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Ethics & Information

Short blog — hopefully lots of conversation…

I’m on my way out again for a number of gigs due west of here (Raleigh).  Among them with be an information ethcis summit I’ll be working with in San Francisco, sponsored by CTAP and Yahoo.

When I am talking about contemporary literacy to audiences, nothing causes so many heads to bob up and down in agreement as when I insist that ethics needs to be part of the basic information/literacy skills that we teach our children.  I do not spend nearly enough time on this topic, but have tried to break it down into four basic concepts.

  • Respect for intellectual property (copyright, etc.)
  • Respect for intellectual integrity (respect truth)
  • Respect for each other (cause no harm)
  • Respect for the information infrastructure

What do these mean to you?  What have I left out?

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  • http://shsweb.blogspot.com Brandt Schneider

    My mother lives and works on a large farm in Pennsylvania. When I read the above concepts I thought of how people live in that area. These are strong, tough people who have lived off their family land for centuries.

    Respect property. Respect truth. Respect each other.

    Old concepts that are perhaps taking a back seat as we work in our climate-controlled, plugged-in, high-powered bubbles where we “know” thousands of people and “talk” to hundreds each day, but rarely have to look someone in the eye.

    Perhaps discussions in the “old world” were proactive around ethics. Maybe in the “new world” we have been reactive.

    • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave

      Brandt, Thanks so much for your comments, and for reminding us that so much of this discussion is simply about the plain old-fashioned common sense of how you treat people and their property. Our struggle today is, how do we talk about this, what is the language, within the context of a new information landscape that is not only new, but something quite weird!

      Thanks again!

  • http://plethoratech.blogspot.com Barry

    To add onto Brandt’s comment, I think this is building on the ethics that we do and should continue to teach in schools. “Golden Rules”, as it were. Add onto that respect for teachers, elders, yourselves, your body, your country, your national symbols, opinions, those less fortunate, and……

    School face a tough line to walk as they always have, as many might argue that the job of ethics teaching falls to the parents. However, as we well know, the line blurs as to the role of schools and where parenting starts and ends.

    • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave


      This is a bit broader than what I need, but incredibly important. In today’s information landscape, where we have so much more access to other people, their opinions, perspectives, symbols, etc. learning to respect and honor are more important today than ever before.


  • http://tuttlesvc.org Tom Hoffman

    The logical extension of these ideas is to use free software. Free software is respectful of intellectual property (there is no piracy in the free software world). Free software is respectful of intellectual integrity because it does not rely on hiding the implementation — I can examine the source code to make sure it does what it says it does. Free software encourages respect for one’s peers, because it allows you to help your neighbor and give him a copy of your tools, whereas when you accept a proprietary software license, you are promising to put the author’s interests ahead of all others. Free software is crucial to the integrity of our information infrastructure because it can be audited by anyone.

    More here…

    • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave

      Interesting! With a new information environment, where someone like you or me can build a product that become valuable to hundreds or thousands of people, the nature of property changes. It takes on not just one definition, but many.

      This, and specifically the use of free and open-source software, is something that we should certainly be modeling in our classrooms — as well as commercial software.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock


      Free software is commercial software. Do you mean “proprietary” software? If so, why should we model the use of proprietary software in schools?

    • http://tuttlesvc.org Tom Hoffman

      I think fretting over the difference between “proprietary” and “commercial” is too small a nit to bother picking.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      I don’t think so. Using the terms “commercial” and “noncommercial” imply that free software is about free beer and neglects to point out that the differences lay in the degree of freedom.

      It would be unfortunate if people thought free software was not commercial software.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock
  • http://www.geekteach.com Jason

    I fear this ethics discussion is sometimes too one-sided. I know that any discussion that is headed by someone like David would include a good, balanced discussion about innovations like Creative Commons but our students are in a very different world with copyright and “fair use.” Now that they can challenge the music industry and their corporate pricing schemes, the ethics discussion becomes more complex. It becomes less of a discussion of hard-and-fast rules and more about what is fair and who controls information/media/whatnot.

