ERCIM News No.48, January 2002 [contents]

The Ethical Impact of IT on Government: Democracy and Responsibility

by Bernd Carsten Stahl

The idea of this research project is that democracy can be understood as an institutionalised form of responsibility. If this is true then the results that the use of information technology (IT) has on responsibility can teach us something about the ethical implications of e-government.

The aim of the project so far is to help understand some of the fundamental problems and opportunities that arise from the use of IT in government and administration. In order to understand how IT can affect ethics in general and the ethical side of government in particular the main moral notion is that of responsibility. Responsibility is understood to be a social construct with the aim of ascribing a subject to an object. The process of ascription is based on communication and usually aims at imposing sanctions, be they positive or negative. Responsibility is clearly a moral notion because it reflects our moral beliefs and it affects our social conventions.

On the other hand, responsibility is not part of any one moral tradition, which makes it an ideal concept for discussing ethical theory in general. Democracy is the most widely recognised form of legitimate government today. It is based on moral ideas such as human dignity and equality. The underlying view of humans is shaped by enlightenment’s view of mankind, and its explicit goal is to facilitate and improve our social situation. There are many parallels between responsibility and democracy. Both are inherently dependent on communication, both are based on the assumption of man as a rational and moral being. Both are purely formal constructs that aim at the good, but leave it to the process to answer the question of what that might be. It can be concluded that democracy is a kind of institutionalised form of responsibility. It depends on its being perceived as moral in order to acquire the necessary legitimacy. At the same time responsibility can work best in a democratic environment.

IT, understood as the totality of technological artefacts and processes used to exchange and disseminate information, obviously has an effect on responsibility as well as democracy. Especially the latest development, the universal accessibility of the Internet and the World Wide Web promises fundamental changes in the way we communicate. IT changes distributions of power, money, rights, or obligations. At the same time there is a growing body of literature about the effects of IT and the Internet on government. I will briefly discuss the opportunities and the threats that this development has from an ethical point of view.

The opportunities that the use of IT offers to responsibility and democracy are mostly the result of the increased scale and reach of communication. It is possible to find like-minded people all over the world, exchange information about politically sensitive matters in almost no time, to document this information and to make it available to an almost unlimited number of people. IT can also be said to have a democratising effect on society due to the equal access it allows and to the promises it holds in the area of education. Another point is the economic side of IT that seems to blend in well with the positive relationship that some authors see between democracy and the market economy. Finally, IT allows for more accountability by recording and providing more detailed information that classical communication channels. This accountability is a condition for responsibility as well as the democratic processes.

On the other hand IT also threatens the moral fundament of democracy. The reasons for this can be divided into accidental ones, which result from the particular way in which IT is used, and necessary ones, which are inherent to IT. Computers and IT sometimes change the distribution of power in an undesirable way. People with power over information also dominate democracies. This problem is linked with the question of access and the fact that the traditionally poor now also become the information poor and are increasingly separated. Another danger can be seen in the increasing domination of the Internet by commercial interests which then threaten to dominate democracy as well. Finally there are all the ethical problems usually discussed in computer and information ethics such as privacy, intellectual property, surveillance, quality of data etc, all of which can threaten the legitimacy of democracy.

While all of these problems can be remedied, there are also some other problems that seem to be fundamentally linked to IT and that I call necessary threats. Here we find the metaphysics of the computer. It can only represent objects in 0s and 1s and therefore necessarily blends out most of the relevant facts. This is especially grave in regard to human beings who can lose their relevance in computer mediated communication, which can lead to the loss of the other and consequentially to the loss of the necessity of ethics.

The conclusion of this theoretical overview over the ethical impact of IT on democracy is that there are chances and problems to which politics can react. Politicians can enforce the chances and avoid the accidental problems. However, the necessary problems cannot be overcome by political action. Here we need new concepts and notions and a high degree of sensitivity to the dangers. Further research based on this theoretical foundation should include empirical exploration into the relevance of the threats and opportunities. From there it might evolve in a framework that politicians might use for their dealings with computers and especially with basic questions of policy such as the financing of information infrastructure.


Please contact:
Bernd Carsten Stahl,
University College Dublin, Ireland
Tel: +353 1 706 8202