Thursday, 31 May 2012

A Discussion of the Internet Privacy

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Who Will Protect Them?

The Internet has been shaping American society more than anticipated. From personal communications to public services, from trade to politics, the Internet is almost everywhere in our society. People are increasingly dependent on the Internet for their information and activities. While it brings enormous advantages to the society, the Internet also produces lots of concerns about privacy.

Jacob Weisberg raises this ethical issue timely in the article “A Banner Year.” Aristotle Publishing is a political firm. It maintains up-to-date voter lists and sells them to campaigns for use in various kinds of voter targeting. Aristotle also developed an Internet application. It cross-referenced its voter information with data collected by portals, Web sites, and Internet service providers. Such sifted information was used by both Bush and McCain’s campaigns to target voters of special interests in the 000 elections. With regard to Aristotle’s practices, Weisberg asks an ethical question “Should a person, by virtue of registering to use a certain Web site, become the involuntary recipient of political propaganda?”

Giving personal information is unavoidable in our society. Anytime one applies for credit card, has medical service, or visits certain Web site, information about this person is collected and stored. But, there is no doubt, people have the expectation that their information will remain confidential when they provide it, and they are unhappy to see their information become a commodity for sale. In this paper, I will try to answer the question raised by Weisberg from two ethical theories, namely Kantian and Utilitarian points of view.

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Before we evaluate Aristotle’s practices, let us take a moment to review the essence of Kantian ethical theory and the Act Utilitarian theory.

Kant “removed moral truth from the zone of contingency and empirical observation and placed it securely in the area of necessary, absolute, universal truth.” Instead of proposing that our ideas and moral values are contingent on an external reality independent of our knowing, Kant claimed, “objective reality is known only insofar as it conforms to the essential structure of the knowing mind.” “Morality’s value is not based on the fact that it has instrumental value…rather, morality is valuable in its own right.”

Kants ethics centers in his categorical imperative (CI) “ ‘Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law’. He elaborates You must act ‘as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature,’ analogous to the laws of physics. He gives this as the criterion by which to judge all other principles. In Kant’s view, “categorical imperatives are the right kind of imperatives, for they show proper recognition of the imperial status of moral obligations. Such imperatives are intuitive, immediate, absolute injunctions that all rational agents understand by virtue of their rationality.”

In order to be successful moral principles, they need to survive another test, which is referred to as the principle of ends. Kant explained, “ ‘So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end and never as merely a means.’ Each person qua rational has dignity and profound worth, which entails that he or she much never be exploited or manipulated or merely used as a means to our idea of what is for the general good (or to any other end).”

Here we have the criteria to make a judgment on social behaviors from Kant. In terms of Aristotle’s practices, we will check if it can pass the Ends Test. (Does it involve violating the dignity of rational beings?) We also need to check if it can pass the Categorical Imperative Test. (Can its practices be universalized?)

By examining Aristotle Publishing’s practices, a Kantian theorist would argue that Aristotle is terribly wrong since it is obvious that the company fails to pass the two tests formulated by Kant. By selling the voters’ information, Aristotle exploits the voters as means towards its own profits � the ends. The voters are treated as hot commodity, and their privacy is stolen. Their dignity is violated. Besides, Aristotle’s practices cannot be universalized. If everyone is involved with the business of selling someone else information, the data would become trivial. The data sold by Aristotle are valuable because they are personal. They are people’s privacy. Anyway, Aristotle’s practices cannot survive the tests, and it is morally wrong.

However, a utilitarian theorist would oppose the aforementioned view. There are two types of utilitarianism act- and rule-utilitarianism. I will use an act utilitarian point of view to evaluate Aristotle’s practices.

Act-utilitarianism can be defined in this way “An act is right and only if it results in as much good as any available alternative.” Calculations may be needed to determine whether Aristotle Publishing is right.

There are two ways to calculate the good. The first one is hedonistic view. It is a scheme invented by Bentham for measuring pain, pleasure, and the good. It is as simple as that Maximize the good. “Simply make quantitative measurements and apply the principle impartially, giving no special treatment to ourselves or to anyone else because of race, gender, or religion.” The other is eudaimonistic view, and was invented by John Stuart Mill. It defines the utility in terms of certain types of higher-order, such as intellectual, aesthetic, and social enjoyments. The hedonistic view shall be used here.

