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Theoretical foundations of multimedia

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue August, August 1 - August 31, 2000 | BY Robert S. Tannenbaum 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Multimedia is now a major factor in an increasing variety of aspects of the lives of people. Education, advertising, entertainment, business, health care, scientific research, government, and many other fields all make extensive use of multimedia productions at a rapidly increasing rate. The clear implication is that multimedia productions have the potential for growing social influence on users. Therefore, a multimedia producer has an obligation to consider the societal ramifications of his or her work.

In one sense, multimedia is not different from any other medium used to communicate with people -- an author should be aware of the potential impact of the content and the manner in which it is delivered. However, multimedia can be extremely effective in delivering both intended and subliminal messages. Therefore, a developer should accept conscious responsibility for considering the societal impact of a production. Concerns about the societal obligations of multimedia productions are becoming so widespread that books devoted entirely to the subject are beginning to appear. Here, only accessibility and ethics will be considered.

Availability and Accessibility of Information

Who owns information, and to whom is access granted? These rather fundamental and profound questions have been addressed by Anne Wells Branscomb in an informative and provocative manner. Her 1994 book, Who Owns Information? From Privacy to Public Access, includes chapters on such personal matters as "who owns your name and address?" and "who owns your telephone number?" It also includes chapters on matters of direct relevance to the creation of multimedia productions, such as "who owns your image?" " who owns your electronic messages?" "who owns video entertainment?" and "who owns computer software?" and, as James Boyle asks in Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society (1996), "who owns genetic code?"

The amount of information that is available in digital format, much of it accessible via the Internet, is almost immeasurable, and the amount is increasing rapidly every day. The questions related to ownership of this information have significant implications for society from several perspectives. First, information about an individual, such as a photograph that includes a person's image, raises a number of privacy issues. Second, digital information, such as images, programs, messages, and so on, may have considerable commercial value. And, third, digital information raises issues of accessibility related to who, under what restrictions, for what purposes, and for what fees, may gain access to the information. There are liability issues that may arise, also, but they are beyond the scope of this discussion.

In terms of the history of law, privacy is a relatively new concept. The right to privacy as a legal concept is usually dated to a seminal, 1890, Harvard law review article by Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, later a justice of the Supreme Court. They were prompted by and particularly concerned about late nineteenth century journalists' (mis)uses of photography, which they felt intruded unacceptably into people's private lives. They wrote:

There is substantive support today for the proposition that privacy is a "basic right" entitled to legal protection. . . . There is an emerging recognition of privacy as a distinct, constitutionally protected right.
In the succeeding hundred years, the courts and Congress have generally agreed with Warren and Brandeis and have created a clearer definition of the right to privacy and provided certain statutory and legal protections for this right, including its extension to four specific torts and a number of other privacy issues. However, as Branscomb makes frighteningly clear, digital technology is changing much faster than the law.
The law will lumber along like an unwieldy dinosaur wending its way to extinction if it cannot keep up with the pace of change in this new interactive, information-intensive environment. But the law is by nature conservative, attempting to bring order out of chaos only as fast as consensus can be reached among social groups willing to conform to norms they believe are fair and workable. . . As time goes by these behavioral norms are written into statutes and constitutions that then govern future human behavior. The law is -- or should be -- a sociopolitical process through which free citizens agree on the norms and rules of behavior.
Presently, new technologies and ways of exploiting digital information are being introduced far faster than laws can be written or revised. The courts are often forced to interpret existing laws to cover situations that may not have been foreseen or even foreseeable when the laws were written. Such reliance on basic principles and attempts to discern legislative intent are well within the legal tradition, but they result in a considerable degree of uncertainty with regard to the legal status of various digital projects and the rights of the people affected by them.

For multimedia developers, the relevance of privacy issues is clearly associated with the use of images and other digital information related to individuals. Photographers have long understood the need for and have followed a practice of obtaining releases for (formal permission to use) images they create of individuals who could not be considered public figures. Multimedia developers should follow the same practice.

