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Uphold ethics in the management of the knowledge society: Dr. Machengete

Dr. Gift Machengete, the Director-General of the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) has given an interesting insight into the ethical dimensions of information and knowledge societies while speaking at the 10th virtual high-level policy session of the World Summit on the Information Society yesterday.

Below, Spiked Online Media shares Dr. Machengete’s astute response to the question fielded to him during the summit.

Question: How can a Knowledge Society manage the ethical dimensions that come into play when generating, sharing and making available, knowledge that may be used to improve human development and what has been the Zimbabwean experience?

Dr. Machengete’s Answer

We live in a world where creation, organisation, dissemination, and use of information, is mostly done through the click of a button. Many people across the world and in Zimbabwe, turn to the internet for a variety of information. It can be study material for educational purposes or just self-improvement information. It can be self-help information that assists them in solving a problem in the home or at work, or even in business. It can also be treatment solutions for a health problem. Currently, the COVID 19 crisis has seen many “internet doctors’ churning out prescriptions on social media and the internet, for the pandemic.

Unfortunately, there is no quality assurance of information posted on the internet. Anyone can post anything and even claim to be an expert. Some of the solutions can even turn out to be harmful, while some of them can add a wealth of useful knowledge.

The advent of various technologies and increased interconnectedness has not eliminated the ethics relating to information, but increased ethical concerns in various dimensions. Identification of the relevant ethics and their various facets, is critical for knowledge societies to deal with the issues involved. These ethical concerns, are what WSIS Action Line C10 deals with.

The first step that can be taken by knowledge societies in dealing with the Ethical issues that may arise, is to identify the dimensions. The next step is to come up with measures to manage the ethical issues and the last one, is to come up with sanctions for unethical behaviour.

The basic principles of ethics that come to mind include Integrity and accuracy of information, privacy and confidentiality, Copyright and plagiarism, security and, intellectual property. In addition, knowledge Societies also need to consider issues arising from emerging technologies, especially the use of artificial agents in activities that require moral decisions to be made, such as self-driven cars, where there is no human intervention. They also need to consider the implications of Internet of things, where intelligent gadgets make decisions that may require moral considerations to be taken into account.

 Technology has a tendency to make what is unethical, look normal and acceptable. A person that would never contemplate walking into a bookshop or music store, to steal a book or music CD, may not see anything wrong in downloading a book or music in a way that makes him avoid paying the Author or Singer. The ease with which one can copy and paste material, may make Students and work-shop presenters plagiarise other people‘s work without a qualm.

Individuals can deal with information integrity issues by checking the credentials of authors, verifying the information against a primary source and evaluating the website.

Methods of dealing with the ethical dimensions, at corporate and government level, include putting in place Codes of Ethics, having robust secure systems, formulating internet use policies and promulgating laws that govern creation and dissemination of information, as well as treaty level agreements, among countries. Censorship is an age-old method, that can also be useful. Censorship may be good in order to prevent readers being exposed to offensive and objectionable material. It may however be regarded as   unethical, as it results in failure to provide the necessary information for scholars and innovative people, to come up with solutions that benefit society. 

There is however, no doubt that we all have the ethical duty to protect the minds of children to ensure that what they consume is morally sound and does not damage them to an extent that makes them adopt unethical ideas and behaviours portrayed in the material shared with them. Society and individuals, have a duty to make sure that  solutions posted on the internet in different articles, do not harm their readers ,be they medical patients, aspiring business people or those seeking  self-help information to improve their lives and relationships. In this regard, Zimbabwe commends ITU for its recently Published Child online Protection Guidelines.

Zimbabwe has had its fair share of information and knowledge dissemination. This has also come with a fair share of ethical problems.

Just as other parts of the world have grappled with hacking, Government systems in Zimbabwe, as well as banking system have been targeted. Some of its people have been lured into pyramid schemes, or fallen victim to phishing and identity theft and, have had their computer systems compromised.

While privacy data breaches in Zimbabwe have not been as spectacular as incidents like the 2013 yahoo data breach, which compromised over 3 billion user accounts, or  the over 10 major  incidences of hospital and medical data  breaches in the USA in 2019, Zimbabwean companies have also experienced some data breaches. Recently, one of the Country’s citizens had her COVID 19 results come out in the press, complete with her name and address, before she had even received the results from the testing centre.

The results also went viral on social media and people panicked when they saw her. Data breaches that may result from mistakes by employees of entities that store large amounts of personal data, as in the case of the Blue cross employee who in error uploaded data relating to 16000 Blue Cross patience on a public facing website, can also be part of the problem.

Zimbabwe has come up with policies that encourage both the public and private sector to secure their computer systems and websites. The local banks have robust firewall systems to ensure safe transactions. Laws in place include copy right and intellectual property laws. The right to privacy is enshrined in the constitution, while confidentiality contracts are the norm in inter-company transactions and consultancy arrangements, as well as cross border transactions. A new cybersecurity and data protection Bill is due to become law soon, to enhance the existing laws. Universities use plagiarism checkers to ensure that students do not commit this offence.

These laws simply compliment the moral norms that are ingrained in every Zimbabwean, that of (Ubuntu) (the nature of our personality). This concept is promoted continuously by our Government and the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, in the quest to achieve the ethical target of bridging the digital divide, to ensure that every citizen joins the information highway and participates as a full member of our knowledge Society.

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende