Category Archives: Ethics

Further reflections on the refereeing process

Not so long ago, I wrote about some of the issues associated with peer reviewing of research grant proposals.  This morning, I received editorial comments on one of my recently submitted papers – four sets of comments were broadly supportive, usefully recommending changes that would improve the paper.  However, a fifth referee clearly had not understood the purpose of the paper, which was a largely qualitative analysis of ICTs and disability in Ghana.  This is what the referee wrote:

“The paper lacks a profound research method & data analysis techniques.
In order to improve the paper I suggest:
-You develop taxonomy of the various possible factors (drivers, benefits, barriers, pitfalls) related to:
ICT & Special Education Needs in Developing Country Settings.
-Make a thorough field study grounded by previously derived taxonomy
-Use statistical analysis to determine the correlations between the taxonomies & derive the hypothesis for the study. Or use grounded theory analysis if you are interested more in the phenomenon rather than the correlations.
For the time being the paper findings are scattered and cannot be granted as validated or evenaccurate or complete.
Therefore the paper is not ready yet for publishing”.

OK – at one level, I accept that there are indeed different approaches to intellectual enquiry, but it seems quite clear that this referee fails to see the value of qualitative approaches, and is seeking to impose one particular view of the research process.

At least the other referees found something that they liked in the paper:

  • “This article addresses a particularly important issue very well. The authors understand the problem deeply and support their case with relevant evidence and clear writing.”
  • “This manuscript addresses an important and inadequately addressed topic. Data presented is valuable in informing programs and policy needs related to ICT for people with disabilities in educational settings in Ghana and other low-resource communities.”

I am tempted entirely to give up sending papers to academic journals – let’s face it, few people read them anyway – and instead simply put out material on the Internet and see what readers themselves make of them!

At the very least, I will try in future to submit papers to journals where I have greater faith in the quality of the refereeing process!

———————————————

Following correspondence with the journal’s Editor in Chief, I am delighted to say that my co-author and I are resubmitting our paper, and will include with this a commentary of exactly what we think of the referee’s comments above. Let’s see what happens!

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ICTs, Citizens and the State – seminar at Michigan State University

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  5. 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.

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Google Dashboard

Readers of my Blog will be well aware of my previous criticisms of the company’s ambitions to gather all of the world’s knowledge on its servers, and my concerns over its infringement of traditional ideas about privacy.

It is therefore of considerable interest that Google has just launched Dashboard.  This is intended to provide users of Google services with a summary of all the information that Google currently lets users know that it stores about them.  This is what Google Dashboard shows when you visit the site:

googleAlways having refused to have a Gmail account, and limiting my use of Google, because I do not want the company to benefit too much from the information that they have about me (yes, of course, I use Google as a search engine  – albeit as little as possible – check out Cuil), I am delighted to see this limited opening up of their secrecy.  But just imagine, they will now be checking up on those who use Dashboard, and how they use it!

Google themselves claim under a heading Transparency and Choice that “At Google, we are keenly aware of the trust you place in us and our responsibility to protect your privacy. As part of this responsibility, we let you know what information we collect when you use our products and services, why we collect it and how we use it to improve your experience. The Privacy Center was created to provide you with easy-to-understand information about our products and policies to help you make more informed choices about which products you use, how to use them, and what information you provide to us”.

Brian Heater on PCMag comments as follows: “That whole ‘don’t be evil’ thing is all well and good, but when a company’s whole goal is cataloging the world’s information, it would–at the very least–be nice to know what Google knows about you. The company has just launched Dashboard, which aggregates the different information its gathered from 20 different Google products, including Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Web History, Orkut, YouTube, Picasa, Talk, Reader, Alerts, and Latitude. You’ll need to sign in to view your own personal information. Users can also edit account information from the page, such as privacy settings. Of course transparency doesn’t mean that you can’t still pat yourself on the back. The scale and level of detail of the Dashboard is unprecedented, and we’re delighted to be the first Internet company to offer this–and we hope it will become the standard,” Google said in a statement”.

So, will this actually make users realise exactly how much information and power they are giving Google, or will they consider that the benefits that they get from using Google’s services are worth it?  Google’s financial success has been based on persuading people to give them information for free from which they can then generate huge revenue. This has undoubtedly been one of the biggest business success stories – or cons, depending on how one looks at it – in recent years.  I watch with interest to see whether Google Dashboard will indeed persuade users that the company is as ‘innocent’ as it would like to appear to be.

