The Collision of Ethics and Privacy Online


In a time where the majority of people actively use the Internet and rely on the information provided to be truthful, the lack of ethical and moral practices by the media and outside individuals is concerning. As technology continues to grow, it gets easier and easier to obtain information. Chat rooms and social media websites are popular outlets to collect information, whether it is factual or not, and the lack of face-to-face contact allows people to hide behind the computer. In the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Ginny Whitehouse states in her article Newsgathering and Privacy: Expanding Ethics Codes to Reflect Change in the Digital Media Age, “The question here is under what digital conditions and by what online circumstances should secrets be revealed and lies told to get that information” (Whitehouse, 2010). Is there ever a time that it is okay to be deceitful in collecting data? Is it ever okay to skew the information received to better the cause or story? The media gathers information and then releases as they see fit while the public tries and convicts people based off the way the media spins a story. With no clear set of codes on how information can be collected or obtained, a need for regulation is emerging.

Privacy (University of California, Berkeley, 2009)

Understanding of Privacy

In 1890, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren co-authored “The Right to Privacy”, an influential article that sought legal protection for the ‘right to be left alone.’(Warren & Brandeis, 1890). Even at that time, they recognized that the ever advancing technology threatened to disrupt the privacy of individuals. If the information is out there for someone to find, then it is available for everyone to see. In the virtual community, what is considered private? Most often the answer is, ‘it depends’. There are no clear sets of codes and regulations and in journalism and media; it seems to be a free for all. If it is posted on the Internet, it is free for them to do with as they please - even if the information is taken out of context and bears no resemblance to the original story. The journalists fall on excuses such as access to all of the information is not available or that the targets of the information have bigger secrets to hide and are involved in greater evils. An example of this sort of questionable behavior is the case of journalists who worked with the News of the World tabloid who hacked actor Hugh Grant’s phone in an attempt to formulate a story from the actor’s personal communications (Blas, 2012). In this case it is clear the journalists overstepped their bounds by invading the privacy of another individual. It is often assumed that officials will not take the time or invest the money in investigating any wrongdoing therefore the question of ethics and morals fall on the individual. It is suggested that they stop and think whether the level of publicity justifies the sacrifice in conscious to yourself, your colleagues, even the world. Surprisingly, in the case of Hugh Grant’s phone being hacked by journalists, the actor eventually reached a settlement and planned to donate the money to a group known as “Hacked Off”, which is working for a higher degree of accountability for Britain's press (Blas, 2012).


While it is hard to misrepresent yourself in front of a judge, in the online setting it is very easy and done regularly. It is easy for a journalist to sit in a chat room and pretend to be someone else to gain access to private information. Journalists argue that this is acceptable stating that normal means of gathering information cannot always be obtained. An example given dates back to 1978, when the Chicago Sun Times argued that without their deception they would not have been able to uncover the corruption within the city inspection system (Whitehouse, 2010). Where do we draw the line with responsible and irresponsible behavior? Consider chat rooms where sexual predators lay waiting for their next victim; can this be included in the same category as a journalist trying to expose corrupt city officials? Can a distinction even be made? A possible answer given by Bok’s and Nissenbaum’s theories suggests, “Does the information involve such great public peril that the harm done by journalists failing to engage in deception outweighs the harm the deception will bring to individuals, the profession, and the public trust?” (Whitehouse, 2010) It appears that many see this as a grey area, and unfortunately it is all based on interpretation of the person seeking the information. We all can find a reason to justify our actions whether they are right or wrong.

Making Private Comments Public

Social media allows for journalists to make public anything that is labeled private. Questions of ethical practices emerge when comments from social media sites are taken out of context and combined with an ongoing news story and used to further damage someone. What should be considered? As a general rule it should be questioned whether the value of the information that has been gained from these social sites outweighs any harm that could be done to that individual’s sense of privacy or what the public understands of privacy. Sadly, people do not pay attention to their privacy settings and usually post comments without thinking what the future consequences will be. How can a person predict that they will be caught up in a media storm over a small post that is connected to something bigger? Education about Internet privacy as well as always assuming that once something is posted, there is no longer control of what happens to it or if it will maintain its integrity as it was originally intended.

Internet privacy. (Chicago Now, 2014)  
Changing Ethics

Means of communication have expanded so vastly that it is nearly impossible to be secluded. However, ethical reasoning remains the same.  Nothing is new in what is right and wrong, the same ethical practices - and misconducts - that applied before are in effect now (Jennings, 2002).  The past few decades introduced several elaborate methods for interaction and communication from email to social media, but have established nothing new in morals and values.  As it continues to evolve, tradition will continue to hold true and will remain a constant in our ever-changing world.

How to Protect Your Privacy Online

With privacy being such a critical and personal concern, the question is often asked, “What can be done to protect my privacy?” To address such a question, there are certainly simple and straightforward steps that can be taken as well as software that can be utilized. First and foremost, using smarter, stronger and different passwords for online access, such as banking accounts, social media profiles, and email accounts is an essential step to take. Secondly, most social media accounts, such as Facebook and Google Plus provide options to adjust privacy settings, and adjusting these settings according to one’s preference is a proactive step to take as well. Thirdly, Internet Service Providers  (ISP) can access their customers online history based upon a computer’s IP address; however, a program known as Tor can prevent this information from being delivered over the Internet (Huffman, 2014). Lastly, a beneficial guideline to follow to protect your privacy online is always remember that anything uploaded to the Internet can potentially be made public, so always exercise a degree of caution and be mindful of how you communicate online and what you post and upload to the Internet.


Privacy is a defined position of seclusion with the right to not be intruded upon by anyone else.  Ethics are the values instilled in society that move actions to a positive intention.  In any environment, ethics do not have a static role, and in an online venue they become even more convoluted.  Journalists exercise their various rights to freedom of speech, personalities are emphasized and lavishly construed, and people use cyberspace in a different form for privacy.  Despite the evolution of our environments for communicating and sharing, values and morals have not changed.  The Golden Rule applies everywhere - we should respect another’s privacy as we would expect them to do our own.


Blas, L. (2012). Hugh Grant reaches settlement in phone-hacking scandal. USA Today. Retrieved from
Chicago Now (2014, January 31).  Even on the Internet some people prefer privacy [Clipart image].  Retrieved from:
Huffman, M. (2014). 9 ways to increase online privacy. Consumer Affairs. Retrieved from
Jennings, M. M. (2002).  Ethics in cyberspace.  Bized. January/February, 18-23
Warren, S.D. & Brandeis, L D. (1890). The right to privacy. Harvard Law Review. Vol.4(5).  Retrieved from
Whitehouse, G. (2010). Newsgathering and privacy: Expanding ethics codes to reflect change in the digital media age. Journal of Mass Media Ethics. 310-327.
University of California, Berkeley (2009).  The promise of Berkeley [Clipart image].  Retrieved from:

Completed and Posted by Melissa T., Nikkole W. & Spencer W.