A public figure (such as a political candidate or a sports figure), in his or her role as such, does not enjoy the same rights governing the use of his or her personal image. But most people have the right to control the use of their image, their voice, and most information about themselves by permitting or refusing permission for its use or reproduction. Therefore, before incorporating any digital information concerning an individual person, a developer should obtain an appropriate release. Such a release can be thought of as analogous to obtaining a license from a copyright owner for use of certain material.

In a more general sense, persons have a right to expect that their privacy, including digital information, will be respected, whether this refers to an image of themselves or any other data that may be related to them. This right is based upon certain common law principles and is embodied in various state statutes (thirty-five states have statutes relating to unauthorized access to computer systems) and federal laws such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Jonathan Rosenoer provides a discussion of both the common law and constitutional bases and the various federal statutes relating to privacy, as well as a number of relevant court decisions in his 1997 book CyberLaw: The Law of the Internet.

For a developer of multimedia materials, the burden of this right to privacy implies that whenever identifiable personal data is employed in a multimedia production, permission should be obtained from the individual concerned, and the use should be limited to the purpose for which permission is granted. A widely accepted code of good practice for the use of private information is reproduced in the accompanying box. [See United States Information Industry's Code of Good Practice below. Ed.] Clearly, not all of the code applies to all or even to many multimedia productions, but it provides sound guidelines for any developer to follow in all dealings with identifiable personal information.

United States Information Industry's Code of Good Practice

1. No personal data record-keeping system may be maintained in secret.

2. Individuals must have a means of determining what information about them is in a record and how it is used.

3. Individuals must have a means of preventing information about them obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without their consent.

4. Individuals must have a means to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about themselves.

5. Limits should be placed on the disclosure of certain personal information to third parties.

6. The individual whose request for correction or amendment is denied may file a statement of disagreement, which must be included in the record and disclosed along with it thereafter.

7. Organizations creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take reasonable precautions to prevent misuses of the data.
8. An individual should have means of seeking review of a denied request or an alleged violation of duty.

This version of the code is reprinted from Perritt, Henry H., Jr. (1996) Law and the Information Superhighway: Privacy, Access, Intellectual Property, Commerce, Liability, New York: John Wiley, p. 91.

The reverse aspect of the issue of privacy is the issue of access to information. In various ways and for various reasons it has been asserted that access to information, even what has been termed "universal access," is not only desirable but essential to the progress of our society. According to Milton Mueller in an article in the Communications of the ACM ( 40(3) March, 1997), universal access in telecommunications began as a myth created by the Bell telephone system and it has now become a philosophical foundation for the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The universal service referred to in the 1996 act is of significance to multimedia developers because it includes the technology for widespread distribution of digital material.

However, regarding the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Mueller asserts the law assumes:
-- It is inappropriate to rely exclusively on market mechanisms to promote the diffusion of basic and advanced telecommunications services.
-- Local telecommunications access should be subsidized if it is to become universally affordable.
-- It is meaningful and desirable to designate a particular type of service as the "universal" service.
-- The goal of a competitive, deregulated telecommunications marketplace can be reconciled with universal service subsidies.
According to Mueller, "these assumptions went virtually unquestioned during the drafting of the legislation, yet all are open to serious challenge." Whether one agrees with Mueller or not, for the present at least, it is the policy of the United States to encourage and subsidize some form of universal access to digital technology.

To the extent that this access becomes a reality, a multimedia production may be deliverable via a network to an ever-increasing proportion of the homes in the United States However, such delivery via a network, imposes certain constraints on the size of the files that ought to be included if they are to be downloaded in an acceptable time.

One final access issue that developers should address relates to making multimedia productions accessible to persons with various physical impairments. For example, a special version that does not rely on any of the sound files could be prepared for persons with hearing impairments, a version with large type fonts could be developed for visually impaired users, or a version that does not require any keyboard input but takes user commands through spoken natural language processing could be designed for users with manual dexterity limitations. Another approach is to ensure that all essential material is presented in at least two different media, perhaps simultaneously, so that a user with limitations in one of the media can still access the material through the other medium.


