Information Technology: Some ethical and social questions from an Icelandic viewpoint

WITFOR, Vilnius, 28th August, 2003.



I intend to approach our subject by talking about the part of it that I know best, which is the spread and the use of the Internet in my home country, Iceland.  I hope that the examples I give will shed some light on the ethical and social questions that we must all face, no matter where we live.

Iceland is a nation of about 290,000 people. We speak our own language, Icelandic, and our country is an island with an area of just over 100,000 square kilometres in the North Atlantic, far from the nearest continent. Our closest neighbours are Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which have home rule but belong to Denmark, as did Iceland until 1944.

When information technology got off the ground and came out of the scientific research institutes and within the reach of the general public, Icelanders were in the same position as people in other developed countries with a good telecommunications basis. We did not know, any more than anyone else, what this new technology would involve and what pros and cons it would have, though I should mention that some far-sighted people had already established an educational network linking up the schools before the revolution of the Internet came upon us.

I can well remember how, less than ten years ago, many people were worried that the Icelandic Government, or the political parties, had not realised how much was at stake and how vital it was to adopt a clear policy and open the way for Icelanders to take an active part in this voyage into uncharted waters.

Policy goals.

In 1995 the Government decided to formulate a policy on the issues of the information society. The policy formulation was an attempt to ensure all citizens full and equal access to the innovations and options that would become available.

The policy was introduced in the autumn of 1996 and contained two key words: guidance and vigilance.

Guidance referred to the Government's role in guiding information technology along a path and facilitating its headway into as many fields as possible for the benefit of Icelanders.

Vigilance referred to the further necessity of the Government's standing guard over cultural and ethical values, such as the Icelandic people's identity and the protection of sensitive, personal information, which some people feared would be swept away in the flood of change.

The Government’s chief objective was to ensure that Iceland should be in the forefront of the world's nations in the utilisation of information technology to enhance the quality of life and lead to greater prosperity. To follow up on this chief objective, five main goals were set out as the foundation for a vision of the future:

- Icelanders should have easy access to the information society. Its advantages should be utilised to strengthen democracy and increase the quality of life for the benefit of the public and the Icelandic economy. Information technology should be employed in all fields, whether for innovation, public health, science, the arts or other areas of daily life.

- Complete equality should be ensured between the public and private sectors in the field of information technology and the information industry. The Government, with the help of information technology, should facilitate access to governmental information and services so as to put individuals and companies on an equal footing, irrespective of their location and economic resources.

- Information and telecommunication technology should be mobilised to improve the competitiveness of the Icelandic economy, increase productivity and proliferate the possibilities of exporting Icelandic know-how.

- The educational system should adapt to changed social dynamics and focus general education and continuing education on the advantages of the information society, while at the same time safeguarding Iceland's language and culture.

- Legislation, rules and working methods should be re-examined with respect to information technology to stimulate technological progress and to protect the rights of individuals and companies

Radical changes.

In the years that have passed since this policy was drawn up, Icelandic society has undergone radical changes as regards the use of information technology. Most of the goals laid down in 1996 have been secured, and in many areas the changes and transformations have been greater, and have taken place more quickly, than anyone had imagined.

If we examine access to the Internet, we find that about a third of people in Iceland had such access in 1997. By 2002 this figure had risen to over 80%, and about 78% of homes in the country are now connected to the Internet.

Internet users make great demands regarding data transfer capacity and reliability, and these demands increase as people become more familiar with the opportunities offered by the Internet. There has been a lot of public discussion of these matters, and at times both the public and the business sector have made vociferous demands that the government improve the capacity of the telecommunications system.

The aim that all homes in Iceland should have access to a 128 kbs (kilobyte-per-second) ISDN Internet connection within three years was stated in Iceland’s Telecommunications Act of 1999. The situation has now been reached where 90-95% of homes have access to such a connection. ADSL connections are available to more than 80% of the population. 

Iceland has only one gateway to the outside world via its Cantat-3 submarine cable. There is some concern about this, especially since malfunctions have sometimes occurred and when this happens it has been necessary to resort to satellite connections, which are very expensive. Work is now in progress on the laying of another submarine cable to the country.