    • http://www.matthewktabor.com Matthew K. Tabor

      “Now that they can challenge the music industry and their corporate pricing schemes…”

      Pirating content and avoiding compensation for use of intellectual property is not a form of protest. This is not a complex ethics discussion.

      If you want to argue that copyright laws should be changed, fine – there are legitimate arguments for that position. But don’t frame the debate as though students are courageous and engaging in some celebrated form of civil disobedience.

    • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave

      A very good and valuable point, Matthew. But I’m not sure that’s exactly what Jason meant. It’s not so much that students are valiantly challenging corporate media, but that they can. Ethic should be constant. It’s just that the landscape is changing. What’s important is the continued conversations. I’m very happy to read in this discussion that these conversations are happening in classrooms today.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock


      “Pirating content”

      This makes no sense. Piracy involves the stealing of physical objects.

      “and avoiding compensation”

      compensation implies some sort of harm has been done. What harm?

      “for use of intellectual property”

      What are you talking about? When you say “intellectual property” are you talking about copyright? Patents? Trademarks?

  • http://www.ed205.com Emily

    Although this may be covered in the respect for others category, I think accepting everyone has different opinions and beliefs and respecting them is very important. I agree with the other posters though who talked about Open Source/Free software, and being a good role model about not abusing them. For example, show how pirating music, movies, and games is wrong and hurts our capitalistic society. But using alternative programs is beneficial to teachers and students.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      “For example, show how pirating music, movies, and games is wrong and hurts our capitalistic society.”

      I think it would be very sad to spread this false propaganda to students.

    • http://www.matthewktabor.com Matthew K. Tabor

      Adhering to and advocating contemporary laws and regulations as we work to improve something is not “propaganda” – it’s behaving responsibly.

    • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave

      I see two different issues here. Obeying the law is the right thing to teach. But it is also useful to expose fallacies in arguments that music piracy is destroying the music industry. One might say that it’s the music industry’s reluctance to adapt to change that could destroy it. At least that’s my read on it.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock


      Adhering to law is obedience. Whether or not it is “behaving responsibly” is a separate matter. To equate the two is amoral. This is what Dave does when he says:

      “Obeying the law is the right thing to teach.”

      That is amoral.

  • http://www.matthewktabor.com Matthew K. Tabor

    Points 1, 2 and 3 are already well-established and accepted – there’s little in new media that pushes the boundaries. We’ve got a rich, mature concept of Fair Use and a solid handle on responsible scholarship.

    As for the fourth point – “Respect for the information infrastructure” – what does that entail? I don’t know what you mean by that.

    • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave

      With the fourth point, I’m trying to provide a room for talking about viruses, malicious hacking, and spam. Estimates vary, but spam alone is costing the world billions of dollars. I consider spam, malicious hacking, and viruses to be criminal abuses of information or the information infrastructure. What and how do we teach this to children, some of whom consider hacking to be a sport.

  • http://gnuosphere.blogspot.com Peter Rock

    Tom is right.

    Jason, I’ve been having an incredible time with my high school class regarding this stuff. We’ve spent the last 2 weeks discussing copyright law and have just started Lessig’s “Free Culture”. And Moodle is making the organization and tracking of this discussion easy as pie.

  • http://www.downes.ca Stephen Downes

    I realize you’re just trying to stimulate discussion, but it would be useful to look at some material on ethics before trying to propose one. I like to recommend Fred Feldman’s ‘Introductory Ethics’, from which I’ve taught a number of times. In the absence of that, the Wikipedia page is as good a place to start as any. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics

    For example, look at the first section, ‘metaethics’. Have you thought about what an ‘ethics’ of information liteacy is? Does it *describe* what constitutes ‘good’ practice? Or are you trying to tell us what good practice *should* be? Is it based on ‘natural’ principles of imformation (or literacy?). Or revealed principles – is it based in religion somehow? Or is it purely a pragmatic and utilitarian basis?

    You haven’t looked at any of this – you are just skipping over all that and if you’re not writing principles you’re creating categories. Why should that be the way to go about it? Why should there be principles at all – how can you even have more than one principle, what do you do if they conflict?