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Can Miliband really be a serious contender for Europe’s foreign affairs chief?

Miliband 3There is no doubt that David Miliband is bright, intelligent – and on occasions charming.  However, becoming Foreign Secretary seems to have gone to his head.  He has made too many accidental gaffes, and too many serious errors of judgement, for him to be considered as being a serious contender for the post of the European foreign affairs chief.

Yet the campaign for him to get this important post is gathering momentum as the front page headline in today’s Sunday Times, “No 10 backs Miliband for Brussels”, seems to suggest. As the article goes on to say, “senior No 10 sources have revealed that Brown believes Miliband is ideally qualified for the job”.  What does this say about Gordon Brown?  What does it say about others in Europe who seem to be supporting his campaign?  Indeed, what does it say about the European Union itself?  While Miliband currently denies that he is a candidate, the Sunday Times has been told that “he has had a series of conversations with senior European politicians about the Brussels job”.

First there was the banana incident – when he was photographed smirking at the Labour Party conference in 2008.  His defence according to the BBC: “Asked about the picture of the banana on the Andrew Marr Show, Mr Miliband said he was holding it because it was his Miliband 1breakfast, adding that worse things could happen and he did not take such things too seriously”.

But then there were also the photographs of him shaking hands with Gordon Brown at the conference – his face looked so pained that, although he avowed that the Prime Minister had his support, many suspected otherwise.

Whatever one thinks of the notion that a single person should represent the European Union’s foreign policy, if such a post is created it is of  critical importance that its incumbent is someone who is widely respected, who has astute political judgement, and is cultured in a deep understanding of foreign diplomacy.  It is here that Miliband seems to have failed so surprisingly in his role as the UK’s Foreign Secretary.  Take, for example, his visit to India at the start of 2009.  Underneath a headline “Miliband’s trip to India ‘a disaster’, after Kashmir gaffe”, the UK’s Indpendent newspaper commented that “David Miliband was beginning to look as accident-prone as Mr Bean last night after yet another adventure backfired. After ruining his chance of the Labour leadership by gurning at the cameras while brandishing a banana, the Foreign Secretary’s visit to India last week was labelled a “disaster” by the country’s leading politicians. He was accused of being “aggressive in tone and manner” in a meeting with the Indian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and dismissed as a “young man” by senior officials”.  Typical of comments in India was V. Isvarmurti‘s political blog: “When he was appointed as Britain’s Foreign Minister he was supposed to be the youngest to that post for some thirty years. As such he was looked upon as a man of promise and also a bit too young or too premature to that post. He now proves, once in India, he is both premature and a bit over-excited too. Considering he comes to India with the knowledge that India was Britain’s one-time colony, he must have imagined and as most, it seems, may be still people there in Britian seem to imagine they can take India and the Indians granted. Much more shocking was the conduct of this visiting dignitary. He was both arrogant, aggressive as well as a bit hectoring. He seems to have imagined that he can talk and behave as he is used to, may be at home, back in Britain where such conduct and behaviour might be appreciated and considered as a sign of cleverness. But the young man was not only brash he was also a bit crass in not knowing good manners and etiquette”.

In the light of such comments, I find it difficult to understand why so many eminent people think that he should become Europe’s foreign affairs chief.

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Solving the crises facing UK universities

The time has come to ignite a debate about the real purpose of universities in the UK.  I believe passionately that universities should be about the advancement of knowledge, and the pursuit of excellence in research and teaching; they are not just about further education for the masses.  All too often universities in the UK are seen primarily in terms of their contribution to the economy. The incorporation of higher education within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills during the government reorganisation of 2009 is just one symptom of how such thinking has pervaded not only government, but also the private sector and the public at large. All too often, charging fees for students is justified on the basis that graduates earn on average more than those without degrees.  Yet recent research based on figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggests that many graduates do not actually add to their earning power by going to university (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article6832285.ece).

The OECD has long promoted the myth that there is something magical about a country having 50% of its population participating in higher education for the well being of the economy.  This is largely justified on macro-economic evidence suggesting a correlation between the percentages of a population who have been to university and GDP per capita.  However, the existence of such a correlation does not mean that having larger cohort percentages in higher education actually leads to greater economic growth; far from it, it can equally well mean that higher economic growth enables more people to afford to go to university!