Recently a high-speed net was established, linking more than 60 senior schools and continuing education centres all over the country. The data transfer speed is 100 mbs (megabits per second).  This has revolutionized all communications between these institutions and ensures that people living in small places in the rural areas have the opportunity to participate in distance learning projects.

Access to material.

At the same time as the individual units in the school system have been put in closer contact than before, efforts have been made to expand the amount of material that is accessible to everyone on the Internet.

An Educational Gateway has been created, where the recording of content is currently in progress as well as linking it with courses, academic subjects and curriculum goals. A database of curricula will be prepared that will facilitate preparation of school curricula as well as curricula aimed at individuals.  The Gateway will provide comprehensive information regarding schooling, course offerings at all school levels, foreign collaboration, content from teachers' professional associations, and other things of interest.

A Library Consortium has been established, in which the holdings in all the libraries in Iceland are catalogued in one database, so it is now possible to search on the Internet for all books and periodicals in the country’s libraries.

Agreements have been made with major international distributors on nationwide access to electronic databases and e-journals; these are available to Icelandic computer and Internet users free of charge. It therefore makes no difference whereabouts in the country they live: from their computers, they can open the most powerful international data sources and search for information. I do not know of anywhere else where the government has made an agreement of this type on nationwide access. But what I do know is that it has enabled us in Iceland to overcome a lot of the disadvantages we face because of our geographical isolation when it comes to education and scientific work.

The Icelandic language.


The Icelandic language occupies a very central position in Icelanders’ conception of themselves, both as individuals and as a nation. It has been regarded as a top priority to nurture Icelandic and develop it to meet the needs of the modern world.  Thus, the language is regarded both as a national treasure inherited from the past and also a living instrument for use in today’s world, where language skills and communication are more important than ever before. There has been a consensus in Iceland that the growth of electronic communication must not lead to the contamination of Icelandic or the marginalization of its use.

For these reasons, the Icelandic government has done its utmost to prevent information technology from weakening the position of Icelandic. These efforts have concentrated on two main points: to ensure the inclusion of the special letters of the Icelandic alphabet in electronic character sets so that they can be used in word-processing programs, and to have computer operating systems and programs translated into Icelandic wherever this is feasible. 

Regarding the special Icelandic letters, there is now no longer such a feeling of concern that there once was that their position is in danger. The situation regarding operating systems and user programs is different. It is not always possible to get permission to translate them, and for example we had to make a special agreement with Microsoft to have it accept Icelandic as one of its languages.

After several months of negotiations in 1998, I, as Iceland’s Minister of Culture, Science and Education, signed an agreement with Microsoft in January 1999 under which Icelandic became recognized as one of that company’s languages. We regarded this as an important achievement, and the Windows 98 operating system was duly translated into Icelandic. More Icelandic translations of Microsoft programs are scheduled to appear this autumn.

It was a rather strange experience having to fight for the acceptance of one’s language in the realm of this global company. When the agreement was signed, Icelandic became the 31st language recognized by Microsoft.

Since this agreement was made, the Icelandic government has adopted a policy on language engineering aimed at creating a secure place for Icelandic in the world of information technology, for example by making sure that it will be possible in the future to speak to computers in Icelandic.

Age gap.

International surveys show that Iceland is one of the countries with the highest rate of access to, and use of, the Internet. According to most of these surveys, Iceland is one of the top five countries in the world in this respect. In connection with the position of languages on the Internet, Icelandic came tenth in a recent NITL Blog-Census survey of the languages most commonly used for writing Internet “weblogs” or “blog” diaries.

New technology has now become available that enables “blog” users to send SMS messages, recordings and even photographs from mobile phones to their websites. This is based on an interface between the Internet and mobile phones which has been available for some time. In other words, no matter where we are – for example, if we are bored stiff listening to someone speaking at a conference – we can update our websites with text and pictures sent from our mobile phones.

In the light of all these new technological possibilities, it is likely that the gap between the older and younger users of telephones and computers will widen.  The question is how necessary it is to take special measures to bridge the gap.

Computer use by children.