In calculating the utility, an act utilitarian theorist would conclude that Aristotle’s practices are absolutely right. It is evident as the quantitative scores show.

By selling the data, the company could make profits. It gets a pretty high positive score. After Bush and McCain’s campaigns got the data, they could better target the voters. It was very helpful for the campaigns. Another good positive score we can get. Even for those targeted voters, it might be good for them due to Aristotle’s act. Some impassive voters might be drawn to the political process, and to fulfill their civic duties. A good score can be gotten as well. Adding them together, the final score is good enough to surpass any negative score coming from the unhappiness of the voters concerning about their privacy.

Responding to this utilitarian argument, a Kantian theorist would tell him, “The only thing that is absolutely good, good in itself and without qualification, is the good will.” Even though Aristotle’s practices produce a high score, it cannot prove that it is right. Success is not good in itself. In our view, Aristotle does not have good will on the individuals. This company uses them as means to make profits, exploit them, intrude their privacy, and violate their dignity. Aristotle’s practices are so morally wrong.

Which view is right? There is no a definite answer to that. Different people would draw different conclusions to this case based on their different ethical stands and values.

I do not totally agree with Kant’s ethical theories. It is hard to perceive his formula for an absolutely good will and his assumption that our ideas and moral values are independent of the external environment. But I do support the Kantian approach to evaluating Aristotle’s practices.

As we hail the Internet’s many bright possibilities to “enhance the democratic process and encourage the robust and open political discussion,” some have observed that, people’s fears about the intrusion of information privacy not just in the commercial world, but also in the political realm. The growing debate about political privacy primarily lies on two issues. The first concerns the fairness of the on-line campaigning. As Weisberg points out, there is a big TV-Internet disclosure disparity. As a result, “Web companies not only have ability to provide diabolically precise demographic targeting to political campaigns, they can also make such offers exclusively.” If, say Yahoo, offers its inventory of Iowa Republicans to candidate A at a good price, it would be unfair to the other candidates. Since the fairness issue is not the focus of this paper, I will turn to the second concern � political privacy. Specifically, the concern about the increasing use of personal information by political campaigns to target their messages and conduct their campaigns. Just like what Aristotle Publishing does, it might have discouraging effect because of people’s fear of intrusion of their privacy, and it more talks about an ethical problem.

Generally, we have the tendency to control the information that is available about ourselves. We do not like other people knowing certain things about us, such as age, income, marriage status, health condition, etc. We call this “privacy.” What if we were in a society in which people do things without the benefit of seclusion? What is we were in a society in which there is no privacy of the individuals? What if we were in a society in which people have no informational privacy? Hopefully these questions can stimulate our thinkings of what it is that legitimates privacy claims “once we agree that people tend to feel vulnerable about granting access to their bodies or revealing facts concerning their intimate lives, we must also agree that they are entitled to avail themselves of the

conventions of privacy and so reduce this sense of vulnerability to others.”

Privacy is important to us. Privacy has always been treasured by civilized individuals. “It has been described as the kernel of freedom and as the most basic right from which all other freedoms stem. It has been held to be the most comprehensive of all rights.”

To preserve individuals’ privacy is a hallmark of a civilized society. Although political campaigns are fights to win, citizens’ dignity should be honored, and their privacy should not be intruded. At the end of this paper, we should call for more scrutiny over the conducts of some Web companies who disregard the privacy of individuals. Since there is a general aversion to government’s regulation over the Internet, who is capable of defining the Internet privacy policy, and who will protect the individuals from the intrusion of their privacy?


1.Buchholz, Rogene A, “Internet privacy Individual rights and the common good,”

SAM Advanced Management Journal, Vol. 67, 00

.Bruening, Paula “Is Online Profiling Doing More Harm Than Good

for Citizens in our Political System?”

.Pojman, Louis P, Ethics, Discovering Right & Wrong, (Belmont, CA

Wadsworth/Thomson Learning)

4.Solove, Daniel J, “Privacy and power computer databases and metaphors for

information privacy,” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 5, 001




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