However people conduct their lives and whenever they interact, they are behaving in accordance with certain ethical standards. They may endorse the standards consciously or simply abide by them somewhat automatically, but the standards are there at all times. Ethical standards apply to computer-related behavior as well as to all other aspects of human interaction and communication. Ethical questions related to multimedia development concern two basic aspects of the activity: the behavior of the developer and the production, and the contentsof the production.

A growing number of universities are offering courses to computer science majors and other students concerning ethical behavior associated with the use of computers. In addition, an even greater number of courses, although not devoted entirely to ethics, include major segments that deal with the subject. Engaging instructional activities related to computer ethics are being devised and discussed in the literature, and a dozen or more books have been published recently that address the ethical use of computers from a variety of approaches.

All of these books address ethical behavior on the part of computer developers and users, as do the codes of professional conduct of various professional societies. For example, the code of ethics of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM),, includes statements of "moral imperatives," and detailed lists of "specific professional responsibilities" and "organizational leadership imperatives." In addition to the code itself, there is a set of supplemental guidelines that provides explanatory paragraphs for each of the main points in the code. The guidelines include definitions of terms and examples of their application.

In the preamble to the ACM Code, it is asserted that: "The Code and its supplemented Guidelines are intended to serve as a basis for ethical decision making in the conduct of professional work." In other words, the code is meant to guide professional behavior. Similarly, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has a Code of Ethics that consists of ten moral imperatives and includes a commitment to the "highest ethical and professional conduct"

A third code of ethics that is relevant to multimedia production was drafted by a joint ACM-IEEE committee. This "software engineering code of ethics," as it is currently known, is available at

Although the moral imperatives included in the ACM Code are consistent with many major world religions and philosophies, they have been stated in the code in terms that are directly relevant to computing. The professional and leadership responsibilities are even more specifically related to computing activities, but they derive directly from the basic principles. Although in some ways it sounds as if someone is preaching to computer professionals about their behavior, it is more appropriate to regard the ACM Code and other such professional codes as a restatement and clarification of the principles by which a professional should always live and by which she or he should measure professional activities.

In their article in the Communications of the ACM ( 36(2), February, 1993) Ronald E. Anderson and several other members of the committee who wrote the code make the point that it relates directly to professional conduct in a practical manner by describing nine cases of realistic situations in which the ACM code can be used to guide professional decision making. For example, their first case deals with a hypothetical programmer who, under considerable time pressure from her supervisor, incorporates code from other people's software into her own program in order to complete it on time. Their discussion focuses on the resulting violations of intellectual property rights, integrity, and compliance with existing laws and various sections of the code.

It is important to note that the ACM Code should be read as relating not only to the behavior of the computer professional but also to the behavior of any software or other system she or he creates. For example, software should be written so as not to violate a person's privacy (sec. 1.7), to ensure confidentiality (sec. 1.8), and to be in compliance with all applicable laws, especially copyright (secs. 1.5 and 2.3).

The second aspect of ethics related to multimedia development mentioned above concerns the contents of a multimedia production. The ACM Code does not directly address content, but two of its sections should be read to include content. Section 1.4, which relates to fairness and taking action not to discriminate, implies that a developer should take steps to ensure that the content of any multimedia production is fair to all who are affected by it, both those mentioned or used in the content and those who will use it. Section 3.5 relates to protecting the dignity of all users, which surely requires that the content be appropriate and carefully chosen. Clearly, these imperatives may place a serious responsibility upon a multimedia developer who is dealing with controversial subject matter, but no different from the burden on any conscientious and ethical author.

Many multimedia productions entail serious ethical issues, whether they are considered consciously as such or not. For example, the original 1996 program called Creatures by CyberLife Technology Ltd., which allowed the user to create a personal, virtual pet, a "Norn," implied issues of genetic engineering. Although Creatures is now in its third version, the original description said:
Your Norn is alive. She must learn how to eat, rest and look after herself. She is able to learn what is good and what is bad on her own, but you can speed up the learning process by tickling or slapping her. Later on, when you have taught her to talk, you can say "Yes" and "No" to achieve the same thing.
The program required the user to care for the pet (e.g., feed it regularly or it would die and help it "to learn what is good and what is bad"), implying the moral value of taking responsibility for animals in general and one's pets in particular. Of course, the producers built in their definition of "good" and "bad." For example, the suggestion that the user might "slap" the young female Norn could be interpreted as insensitivity toward, or even condoning of violence toward women.