    I could go on… but… why?

    I agree with trying to stimulate discussion, but try to stimulate *informed* discussion. Do some reading, draw out some insights, point people to things they haven’t seen. Don’t just play to the crowd, try to bring something of value to the table. Even if it’s just a link to a Wikipedia article, or a reference to a book.

    • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave

      I’m glad you are watching over us, Stephen. I could actually have a bibliography. ;-)

      You are correct, of course. But even with principles of ethics, the conversation continues, because the landscape changes. Teachers need categories. They need rooms in which to hold these conversations.

      Sincerely, thanks!

  • http://eduspaces.net/dtruss/weblog/ David Truss

    Having read Stephen’s comment, and visited the rather wordy wikipedia entry he points to, I have to change the approach of my comment. Remove the word ethics in David’s post and replace it with etiquite and I think this is a valuable discussion.

    There are so many things to ‘Respect’, but the rules are changing. I read an interesting article:
    and wanted to share some of the ideas in my blog… but the copyright restrictions (on the bottom of the link) are ridiculous!
    The fact that I showed “Respect for intellectual property (copyright, etc.)” has killed my ability to explore *and share* the ideas within… this to me is a shame!
    I think LEARNING and ‘learning spaces’ need to be respected. Stephen isn’t criticizing, he is critical. He invites deeper thought and consideration. He invites the reader of David’s post to think. Both David and Stephen have brought something of value to the table here.

    • http://www.matthewktabor.com Matthew K. Tabor

      “Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, nonprofit school district and university use only and may also be sent from person to person by e-mail. This copyright statement must be included. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.”

      … what’s the problem? They’re asking that you reproduce it unchanged to preserve the integrity of the piece. They say it can be sent via e-mail. They say you can reproduce hard copies. They say that it can be used for educational purposes.

      Between those statements and Fair Use, what more could you possibly need?

    • http://eduspaces.net/dtruss/weblog David Truss

      Re: Matthew K. Tabor

      Perhaps I misunderstand the copyright but the way I interpret it Miguel breaks the copyright here:(referring to an article in the same issue, by the same author as the link in my comment above)
      * He just quotes parts- not ‘unchanged to preserve the integrity of the piece.
      * not an e-mail
      * not a hard copy
      But Miguel draws attention to the article and promotes discussion. To limit him from doing this on a digital text is outdated… in my humble opinion… and what happens when someone chooses to take parts of a quote from Miguel’s post without going to the original text?

    • http://www.matthewktabor.com Matthew K. Tabor

      E-mail, full reproduction, hard copy – those don’t all have to go together.

      Miguel did nothing to violate the copyright. His use falls under Fair Use and was appropriate.

  • http://technotuesday.edublogs.org/ Cathy Nelson

    Please emphasize ETHICS and the ethical use of information or property. Just b/c we have the tools to lie, steal, cheat, rob, and commit any number of illegal activities doesn’t mean its okay. My students are debating this very topic right now w/ the Jammie Thomas case. We are stunned (and I am saddened) by the supportjammiethomas site. You may also want to talk about how the businesses are catering some too (Prince giving away free music and Britney S releasing newest CD early due to many pirated copies available NOW on P2P sites. Im just one teacher librarian–and many of my kids just do not believe that they can get caught.

    • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave

      I like what Cathy says here with regard to children’s ability to lie, steal, cheat, rob, etc. In today’s information landscape, we can literally change the rules to accomplish our goals, and this might not always be a bad thing.

      This is what is so important about Stephen Downe contribution, that we need to understand the basic and long-standing principles of ethics. They will, undoubtedly, apply to most contexts.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      Why are you stunned/sad about people supporting Jammie Thomas?

      “many of my kids just do not believe that they can get caught.”

      Are you saying we should not support those who are caught breaking an unjust law? By emphasizing the “get caught” (one would never bother saying that if the crime was immoral) you imply that the law is not right. So why not support her? Or are you saying that to live a good life is to obey law? If so, this is amoral.