In a recent survey of computer use by children in Iceland, all the children in the sample – aged between 9 and 16 – said they had used computers.  (About 95% have their own mobile phone.) More than half of them said they had the opportunity of surfing the Internet without their parents’ knowledge.  It was not common that children told their parents about what they found on the Internet. They also said they knew more than their parents did about the Internet, and according to them, their mothers and fathers knew the same amount about the Internet.

Sixty-six per cent of Icelandic children in the survey used IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channels. Forty-one per cent said they had been asked to meet people who they had “met” on IRC channels face to face.  Of the children that had used IRC channels, 21% said they had actually met someone face to face that they had first “met” on the Internet, while only 4% of parents thought that this had happened. Eighty-seven per cent of parents said they sat with their children while they surfed the Internet, but only 22% of the children reported that this was their experience.

Most of the children said they knew they should not give personal information over the Internet. Some of them gave false information, but the survey showed that children are more willing to give personal information than their parents think they are. About 33% of the children said they trusted most or all of the information they found on the Internet.

About 49% of children who used the Internet had visited pornographic sites, either by accident or on purpose. One quarter of them said they had been sent pornographic material over the Internet. Altogether, 33% of the children said they had looked at websites with violent material, but only 14% of their parents thought this had happened.[1]

Internet safety for parents.


The reason I mention this remarkable survey here is that it focuses our attention on the fact that children and teenagers are the main users of computers and the Internet, and at the same time they are generally extremely open and vulnerable to what they find there.

We have to recognize that at the same time that we are pressing to have computer and Internet technology used to the full in teaching and learning, we are opening the door to completely different things, and to a form of communication that can have unfortunate and sinister consequences. Let me stress that the Educational Gateway I mentioned before is filtered an should therefore be secure in the sense, that no harmful material for children should be found there. 

I find it very striking how large a gap there is between parents’ perception about the degree of control they have over their children’s use of the Internet and the children’s own experience. Parents seem, in fact, to have very little idea about what their children get up to on the computer, or at least to have a wildly inaccurate view of the amount of supervision or control they have.

Attempts have been made to design filters and electronic blocks to help in controlling the abuse of the Internet so that parents can rely on “watchdogs” to prevent their children from coming into contact with undesirable material. 

Advisory websites such as besafeonline.org have also been opened. This was originally created as part of the Safer Use of Services on the Internet (SUSI) project, an Internet safety awareness project supported by the European Union Safer Internet Action Plan.  It offers advice and information about Internet safety for parents and teachers, plus opportunities to discuss problems and share solutions. This guidance is intended to make adults more aware of how to use the Internet safely, so that they can encourage safe online behaviour among children and young people.

Junk mail.

At the same time as these measures are being taken in the interests of protection and safety, enormous amounts of effort and ingenuity are being devoted to finding ways of getting around them. The clearest example of this is the escalating increase in “junk mail” or “spam.” Most people will agree that this is an undesirable trend on the Internet.

It is now estimated that about 13 billion unsolicited junk mail messages are sent over the Internet every day, which puts an immense load on communication channels and servers all over the world. One consultancy firm, Radicati, estimates that the cost of electronic junk mail this year will exceed 20 billion US dollars; another, Nucleus Research, puts the figure at nearly 90 billion US dollars.[2] On the other hand, it costs ridiculously little to buy access to this market: it is said that a million e-mail addresses can be bought for only 5 US dollars.

Under Icelandic law, automatic mailing systems for telefaxes or e-mail can only be used for direct marketing if the subscriber has given his assent to receive them in advance. This law took effect on 1st July this year. Before that, companies could send one unsolicited e-mail, but if the recipient indicated he did not want to receive more in the future, then future mailings were illegal.  


Privacy of e-mail.

In discussions about e-mail, the question has arisen of whether an employer has the right to read his employees’ e-mail. There has been a dispute as to whether the right to personal privacy, which is guaranteed in the Constitution, prevents an employer from reading e-mail sent to his employees at the company’s domain and received on the company’s computers. Companies have been urged to set clear rules and make their employees aware of them so that they know their position on this point.

