ELL: FYI: Report on Ethics Wkshp
whalen at ALVIN.HASKINS.YALE.EDU
Tue May 29 21:32:42 UTC 2001
How can we ethically put language on the web?
by D. H. Whalen, President, Endangered Language Fund.
Report on the SALSA Special Colloquium on Archiving Language
Materials in Web-Accessible Databases: Ethical Challenges,
Sunday, 22 April, 2001.
The internet is a great tool for spreading information around the
globe at minimal cost. As sound gets better integrated into this
world-wide web, it becomes easier to include material from endangered
languages. Since the majority of the world's language do not have an
agreed upon writing system, putting them on the web in spoken form
makes a lot of sense. But can we do it ethically? This was the
question raised at a recent workshop at the University of Texas in
The workshop was part of the SALSA meeting-the Symposium about
Language and Society, Austin, which is in its ninth year. The need
for explicit agreement about ethical issues was brought into focus by
the launch of UT's AILLA project. This is the Archive for the
Indigenous Languages of Latin America (http://www.ailla.org). As
with North America, virtually all of these indigenous languages in
Latin America are endangered. For some of these language
communities, the prestige of being put on the web is very
advantageous, both for pride within the community and for political
leverage with the majority language of the country. But there are
ethical decisions that have to be made at every step of the process.
The intent of the workshop was to bring some of these considerations
to light, both to make others aware of them and to bring in other
perspectives so that a consensus can begin to be formed
The eight speakers had a variety of issues to raise, and certainly
none of them were settled. In fact, most of the talks explicitly
raised more questions than they answered. As a workshop to bring
awareness to issues that are easy to ignore when only the technical
challenges seem difficult, however, this workshop was quite a success.
The clearest consensus was reached on these points:
* "Publishing" on the web is different from publishing on paper. It
has different consequences for the authors of the texts and should be
* Agreements to be recorded are often made with an individual based
on trust with that one person. Putting that same recording on the
web brings the whole world into the picture and should not be assumed
as part of the original agreement.
* This last point is especially difficult to accommodate when the
recordings were made decades ago, before there was an internet to
* The rights to linguistic material fall under the general issue of
intellectual property rights. These are currently being debated in
relation to indigenous culture for music, dance, and visual arts as
well as for language material. In these domains as well, there are
many unanswered questions.
* While problems will always arise, it is imperative that web
archivists have an explicit ethics policy in place. It needs to cover
the known issues but also be flexible enough to accommodate the
developments that we know are going to take place in the realm of
indigenous intellectual property rights.
* Indigenous peoples often assume that others are making money off of
their products. With language material on the web, this is typically
not true, but if it does become true, it is apparent that some method
of sharing that income with the indigenous group is necessary.
An expanded version of this report can be found on our web page
Doug Whalen (whalen at haskins.yale.edu)
270 Crown St.
New Haven, CT 06511
203-865-6163, ext. 234
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