  • http://eduspaces.net/dtruss/weblog/ David Truss

    I’m going to upset a lot of people with this comment, but Jammie Thomas was as much a victim as criminal.
    Reading about the development of the Record Industry in The Spider and the Starfish, I can’t help but feel that the music ‘industry’ perspective is behind with the times and, like the copyright issue in my point above, ridiculous.
    At times, I put the Record Industry and Schools in the same category… stuck in the old ways…
    “Students today depend too much on ink. They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil.” From the National Association of Teachers Journal, 1907.
    You might argue that this is an old reference, but how many school boards have banned UTube? How many are trying to ban cell phones?
    Britney Spears can go on tour tomorrow and in a year, having worked half the days I will this year, she will earn more than I will in my entire career as an educator. (Even with the bad publicity she has had of late!)
    Will free digital media make it tough for a new music star to make it? Yes, but they have a hard time making it with a record companies too. It won’t be any harder, just different, and some would argue easier!
    You can no longer *police* the transfer of digital information… but you can still be respectful and role model proper etiquette (forgive my spelling in the last post).
    I probably come off as a hypocrite proclaiming Jammie Thomas a victim and speaking of respect and etiquette, but the reality is that a case such as his would be laughed out of the courts 10 years from now.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      Perhaps she was a criminal though this is due to the fact that the law is unjust.

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  • http://gnuosphere.blogspot.com Peter Rock

    My take on the Jammie Thomas case is here and here.

    I’m happy to discuss the ethics of this. However, anyone using the term “piracy” (unless they are debunking it) is not taking the discussion seriously. Piracy is when you attack a ship and steal physical goods. You cannot engage in a serious discussion around the ethics of this case if you use RIAA/MPAA propaganda.

    • http://www.matthewktabor.com Matthew K. Tabor

      “Piracy is when you attack a ship and steal physical goods.”

      If the Captain keeps a detailed log of his travels and that book is stolen, it’s piracy – but if he recounts his tales verbally and his First Mate later makes a career out of reciting the Captain’s stories verbatim, it’s not a misuse of one’s intellectual property?

      And this is a broad point about intellectual property law, not the RIAA/MPAA.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      If you wish to discuss this seriously you will need to let me know what it is you are talking about. Copyright? Patents? Trade Secrets?

      We spread confusion when we use the term “Intellectual Property”. Anyone engaging in a debate over the merits of “Intellectual Property” has no idea what they are talking about. Or, they do but are disingenuously trying to confuse others.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      Or, they’re being lazy.

  • http://tuttlesvc.org Tom Hoffman

    Following up Stephen and Peter, defining and justifying (ethically, legally) the concept of “intellectual property” is key to making this an informed conversation/lesson.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      It’s really an inappropriate term altogether as referring to any body of law under this umbrella term as dealing with “property” is a gross misrepresentation of the reality of intangible work. In fact, the term property encourages people to think in a most unenlightened way. It’s the “property” way of thinking that encourages the promotion of archaic copyright and patent systems.

    • http://tuttlesvc.org Tom Hoffman

      Just to be extra-nitpicky, Peter, we’d be better off if we were actually stuck with “archaic” concepts of copyright, trademark, etc. What we’ve actually got now is a radically new system.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      I’m not understanding. What do you mean?

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      Oh I think I see what you are saying. You mean go back back back WAY back.

      Yeah I guess that the term “archaic” means that. I mean it in how the law applies to technology rather than in a time-based way. But, point taken. I’ll think of a new way to express the archaicness of the law. :)

  • http://tuttlesvc.org Tom Hoffman

    Although, following Peter, choosing to not use the term “intellectual property” is a reasonable result of a close study of the term

  • Mark Spahr

    I think you are treading a dangerous line when you are talking about “unjust” laws. I realize that you are referring to copyright and intellectual property issues and I don’t disagree that changes are needed. But if you are teaching or discussing ethics with your students, I would encourage you to be cautious about discussing the amorality of obeying an unjust law. I hope you are not suggesting that a law should not be obeyed because you see it as unjust. Where do you draw the line? Kids have a bad habit of hearing what they want to hear and are very good at justifying their actions, even illegal ones. I know this because I teach in a juvenile prison in Maine.