An employer submitted, as evidence before a court in Iceland, copies of 158 e-mail messages to his employee, only five of which had a bearing on the case.  The matter was referred to the Data Protection Agency, which took the view that it should have been immediately obvious to anyone reading the messages that all except five of them were personal messages and that the employer should not have presented them as evidence.

The view has been taken that if an employer reads his employee’s e-mail, then the general rule should be that personal data should be treated fairly, relevantly and in accordance with the law. An employer may be entitled to read private e-mail, that is to say, e-mail that concerns his employee’s private life, if there are particular reasons for doing so, for example if he suspects the employee of misusing the company’s computer system or betraying confidence.  In such cases, the reading of e-mail must be in accordance with the aim, and the principal of proportionality must be observed – in other words, the employer may not over-exploit the power that he has.

Author’s responsibility – the Star Wars Kid.

In the survey I mentioned earlier, the answers given by the children show that they tend to believe what they see and read on the Internet. On the other hand, it is known that a lot of what is on the Internet is pure nonsense and fabrication. But there seems to be a general view that people can say anything they want about other people on the Internet, or publish anything at all there. Sometimes this is done anonymously, apparently in the belief that no one has to accept responsibility for what they say or do.  

This is a seriously misguided view, and unfortunately it can cause great personal suffering.  The website jedimaster.net, which is devoted to the Star Wars Kid, has attracted world-wide attention and last Sunday (Ausgust 24th) about 22.5 million visitors had struck down the page since 1st of June this year. On the site you can read this text about its contents:

If you do not know who the Star Wars Kid is, here is his story:

The Star Wars Kid was just goofing off at school. Now he finds his private performance downloaded by Internet users across the world.

The Star Wars Kid is a 15-year-old from Quebec known only as Ghyslain -- his parents are keeping his last name secret to protect his identity. Back in November 2002, Ghyslain was goofing off at a school video studio and recorded himself fighting a mock battle with a broomstick lightsaber. Over two minutes, the video shows the lone, overweight teenager twirling his mock lightsaber ever faster while making his own accompanying sound effects.
Yes, we've all had our dorky, private moments, but this poor kid is living the nightmare of having his private dorkiness projected across the world to giggling Web users. His friends found the tape, and uploaded it to KaZaA as a joke on April 19. Within two weeks, someone had added full Star Wars special effects and noises to the tape, and the video was linked on gaming, technology, and Star Wars-related sites across the Internet. “

It is now claimed that Ghyslain is the most downloaded male on the Web, with 12 million video downloads as of August 15th .  Pam Anderson is claimed to be the most downloaded female.Pam

Ghyslain’s parents are not at all happy about this and allege that their son was so humiliated by the experience that he had to get psychiatric care. This was stated in a lawsuit that the parents have filed against the families of four of their son’s classmates, who they accuse of maliciously turning their son into an object of mockery. The parents, who are seeking $225,000 in damages, say that Ghyslain was teased so much at his private high school that he dropped out and will be under psychiatric care for an indefinite amount of time.[3]

Fighting illegal use.

Obviously there can be no arguments for accepting that the Internet can be used to abuse people’s rights and privacy in this way.  The problem, though, is to find ways of making offenders face responsibility when they violate the rights of others, rights that must be protected to ensure an acceptable basis for normal dealings between people. For example, even though it may be easy to get hold of other people’s music on the Internet, this does not give anyone the right to steal it. 

In Iceland we need to do more than we have done up to now to prevent the illegal use of software. Retailers of such software are convinced that the theft and illegal use of unlicensed software is more common in Iceland than in other countries in our part of the world. I have no explanation to offer for this situation. Software retailers have called for a more purposeful public discussion of this national vice, and have appealed to people’s moral sense to uproot it.

E-commerce, E-government

Naturally, Icelanders are bound by their own laws and international agreements.  International agreements on information technology cover electronic commerce (e-commerce), amongst other matters. 

It has taken far longer than was expected, by the European Union, for example, to put plans for e-commerce into practice. In 2001 the Union set the target that e-commerce should be dominant in Europe by 2003. This target has not been reached, however. A survey at the end of last year showed that only about 6.6% of European companies had fully exploited that possibilities offered by electronic technology in their resource chains.

