Ethics Workshop

 

Discussion Topic

 

 

Copyright 5/27/01  All rights reserved.  Andrew Olson

 

 

The Ethical Dimensions of Privacy and What Should We Do About It?

 

The following are fictional scenarios based loosely on practices observed in industry.  In each case, a reference is cited where more specific information about such practices appears.  Names, in particular, are fictional and are intended to bear no resemblance to real persons or organizations.  These scenarios are intended to provide scenarios around which discussions and problems of ethical analysis can be developed.

 

Scenario 1:

 

A company, A.com, recently notified its customers of its new privacy policy.  This policy omits some of the privacy protections of the previous policy, such as not selling, trading or renting personal information.  Instead, a careful reading of the document reveals that customer information would be one of the assets transferred in the event that another enterprise acquires the company.  Furthermore, it states that customer information is a company asset, which it can buy and sell as it continues to develop its business.  It can also share customer information with affiliated businesses.  Elsewhere it specifies that the information it can collect about its customers includes e-mail and postal addresses, telephones, credit card information, social security and driver's license numbers, purchase history, products for which the customer searched on its Web site, the sequence of the URL sites the customer visits while progressing to and from the company's Web site, and the names, addresses and phone numbers of those to whom the customer has products shipped.  Additionally, it states that the company's business changes constantly so that the conditions of its use of customer information will change correspondingly.  The data gathered at one point in time will be subject to whatever policy is in effect at some subsequent time.  When contacted about the new policy, a spokesperson for the company said that the policy very clearly states that the company is not in the business of buying and selling customer information; its customer list is not for sale.  It must get the customers' permission to share information with businesses other than affiliates.[1]

 

Questions:

How does this policy compare materially with that of many other companies now?

What is the ethical basis for such policies?

Does it contravene an ethical philosophy?

Does this policy, especially if many companies adopt it, impact negatively the social fabric?

   If so, what is the social cost relative to the social benefit?

 

[1] Foster, Ed.  The Gripe Line, INFOWORLD, September 25, 2000, p 140.

 

 

Scenario 2:

 

J. B. Whistler recently left Bellbottoms, Inc. for a more lucrative post.  Before leaving, she informed a reporter, she worked designing the company's set top boxes.  She stated that these collect statistics about the customer's viewing habits, such as each use of the remote (channel, volume changes, etc.).  This information is aggregated into reports on the popularity of the shows for the benefit of the cable companies and advertisers.[2]

 

Questions:

What is the ethical basis for such activities?

Do they contravene an ethical philosophy?

Do these activities, especially if many companies adopt them, impact negatively the social fabric?

   If so, what is the social cost relative to the social benefit?

 

[2] Cringley, Robert X.  Notes From the Field, INFOWORLD. October 9, 2000, p 115.

 

 

Scenario 3:

 

Ms. Xenia Moreno recently received an unsolicited message offering her an astounding product (or so it said).  The spam message came from a popular ISP, so she went to its site to see how to prevent the originator from spamming her address again.  The ISP's page on abuse said to send a message to a specific address with the ISP's name.  On doing this, she began receiving around 20 unsolicited messages a day.  Each of these said that to remove oneself from the mailing list, one needs to visit a page on the ISP's site.  When she visited this page, she saw that it required the complainer to provide extensive personal information, which she was not willing to reveal.[3]

 

Questions:

Apparently reputable companies are collaborating in spamming operations.

Is this legal?

What is the ethical basis for such activities?

Do they contravene an ethical philosophy?

Do these activities, especially if many companies adopt them, impact negatively the social fabric?

   If so, what is the social cost relative to the social benefit?

 

[3] Foster, Ed.  The Gripe Line, INFOWORLD, November 6, 2000, p 101.

 

 

Scenario 4:

 

When Ms. Xenia Moreno visited the Web site of B.com recently, she completed the required user-preferences form and made a purchase.  When she set the user preferences, she made use of the 'opt out' option to indicate that she did not want to receive periodic product announcements.  Shortly thereafter, she received a note from the company stating that "apparently due to a software error" her preferences had been set to 'opt out', so the company had rectified the situation by resetting then to 'opt in' so she would be "in line with the rest of the company's customers".  Weeks later, Willy Bergstrom received a similar message.[4]

 

What is the ethical basis for such an action?

Does it contravene an ethical philosophy?

Does this action, especially if many companies carry it out, impact negatively the social fabric?

   If so, what is the social cost relative to the social benefit?

 

[4] Foster, Ed.  The Gripe Line, INFOWORLD, February 19, 2001, p 83.

 

Scenario 5:

 

Planetary.com's software for download comes with a service agreement that states in part, "In connection with downloading and running the company's software, the company may require the licensee to leave the licensee's computer turned on at all times.  The licensee agrees that, as between the licensee and the company, the licensee shall be responsible for any costs and or expenses resulting from the continuous operation of the licensee's computer, including without limitation any associated charges for electricity, and that the licensee shall have sole responsibility for any maintenance or technical issues that might result from such continuous operation. The licensee expressly permits and authorizes the company to initiate a telephone connection from the licensee's computer to the company's central computers, and the licensee agrees that, as between the licensee and the company,  the licensee shall be responsible for any costs and expenses  resulting from the foregoing."  The company has announced a project in which it will sell the unused CPU cycles of its "volunteer" customers.  However, any customer becomes a "volunteer" with each use of the company's services under this service agreement.[5]

 

Questions:

Assuming that not all customers who are purchasing the company's service are recipients of the unused CPU cycles, and thus, perhaps faster turnaround time, is this policy ethical?

Assuming that all customers who are purchasing the company's service are knowingly recipients of the unused CPU cycles, and thus, perhaps faster turnaround time, is this policy ethical?

If so, what is the ethical basis for such a policy?

If not, does it contravene an ethical philosophy?

Does such a policy, especially if many companies adopt it, impact negatively the social fabric?

   If so, what is the social cost relative to the social benefit?

 

[5] Foster, Ed.  The Gripe Line, INFOWORLD, March 5, 2001, p 87.