis and criticism by information ethics. Deontological and utilitarian theories play a major role in information ethics, no less do than theories grounded in hermeneutics, analytical philosophy, critical theory, social theory, Marxism, postmodernism, and critical rationalism, to mention just a few.

Classical topics on information ethics are privacy, identity, trust, justice, intellectual property, cyberwar, the surveillance society, plagiarism, censorship, gender issues, and information overload. Information ethics addresses the effects of the materiality of information technology on the environment caused by electronic waste and especially by its export to Third World countries. It also deals with the economic and political impact of information technology. Ethical analysis and critical evaluation of the global digital economy concerns the relation between transparency, privacy, and secrecy, no less than issues of justice regarding access to and use of the Internet. Information technology in general, and in social networks in particular, plays a major role in the political development of societies. They might strengthen liberation movements and enable new forms of democratic participation, but they can be misused for oppression and exploitation as well. The vision of a people-centered, inclusive, and development-oriented information society, as proclaimed by the World Summit on the Information Society, outlines the object of ethical scrutiny and evaluation in order to develop reliable social conditions for trust, security, and transparency.

New technological developments such as ambient intelligence, human-machine symbiosis, neuro-electronics, affective computing, augmented reality, bioelectronics, the future of the Internet, cloud computing, quantum computing are among the most relevant challenges for information ethics in the foreseeable future. The underlying philosophical debate concerns theoretical and practical prospects for human freedom and self-understanding in the digital age. Both issues cannot be divorced from the relation between humankind and the world, as well as between human and nonhuman life, taking into consideration the dangers and opportunities arising from their manipulation and transformation based on the uses and abuses of digital technology.

See also Human-Machine Interaction; Information Society; Knowledge Society, Systems Theory; Technological Convergence; Technoscience and Society, Trust, Social.

Further Readings

Bynum, T. (2008). Computer and Information Ethics. In Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from

Capurro, R. (2006). Towards an Ontological Foundation of Information Ethics. Ethics and Information Technology 8 (4), 175-186. Retrieved from

Capurro, R., Frühbauer, J. & Hausmanninger T. (Eds.) (2007). Localizing the Internet. Ethical aspects in intercultural perspective. Munich: Fink.

Floridi, L. (2010). The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Froehlich, T. (2004). A brief history of information ethics. Retrieved from

Himma, K. E. & Tavani, H. T. (Eds.) (2008). The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Hongladarom, S. & Ess, C. (Eds.) (2007). Information Technology Ethics: Cultural Perspectie. Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

van den Hoven, J. & Weckert, J. (Eds.) (2008). Information Technology and Moral Philosophy. Cambridge. England: Cambridge University Press.

Last update: April 22, 2017


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