Thanks to colleagues in the Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media Department at Michigan State University for their valuable critique of some of my thoughts on the ethical dimensions of e-government initiatives following my seminar there today. My paper examined the moral implications of the use of ICTs in e-government initiatives, focusing especially on national databases, identity cards and surveillance technologies. It suggested that in resolving debates over these, we need to reach ethical resolutions concerning notions of trust, privacy and the law. I also drew attention to the ethical problems that emerge in linking the notion of Universal Human Rights with the introduction of ICTs in developing countries.
In terms of general conclusions, the following seem particularly pertinent:
- First, there are indeed many complex ethical aspects associated with e-government, and while to date the emphasis among governments of developing countries, international agencies and donors has very largely been on their positive practical benefits, I suggest that we need to pay much more thorough attention to their ethical grounding, and especially to the balance of rights and interests between citizens and the state.
- Second, in so doing, I suggest that three areas warrant particular attention, namely the ethics of trust, privacy and the law. It is here that Geuss’s (2008) emphasis on existing real political contexts, rather than the imposition of some external ideal ethical solution, needs to reiterated. The fundamental point I wish to emphasise is that in each country where e-government initiatives are introduced, people need to ask about the rights and wrongs of such proposals in terms of existing ethical understandings of trust, privacy and the law.
- I also sought to raise fundamental questions concerning the continuing validity of much of the human rights based policy and legislation that has dominated global agendas during the last 50 years – particularly in the context of e-government initiatives, and their implication for the rights of individuals and the responsibilities of states. We need to open up for sensible debate the value of the emphasis placed on human rights, criticism of which is all too often seen as being politically incorrect and a taboo subject. However, if people do not actually have ‘rights’ that they can give up to a state, then we need to reconsider the whole edifice upon which such arguments are built. An idealistic belief that people have universal rights has not been any protection for those who have suffered at the hands of those who do not believe in such rights. There is therefore a strong argument that we need to shift the balance away from rights, and towards the responsibilities that people and states have for each other. For example, rather than simply claiming that knowledge is some kind of human right, it might be a much more positive step to argue that states have a responsibility to enable their citizens to gain knowledge.
- Capurro (2007) has argued that ‘Western’ concepts of individual privacy are very different from the ‘African’ emphasis on communal traditions. It may well therefore be that many of the existing models of e-government developed around European and north America notions of individual privacy are inappropriate in an African or Asian context, and that instead Africans and Asians should instead be designing new such initiatives around their own traditions and cultural practices
- Whatever the benefits to states, individuals and communities of e-government initiatives, there is no doubt that global corporations developing the hardware and software for such systems have been very great beneficiaries. One of the difficult ethical questions that arise from this concerns how we judge whether it is better for poor and marginalised communities for such e-government initiatives to have been introduced, or whether they might actually be more advantaged if their governments did not spend vast sums of money on their implementation. Just because it is possible to implement national citizen databases, to use biodata for ID cards, and to introduce sophisticated digital surveillance mechanisms does not mean that it is right to do so.