In the late 1980s, the UK graduation rate was around 20%, and the government was eager to increase participation both for social and for economic reasons.  By 2004, the rate had risen to 39%, but government funding had not kept pace, leading to the familiar crisis of funding in UK higher education today. Public spending on university education in Britain is just 0.9% of GDP, which is well below Sweden’s at 1.6% (for a 40% participation rate) and the US’s at 2.9% percent (for a 37% participation rate) (figures from OECD’s Education at a Glance 2009 indicators).

What, though, is the evidence that having such percentages in higher education is indeed of benefit either to the individuals or the country, especially if we cannot afford to fund it properly?  Here, I wish to raise four issues that seem to me to be of particular importance:

  • Charging students fees for higher education is socially divisive and distorts the labour market. UK students already now graduate with an average debt of around £21,000, and this figure is set to rise substantially.  Unless they have affluent parents willing to pay off their debts, graduates are desperate to seek higher paid jobs so that they can start generating a real income.Is the so-called ‘education’ that they get, really worth this debt?
  • The academic abilities of many students entering universities is so low that they cannot achieve the academic excellence that universities should be aspiring to.  Many universities make offers to students equivalent to 2 Ds or 3 Es at A’ level.  The quality of education that such students receive can be good, but most students with A’ levels this low are unlikely to be at the cutting edge of knowledge creation in their later lives. How much intellectual benefit do they really gain from their degrees?
  • Going to university is often a lifestyle decision, and many students do not participate sufficiently actively in the pursuit of academic excellence. It is a scandal that students in the UK spend so little time on their academic studies. A report of the Higher Education Policy Institute surveyed 15,000 1st and 2nd year students in 2007 and found that the average time that they spent being taught and in private study was 26 hours a week (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7011121.stm).  This is about the same amount of time that they spend in bars on campus!  In Portugal, students on average spend 40 hours a week on their academic work.  In effect, perhaps half of UK university students are doing what amount to part-time degrees, and yet they expect to get the same grades as those who can devote 40 or 50 hours  a week to their studies.
  • Grade inflation applies just as much at universities as it does for A’ levels.  Business leaders regularly bemoan the declining abilities of graduates.  Is this surprising given how little academic work many students do while at university?  Most university league tables include the percentage of upper second and first class degrees awarded as one of their key criteria.  With such an incentive, is it really surprising that many universities have devised intricate mechanisms to ensure that they award high numbers of such degrees?

None of this is to the benefit of the many keen and enthusiastic students from poor or otherwise marginalised backgrounds who aspire to go to a university to achieve academic excellence, and indeed move knowledge forward. Likewise, there are many outstanding and highly committed students who worthily gain excellent degrees – but my point is that there are far too few of these in our universities today.

Lest I am misunderstood, I should emphasise that academic excellence is something very different from elitism.  We must champion excellence through education and training at all costs.  Indeed, the demise of higher education in the UK owes much to a misplaced emphasis on reducing elitism rather than championing excellence.  Excellence and elitism are fundamentally different concepts.

So, how do we get ourselves out of this mess?  My manifesto for the future of UK universities and continuing education contains four key elements:

  • Reduce the number of universities by approximately half, with funding for research and teaching coming primarily from the government.  Universities are meant to be communities of scholars who undertake research and encourage students to think critically thereby leading to the advancement of knowledge.  This reduction in size of the sector will not dramatically reduce research quality, since this is already highly focused, and it will enable those students who attend university to have a much higher quality of learning environment.  Civilised societies must have excellent universities not only to promote innovation but also to act as their moral consciences through critical reflection.
  • Create a raft of continuing learning institutions to provide excellent training and skills acquisition in fields deemed to be valuable by society.  These could, for example, be in fields as diverse as football, IT skills, dance, plumbing, language training, chefs, line repairers, music, welders, and care assistants.  Businesses, civil society organisations and government should play key roles in determining both the areas of specialism and the funding.  Their key attribute would be that they would encourage people to strive for excellence in their chosen field. Courses would be for up to two years (thereby providing a substantial saving of time and funding on current university three year degrees) and people of all ages would be encouraged to use them to gain the skills required for particular jobs.
  • The system would be underpinned by rigorous selection processes to help ensure equality of access based on skills and aptitude, thereby enabling those best able to benefit from different types of post-secondary learning to do so.  At the heart of this new system will be a rigorous evidence-based procedure to ensure that appropriate advice and opportunities are given to people as to the type of post-secondary learning that they embark on.
  • A redefinition of qualification titles. The awards given by the new continuing learning institutes must also be deemed by society to be as valuable as university ‘degrees’.  This will depend greatly on the quality of learning provision, but if they can provide learners with the skills to enable them to gain highly paid jobs, as for example professional footballers or chefs, then their status will be assured.  Indeed, it is even possible  that those wishing to pursue research careers at universities may well find themselves being paid much less in the future than mechanics and plumbers (http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/news/article.html?in_article_id=429176&in_page_id=2).

