Ethics and law intersect when it comes to questions of internet privacy

Where is the line drawn between ethics and the law when it comes to privacy in the age of the internet?

That’s the question Jeff Nielsen, an assistant professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the David Eccles School of Business, posed to the Ethics Club recently. We often see the law as the bare minimum, Nielsen said, and rely on ethics to govern more complex issues of privacy.

But we are at a unique crossroads where the internet tends to make the line between ethics and the law a bit murky. Legal experts still are trying to iron out where the law ends when it comes to online privacy. And many companies — and the consumers who use their products — are seeing an ethical shift as to what actually constitutes privacy.

Privacy, in Nielsen’s mind, can be broken down into three levels, or concentric rings. The largest, he proposes, is the least private, and includes everyone we interact with on a casual basis. Strangers you walk past on the street who can see what outfit you are wearing, the clerk at the gas station where you occasionally stop in for a soda. The vast majority of the people in this level are complete strangers. At this level, privacy is regulated primarily by the law.

The mid-level includes casual acquaintances such as co-workers, school mates or Facebook friends. This is the area that gets the murkiest, Nielsen said, because while there are some laws that protect us, there is also a heavy reliance on ethics. The trouble is, as situations such as the Cambridge Analytica data mining show, companies are often comfortable operating in dark gray moral areas.

The smallest and innermost ring encircles intimate friends and family, with the self at the nucleus. This is our most private, exclusive space, where we sometimes hide things even from ourselves. This level does have some legal protections, but our interaction here is primarily governed by ethics.

These levels have remained fairly static through the centuries, but the internet has added new complications, Nielsen said. For example, we often feel comfortable sharing deeply personal information with strangers we have met on the internet, but not with our intimate family and friends. But ethics and the law will continue to debate privacy, and it will be up to citizens and the government to come up with new regulations to govern how we protect privacy in these spaces.

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