E-commerce is technologically feasible, but no conclusion has been reached on the best way of using it and how to guarantee sufficient security. On this point too, technology offers us solutions, but people seem to be afraid to try them.  Often, too, it is very difficult to bring together all those who should be involved in designing a comprehensive electronic environment to ensure a sound, secure and convenient solution.

It has been pointed out that it can be an advantage to use small communities to bring all these elements together. The problems faced in small societies are essentially the same as those in larger ones, and once a solution has been found and tested, it can then be applied to larger units.

In Iceland we have tackled challenges of this type. Starting in 1995, in cooperation with a local software company, three government offices jointly developed a document handling solution for government offices and embassies based on a widely marketed a common groupware package. The system has now been successfully marketed worldwide by the developer.

Legislation has been passed for the creation of a health sector database which would contain the medical records of all assenting individuals. This database was the subject of a great deal of heated discussion in the political arena in Iceland, particularly regarding the question of informed consent to be given by participants and the encryption of data to ensure the anonymity of personal data.

Three other major e- government projects may be mentioned: Information system on landed catch and fishing quotas of individual fishing vessels; electronic tax returns and electronic customs clearance of goods over the Internet using digital signature.

Electronic voting.

There has been some discussion in Iceland on how to use the opportunities offered by information technology to make it easier for people to participate in the democratic process, for example by implementing plans for electronic voting.

On this topic I would like to say that politicians feel very cautious when the idea of using electronic technology in elections is mentioned. The obvious question is asked, why new methods should be adopted when the ones that are in use produce satisfactory results.

Regarding the idea of using computers in voting, we have to stop and face the fact that not everybody is yet equally familiar with computers and the world of electronic, virtual reality in general. The older people are, the more limited their understanding and confidence when faced with computers, and there is no doubt, that a lot of older people would find it difficult to bring themselves to use a totally different method of voting. Thus it is likely that many of the oldest voters would regard themselves as having been left out of the field if electronic voting were adopted.

On 23rd January this year, the Economist published a survey of the effect of the Internet on politics. It said that enthusiastic and optimistic supporters of the Internet had expected it to have a great effect in the old-established democracies. They thought it would stimulate public interest in having a say in democratic decision-making. In their view, voters would no longer have to put up with having politicians feed them with information; instead, they would be in a position to look for information themselves, and then they would sit down at their computers and cast their votes. Democratic government would be given a new lease of life through the transfer of “power to the people.”

The Economist’s conclusion was that none of this has yet happened. Governments in democratic countries had put endless quantities of data on the Internet and adopted electronic services in various spheres, but politics themselves had not changed much. Political parties and candidates had opened websites and inundated voters with e-mails, but most studies showed that systematic political campaigning on the Internet appealed most to those voters who had already made up their minds and who also received material by ordinary mail and visits from canvassers. Most money in election campaigns was still spent on advertisements on radio and television.  

This applies to politics in Iceland no less than in other countries.


This brings me to the end of what I wanted to say. I have mentioned some examples from contemporary Iceland and elsewhere to highlight some of the ethical and social questions posed by the use of information technology. We certainly do not have answers to all the questions that arise, which is why it is important to meet at conferences like this one to compare notes and learn from each others’ experience.

Once again we find the old saying to be true: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”  The essentials of what we know and have learned by experience do not change just because new technology comes into the picture. Technology creates new dimensions and new opportunities, but it does not alter the fact, for example, that we must still look after our children and give them guidance in a world that can often be dangerous.

We must still be responsible for our own actions and be sure not to rush ahead so fast that we forget to respect other people’s rights, both as regards their private lives and their possessions.

[1] Morgunblaðið, 30 May 2003. Results quoted from SAFT, a research and education project on safe use of the Internet in five countries: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Ireland. The survey was conducted by MMI in Norway and by Gallup in Iceland. The national parent’s association Heimili og skóli (‘Home and School’) is the Icelandic representative and member of the group.

[2] Morgunblaðið, 30th July 2003.

[3] The Globe and Mail, 23 July 2003.