    Any responsible conversation about ethics and unjust laws should include ways to work within the system to change the laws.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      “I hope you are not suggesting that a law should not be obeyed because you see it as unjust.”

      Of course not. That would be silly and dangerous. I’m simply calling people on statements like “Obeying law is acting responsibly” or “Breaking the law is wrong”. Whether one obeys or breaks the law has nothing to do with whether or not their conduct was ethical. My point is, law is not a moral guide. And it is very dangerous to identify it as such. Hopefully, the writing of laws is guided by ethics. If it is, it is more likely to be a just law. But even so, a written rule can never replace our conscience.

      I’ve never told any of my students that they should violate copyright law. That wouldn’t be teaching. That would be preaching. I do, however, point out common situations where they have to choose between helping a friend or obeying the law. Then they see that the law is unjust. I don’t want to tell students what to do. If I do, I’m not encouraging them to think deeply or critically.

      “Any responsible conversation about ethics and unjust laws should include ways to work within the system to change the laws.”

      I fully agree. In my class we’re looking at the system rather extensively. Well, at least as extensively as one can imagine in a high school class with a teacher who is not a lawyer by profession. Any suggestions?

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      “I would encourage you to be cautious about discussing the amorality of obeying an unjust law.”

      Oops. Forgot to reply to this directly. To be clear, what is amoral is taking the view that we should obey law because law should be obeyed. For example, “Jammie Thomas should be punished because she broke the law” is an amoral statement. Even if she had killed someone innocent or saved a drowning baby by breaking the law, the statement would still be amoral.

      I think it is important to see this as I encounter SO many people who believe that law should be obeyed because it is law. If that’s not a recipe for a stagnant society, I don’t know what is.

  • http://pam20.blogspot.com/ Pamela Carr


    Great point! And you don’t have to work in a juvenile prison to regularly see young people justifying their illegal actions! I agree that we need to teach students how to create change by working WITH the system, not against it.

  • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

    I digress…

    Am I missing something or can you not reply to replies on these threads? And all the replies to original comments are one big link on my browser. Do I need IE or something for this site to work properly?

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  • http://coolcatteacher.blogspot.com Vicki Davis

    I think that students must not use one another as their measuring stick. I see this with global projects all of the time. Just because someone in __ country can get away with copying a popular song, doesn’t mean you can. Your ethics are judged by what is right not by what others are doing.

    As the example of the 31 year old mother fined $222K, it is not an excuse to say “everybody’s doing it.” We are held accountable for ourselves.

    And right now, everyone is going 150 miles an hour in a 55 mph zone… but at some point the police come out.

    Like it or not, the law is the law and we need to keep kids safe.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      “And right now, everyone is going 150 miles an hour in a 55 mph zone… but at some point the police come out.”

      I don’t understand this metaphor. Driving 150 miles an hour in a 55 miles an hour zone is reasonably considered dangerous. Therefore, it is against the law. That is, the law is just. Police who work to prevent this seem to be doing a good service to society.

      Are you saying the law that prevents file sharing of published work is similarly just? If not, I don’t understand why you would use a metaphor where the justification for the law is reasonable.

    • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com Peter Rock

      As well, I suspect something when you say “get away with” instead of “legally copy and share culture”. It implies that you view file sharing as wrong…not just against the law.

      Is that so? If so, I’d like to hear your thinking as to why it is wrong to share published information.

  • http://www.dentocafe.com/ FernandezAlexia

    Great point! And you don’t have to work in a juvenile prison to regularly see young people justifying their illegal actions! I agree that we need to teach students how to create change by working WITH the system, not against it.

  • http://doodeesthailand.blogspot.com/ Doodee

    Thanks for sharing

  • http://xtqsmsl.freebiehost.net/map.html Berttonfoge

    I’d prefer reading in my native language, because my knowledge of your languange is no so well. But it was interesting! Look for some my links:

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