These are radical proposals, and will be unpopular in many quarters.  However, unless we engage seriously with the crisis facing universities and skills acquisition in the UK, we will continue to muddle along in perpetual mediocrity.  We once had a university system of which to be proud. Let us not be beguiled by recent announcements suggesting that ‘British universities dominate the world Top Ten rankings for the first time this year (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/student/article6865260.ece, 8th October 2009).  UK higher education is in crisis, and it needs dramatic surgery to make it excellent.

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Emmanuel Jal at Africa Gathering

Emmanuel Jal smallEmmanuel Jal gave a moving rap-rendering and also a more formal account of his life as a child soldier in southern Sudan at today’s Africa Gathering in London.

Amongst his many activities, he is currently actively seeking sponsorship for educational activities in Sudan and Kenya.  The mission of his charity Gua Africa is “to work with individuals, families and communities to help them overcome the effects of war and poverty. Each of our projects focus on providing an education to children and young adults who would otherwise be denied such opportunity. Currently our work is in Kenya and Sudan, however in the future we would like to expand into other areas of Sub-Saharan Africa – working with other experienced partner organisations where ever opportunities arise”.

(video of his recent talk at TED) (Emmanuel Jal on MySpace)

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Hollywood, star brokers and influential charities

This recent article in the UK’s Sunday Times magazine is well worth a read.  In it, Jonathan Foreman provides  insights into the ways in which the power brokers of the talent agencies match influential charities with guilt-ridden celebrities.

I particularly enjoyed the following clips:

  • “Over the last decade and a half, the agency foundations have grown in influence as Hollywood has become obsessed by philanthropy and social activism. It is now all but socially unacceptable for Hollywood big shots ­— and wannabe big shots — not to have a cause. Yet little has been written about the foundations’ existence or the power they wield. Hollywood agencies are famously discreet, even secretive, as they must be for their clients to trust them. It stands to reason that their foundations operate in the same way.”
  • “Such is CAA’s influence that when the agency began to focus on malaria last year, this suddenly became a subject Hollywood people cared about. It was CAA that arranged for FC Barcelona to team up with the Fox soccer channel and to back Malaria No More, a charity that sends thousands of lifesaving $10 mosquito nets to Africa.”
  • “Hollywood’s obsession with philanthropy may also be a sign of deeper cultural shifts in the entertainment industry. The screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd, a prominent conservative, is convinced that it reflects a profound change in the way that actors see themselves. “People become actors because they want adoration and adulation,” he said. “But these days they’re surrounded by MBA types, and it often feels like being an actor is an immature thing to be. Their agents and publicists are better educated than they are. In the old days an agent was a high-school dropout too.”

Who gains most from such celebrity endorsement?  I wish it were really the world’s poorest and most marginalised – but I guess that’s not really going to be the case!

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Google books – philanthropy or piracy?

In the Observer on 30th Augsut, William Skidelsky has added a contribution to the debate about Google’s plans to create the world’s biggest online library.  As he comments “Google has already scanned 10 million books in its bid to digitise the contents of the world’s major libraries, but a copyright battle now threatens the project, with Amazon and Microsoft joining authors and publishers opposed to the scheme”.

As he points out, Google claims that they are doing this for the good of society.  However, he notes that opponents have been critical on the grounds that:

  • “First, they have questioned whether the primary responsibility for digitally archiving the world’s books should be allowed to fall to a commercial company”, and
  • “The second, related criticism is that Google’s scanning of books is actually illegal”

As he concludes, “No one knows the precise use Google will make of the intellectual property it has gained by scanning the world’s library books, and the truth, as Gleick points out, is that the company probably doesn’t even know itself. But what is certain is that, in some way or another, Google’s entrance into digital bookselling will have a significant impact on the book world in years to come”.

