The study of technology is incomplete without understanding the ethical implications that such advancements incite. One such technological issue, the ethical conundrum of privacy on the web, has remained controversial since the advent of great advancements in technology. The issue embodies the struggle to find the balance between citizen privacy and citizen safety. Rushworth Kidder, in his work How Good People Make Tough Choices, simplifies the ethical checkpoints to which an ethical issue should be scrutinized. And by evaluating the problem of privacy on the web using Kidder’s standards, it may be efficiently analyzed. In confronting a problem that does not fit the right-versus-wrong model, it is evident that the problem of privacy on the web can only be resolved through a compromise – in regulation and not complete restriction.
Determine the Dilemma
The first steps to consider, according to Kidder’s model, are to recognize that there is an ethical dilemma and to determine whose dilemma it is. The considerable exponential growth of the online market is uncontested as the web offers convenient access to a vast array of goods and services, and to rich sources of information (Federal Trade Commission, 2007, 1). But the increase in consumers also led to an increase in consumer concern for privacy. Surveys conducted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have shown that consumers are concerned about how their personal information is used in the electronic marketplace. And since 1996, “Congress has passed several laws regulating access to explicit content on the web” (National Academy of Sciences, 2003, 1). But certain statutes, such as the Communication Decency Act (CDA), were declared unconstitutional for the suppression of speech it establishes. Thus, since society found a need to address the regulation of indecent content and misuse of information on the web, the privacy of online consumers has been compromised – creating an ethical dilemma that the government has been deemed responsible to reconcile.
Consider the Facts
The facts must then be considered. Two major factors contribute to the privacy problem of the web, which are attributed to “the inherently open…nature of the web and the complex, leakage-prone information flow of many Web-based transactions that involve the transfer of sensitive, personal information” (Rezgui, 2003, 40). The right to privacy is implied in the United States Constitution, specifically in the amendments in the Bill of Rights. But the gross amount of explicit content on the Internet has called for a need to regulate such content, affecting the right to privacy or rather the freedom to act without interference by others. But it is unclear which of the two, citizen safety or citizen privacy, that the government must ethically prioritize.
Run The Tests
Kidder then asserts that the issue must be analyzed using a right-versus-wrong test and a right-versus-right test. In this case, either side of the argument cannot be deemed as right or wrong. Privacy and safety are both morally upheld by society – thus failing a right-versus-wrong test. Considered as a right-versus-right issue, the dilemma now transforms into an individual-versus-community problem. Consequently, it can be argued that privacy is in individual right and safety is a community right.
Review Ethical Theory
After analyzing the issue, ethical principles must be applied. But “although there is much agreement about general ethical rules, there are many different theories about how to establish a firm justification for the rules and how to decide what is ethical in specific cases” (Baase, 1997, 46-47). As a result, there are a variety of ethic views in existence. The first of which is deontology, which applies the three principles of universality, rationality, and absolutism. This view holds that the rules of behavior can be applied to everyone and logic should be standard for what is good. Even if a rule has both good and ill implications, it must be followed. According the principles of deontology, if the government establishes a rule of privacy or a rule of safety, it must be followed regardless of the detrimental consequences that particular statute could cause. In this case, there is no grey area in which a compromise could be met. The second ethical view, utilitarianism, is guided by the principle that the “morally right action is the action that produces the most good” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009, 1).
The change in aggregate utility is calculated. This view has several flaws – considering that it is impossible to determine all the consequences, good or bad, of a specific action and considering that this view does not recognize or respect individual rights. This ethical view would hold the right to safety as more morally sound than the right to privacy – valuing community rights over individual rights. The third view, prioritizing natural rights, values the protection of private property. This view advocates for a sphere of freedom in which “people can act freely according to their own judgment without coercive interference by others” (Baase, 1997, 49-50). This view, unlike the view of utilitarianism, values individual rights over community rights – favoring the right to privacy. In addition, the Golden Rules view holds that reciprocity should be considered. An ethical choice must be considered from the perspective of the people it affects.
This view upholds both sides of the citizen privacy versus citizen dilemma, as perspective determines which one is morally right. The fourth view, contribution to society, advocates virtuous activity. Community rights are therefore more prioritized in this case, as it would be responsible to think of the well being of society over individual freedoms. Lastly, the fifth view, which addresses social contracts, highlights that people are “willing to submit to a common law in order to live in a civil society” (Baase, 1997, 51-52). This view prioritizes community safety above individual safety. Since the issue at hand is a right-versus-right dilemma, different ethical views support each side of the argument. Using only the existing ethical views, neither side has the upper hand – as it depends on the perspective of the individual or in this case the government, who is obligated to act. Consequently, to reconcile the issue, a compromise has to be made.
Make A Decision
Several guidelines could be imposed to reach an understanding between privacy and security. And such guidelines are already established. Proponents of security on the web desire to safeguard against unwanted, seemingly indecent, content. Measures restricting all types of content have strained individual privacy rights. The compromise that has been reached involves only restricting children’s “access to sexually explicit material on the Internet” (The National Academies of Science, 2003, 1). Furthermore, in terms of misuse of information, progress has been made towards regulation. The FTC settled with Facebook settled with Facebook in 2012, “resolving charges that it had deceived users with changes to its privacy settings” (Sengupta, 2013, 1). Thus, the compromise is in regulation and not in complete restriction of content. Opponents of prioritizing community safety argue that the security gained is not worth compromising liberty. But security from unwanted content and unwanted access uphold the right of citizens to be protected from such dangers and it is the duty of the government to represent the opinions of these citizens as well.
Thus, the consensus can be reached in regulation and not complete restriction, and this is evident in the legislation that has already been passed and implemented. In principle and in actuality, it is evident that in trying to balance citizen safety and citizen privacy, neither side has the upper hand.
- Baase, S. (1997). A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues in Computing. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
- Driver, J. (2009, March 27). The History of Utilitarianism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved July 21, 2013, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/
- Trade Commission. (2007, June 25). History and Overview. Federal Trade Commission. Retrieved July 21, 2013, from http://www.ftc.gov/reports/privacy3/history.shtm
- Academies. (n.d.). Internet Laws. The National Academies Press. Retrieved July 21, 2013, from http://www.nap.edu/netsafekids/pp_li_il.html
- Rezgui, A. (2003, November 15). Privacy on the Web: Facts, Challenges, and Solution. Understanding Privacy. Retrieved July 20, 2013, from www.csun.edu