UNESCO and INFOethics: Seeking for global values in the Information Society

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In the late 1990s, UNESCO organised a conference series on the ethical and legal dimensions of the Information Society, called INFOethics, which provided a forum for debates about the value of information and the moral questions arising from its increasing commercialization. Taking a critical stance on neo-liberal policy positions that dominated international debates at that time, most speakers at the conferences challenged the market-dominated vision of an Information Society and called, instead, for a more participatory model that reflects the demands and needs of users. In the following years, UNESCO publicly defended highly contested issues as 'fair use' exemptions to copyright in the digital environment or the idea of information being a global common good, and started to work on a related intergovernmental recommendation. This provoked fierce reactions by a number of member states and observers, which considered UNESCO's efforts as a thread to their economic, political and cultural interests. As a consequence, the recommendation text was only adopted after several consultation rounds had resulted in major refining of the most contested paragraphs concerning the exemptions to copyright and the public domain content.
The paper retraces the history of the INFOethics conferences and UNESCO's search for global ethical values in the new informational environment as a struggle over divergent visions of an Information Society. It analyses the different and conflictual discourses within the organisation with regards to the value of information and universal access in a digital environment. The research is based on archival research, document analysis and interviews with UNESCO actors. It moreover uses an argumentative approach for the analysis of policy discourse and draws on Robin Mansell's concept of social imaginaries of the Information Society to explain the divergent positions as results of the paradoxical nature of the Information Society itself. The paper thereby contributes to understanding the origins of policy debates on the ethical dimension of the Information Society and the interests of actors from a political economy perspective.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIAMCR conference 2014, Hyderabad, India
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jul 2014
EventIAMCR conference 2014 - Hyderabad, India
Duration: 15 Jul 201419 Jul 2014


OtherIAMCR conference 2014


  • information ethics
  • information society


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