See also

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Freedom on the Net

For those who may not have read it yet, Freedom House’s publication entitled Freedom on the Net: a Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media and published in April 2009, provides a very valuable assessment of the balance of interests in the spread of the Internet and mobile telephony across the world.

As Freedom House’s blurb says, “As internet and mobile phone use explodes worldwide, governments are adopting new and multiple means for controlling these technologies that go far beyond technical filtering. Freedom on the Net provides a comprehensive look at these emerging tactics, raising concern over trends such as the “outsourcing of censorship” to private companies, the use of surveillance and the manipulation of online conversations by undercover agents. The study covers both repressive countries such as China and Iran and democratic ones such as India and the United Kingdom, finding some degree of internet censorship and control in all 15 nations studied.”

The overview essay by Karin Deutsch Karlekar and Sarah G. Cook argues that there is a growing diversity of threats to internet freedom and that governments have responded to the spread of new media by introducing new measures to control, regulate and censor content.  As they conclude “In a fast-changing digital world, vigilance is required if we are to ensure continued freedom on the net.”

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Conflicting views on UK ID Card announcement

Alan Johnson, the UK’s Home Secretary,  made an important announcement on 30th June about the future of UK identity cards, noting in particular that:

  • ‘I want it to be a voluntary scheme’
  • ‘It is an important tool for tackling terrorism … it is very helpful’ but is not the whole toolkit
  • it would be an ‘identity card with thumbprint and biometric features’

This was further supported by an update on identity cards posted on the Home Office’s web-site which noted that

  • ‘From 2011-12, ID cards will roll out to the wider population on an entirely voluntary basis. This accelerated roll-out will benefit those people who need the cards the most. ID cards will be particularly helpful for young people who need to prove their age, and will empower businesses to ensure that they aren’t selling items such as alcohol and cigarettes to those who are underage. The government is also exploring the option of allowing pensioners aged 75 and over to receive an ID card free of charge’.
  • ‘The Home Secretary has asked the UK Border Agency to review its successful roll-out of compulsory ID cards to foreign nationals to see how it can be sped up. The agency has already issued 50,000 ID cards to people who are legally living and working in the UK. Under current plans, within three years all non-EEA foreign nationals coming to the UK for more than six months, or extending their stay here, will have a card’.
  • ‘Home Secretary Alan Johnson, said that the cards would be the most ‘convenient, secure and affordable way of asserting identity in everyday life.’ He said, ‘The benefits are not just for individuals but also for communities where a reliable proof of age will be invaluable in the fight against underage drinking and young people trying to buy knives.’ He also pointed out the benefits to young people, who he said, ‘on average, have to prove their age more than twice as often as adults.’ ‘

One of the precipitating factors behind this announcement was rising opposition that airside workers at Manchester and London City airports were being forced to have identity cards.  The Home Office site provides the following official response: ‘Under the new proposals, ID cards will be voluntary for workers at Manchester and London City airports. Workers will continue to be encouraged to get an ID card, which they can do for free, as it makes it easier for employers to carry out background checks and issue passes.’

These announcements are generally most welcome, because they go some way to recognising that:

  • many people in the UK do not want identity cards
  • the costs of introducing ID cards are much higher than was originally anticipated
  • the claim that they will have a significant impact on terrorism is simply not  true, and therefore the government’s attempt to introduce ID cards on the back of public concern over terrorism was devious and misleading
  • ID cards are primarily a means through which the state imposes control over its citizens rather than an actual benefit to those citizens.  If we have survived without ID cards in the past, why do we need them now?

From the above announcements, it would now seem that the main case ‘for’ ID cards now rests on their ability to prevent underage drinking, smoking and knife crime.  Could someone please tell me how ID cards will actually stop young people from getting access to alcohol, tobacco and knives?

It is interesting to note how mainstream media has reported different aspects of this announcement, mostly being supportive of the changes:

  • BBC: ‘Climbdown on compulsory ID cards’
  • The Guardian: ‘ID cards policy to continue’
  • The Guardian: ‘Passport details to be kept on ID register despite card U-turn’
  • The Times: ‘ID cards ‘will never be compulsory’ for Britons’

For other views on ID cards see:

  • No2ID the UK-wide, non-partisan campaign opposing the government’s planned ID card and National Identity Register

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