Furthermore, the virtual pet reproduces, raising the question of whether the developers of the program should discuss or include options for sterilizing the pet or aborting a pregnancy. In addition, the death of the pet, to which many people, especially children, become quite attached, creates a moral question of the responsibility of the producers for bringing pain to the user. (Further information on the current version of Creatures can be found at

The choice and use of content should be considered both in terms of what is included and in what format, and in terms of what is omitted; that is, the developer should be aware of "errors of commission" and "errors of omission," as they are sometimes termed. An obvious example of an unacceptable error of commission would be the use of derogatory stereotypes in the content of a multimedia production. In addition to being unethical and in violation of the ACM Code, such use would be foolish from a marketing prospective, given the sensitivity of modern society to such negative representations. An example of an error of omission would be the lack of diversity in the examples or the models included in a multimedia production. Many users and potential customers might be offended if the models were not diverse with regard to gender, race, age, and so on.

It is possible to become too concerned with ensuring sufficient diversity and "politically correct" content. Such over attention can paralyze a project. What is needed is a conscious awareness of the relevant matters and a sensitivity to the perceptions of users. A relatively small investment in determining reaction to the content by means of focus groups or beta testing can go a long way toward making the content acceptable and nonoffensive.

The ethics of communication in general in these times of cultural diversity have become the subject of consideration and study. The essay by Jana Kramer and Cheris Kramarae (included in a collection of related essays edited by Makau and Arnett, University of Illinois Press, 1997) is of particular importance to multimedia developers. Their focus is primarily on behavior on the Internet in relation to various models of ethical behavior and how these models, in turn, are related to gender and gender stereotypes. The models and the points made by Kramer and Kramarae can be applied just as well to multimedia productions, especially those that are delivered via a network.

Kramer and Kramarae suggest four primary themes that are prevalent in discussions of behavior on the Internet. They label the themes "anarchy," "frontier," "democracy," and "community." Anarchy describes behavior in which there is no respect for or, in some cases, recognition of laws of behavior. Hackers who exploit their abilities to circumvent security measures and may cause damage to existing software or data are the embodiment of anarchical behavior.

The frontier theme refers to conquering a new frontier where one is on one's own, using one's own judgment, and solely responsible for one's own behavior. This theme is based on the stereotypical American pioneer -- fiercely independent and self-sufficient.

The democracy theme is based strictly upon the one-person, one-vote model. However, as they point out, because the majority of the persons participating in computer use are of a particular class and gender (upper middle class white males), "in a traditional or true democracy where individuals vote in their own best interests and there are no checks on the power of the majority, the minorities [by gender, race, and class] are left out in the cold in protecting their interests."

The community theme refers to groups of users with similar experiences and interests, such as special interest groups. However, such a group that lacks diversity is less a community than a "club," according to Kramer and Kramarae. They point out that if the Internet ethic were truly a community, it would not allow groups to be underrepresented or even excluded from the net as is presently the case.

Kramer and Kramarae conclude that an ethic that combines some of the strengths of individualism with a sincere concern for the well-being of all people, together with the rejection of stereotypes and artificial hierarchies (both gender-, class-, and race-based) would be much more helpful overall for users. This conclusion is quite consistent with the implications of the ACM Code.

Clearly, developers of multimedia have an obligation to be concerned about the ethical aspects of their production. There are certain legal responsibilities and various professional and ethical considerations they must address. It is important that multimedia developers consciously include these matters at all stages of the creation process.

Excerpted from Theoretical Foundations of Multimedia, New York: Computer Science Press, W. H. Freeman, � 1998 by W. H. Freeman and Company. Used with permission. Robert S. Tannenbaum, Ed.D., is director of Academic Computing Services at the University of Kentucky.


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