We also had on a local well known blog attacks and insults of a ferocity which would never have been gratuitously made in a face to face situation. We tend to feel more unconstrained on the net and often seem to revel in the support which fellow bloggers of the same thoughts tend to give us in an immediate thread response.
Examine this situation in the context of the assignment specification especially from the defamation and virtual privacy invasion point of view.
Unethical behavior over the internet is becoming more common. Ranging from private discrete stalking termed cyber-stalking to public defamation, it is becoming increasingly imperative to analyze the ethical issues at stake in these situations. For a personal gain, the stalker makes use of the internet to harass and defame his victim by publicly posting private sensitive information about his victim or spreading false rumors.
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Facts about Online Stalking
Due to the spreading of the Internet across all institutions worldwide, it has become much easier for stalking to take place. Every person probably has personal data available on the Internet, either being on a personal web page or profile; or else being available to search for in government, institutes and organizations databases. Online stalking is much easier than traditional physical stalking due to various reasons:
The person being stalked would probably not be aware of such a fact until the stalker initiates contact with the victim
Cyber stalking can be done from the comfort of the stalker’s home, or from anonymous locations such as a public internet café or an office environment (1). The most crucial fact is that it is done remotely and not by confronting the actual victim. The ferocity and malicious intent would probably be greater as the aggressor feels more unconstrained on the net than in a face to face confrontation.
Several online technologies can be used to stalk online (cyber-stalking). For a stalker to research about the victim, traditional search engine as well as profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace can be used. To make direct contact with the victim, the stalker may make use of Instant Messaging (IM) services, online forums, and chat rooms. Alternatively the stalker may try to elicit a response from the victim by using techniques such as publishing defamatory statements about the victim in public places such as a web site, message boards, or a fake blog run in the victim’s name (2).
Cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying is much more aggressive than if done face to face. The term cyber-bullying is more commonly associated when teenagers are involved in stalking and bullying online, while cyber-stalking is used for stalking involving adults. Dr. Bamford in (3) explains that the anonymity of the stalker greatly reduces traditional social and contextual attitudes such as tone of voice used and relevant body language. Anonymity can be achieved either by submitting comments in public places such as forums without an ID to trace back to the poster, or else using an alias with the aim of masking the aggressor’s identity. Without these attitudes, social norms and constraints are neglected, and further like-minded people might participate with the stalker in harassing the victim.
Anonymity can also be easily achieved by using an anonymous remailer service (4). This would be specialized software aiming to achieve anonymity in the sending of emails. It strips the originating address from an email message and forwards it to its intended destination. All header information that might be used to track the sender is removed.
According to U.S. statistics in 2007 (5), the majority of stalking victims are female at 78%. On the other hand, the majority of stalkers are male at 87%.
Victims of stalking can range from a single person to whole organizations. A previous failed relationship can be a motivator for harassing a single person for emotional gain, while possible financial gain is a motivator for harassing groups or an organization. It is to the stalker’s advantage however if the victim is singled out, making stalking on a single person more common than harassing a group of people. The main motives of stalking, as identified in (1), are:
Stalking an ex-partner of a sexual relationship even after the relationship comes to an end. This can be due to a certain party not willing to accept that the relationship is over. Stalking however also takes place during a relationship. In a research by Tjaden and Thoennes in (6), it was concluded that nearly 60% of females are stalked by their male partner, while 30% of males are stalked by their female partner.
Stalking with the aim of vengeance on the victim. This type is the most dangerous as the stalker is probably premeditating a violent attack on the victim due to a previous grudge. It is to be noted that the majority of this type of stalker are male.
Stalking due to mental illnesses, ranging from delusional stalkers suffering from depressions to harasser stalkers suffering from a certain “attention-seeking personality disorder”.
After obtaining the necessary vital information, in most cases the stalker exposes it publicly to defame his victim. Such public places include chat rooms and more commonly community areas such as online profiles and forums. The stalker may assume the identity of the victim by posting inflammatory and probably fictitious information in the name of the victim to elicit a response from the community (5). This type of action, termed Masquerading, is discussed later on.
There are several defamatory actions that are viewed as illegal and prosecuted, some of which, as mentioned in (4), include the sending of malicious and threatening private messages over the Internet to the intended victim, libel at the intended victim, as well as the publication of messages in public places such as on a web site that show malicious “intent to commit acts of hate-motivated violence”.
Cyber bullying is common in adolescent teens. In a survey carried out in (7), it was reported that 43% of U.S. teens have experienced some form of cyber-bullying in the previous year. This may be due to a lack of knowledge about the reason and the ways to protect private information. The internet and virtual communication environments in general, provide a perfect medium for a ‘cyber bully’ to defame the victim constantly, even after school hours. In June 2003, a twelve-year old Japanese girl ended up killing her classmate after the latter defamed her on the Internet by the posting of certain messages (3).
An example of group bullying is what happened to Canadian boy David Knight (3), who was a victim of a hate campaign when school mates built an online web site entitled “Hate David Knight”. The website contained defamatory pictures and abuse towards the victim. The group also encouraged the global online community to join their hate campaign.
Another form of cyber attacks that is common amongst teens is Masquerading (3). This term refers to either when the stalker/attacker poses as somebody else who is close to the victim, or as the victim itself. In the first case, one can make use of the victim’s closest friend mobile phone to send harassing messages in the name of the friend, for example. In this way, the harasser remains anonymous while at the same time confusing the victim.
In the second form of Masquerading, the stalker may obtain the victim’s login details for personal places such as personal blog, webpage or Facebook profile. This exchange of passwords amongst teens is very common, as it is considered a sign of true friendship and trust (3). The stalker would then proceed to defame the victim by posing as the victim himself/herself, producing a creditable and real scenario for fellow online friends to witness.
Suicides due to Cyber-Stalking and Cyber-Bullying
The effects of cyber-stalking on the victim can be quite damaging. We analyze two such cases where victims ended up committing suicide after being stalked or harassed over the Internet.
The first case is the suicide of Megan Meier, a thirteen-year-old teenager that committed suicide on 17th October 2006 after being cyber-bullied on ‘MySpace’, a popular social networking website (8). A fake profile was set up on MySpace in the name of a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans who wanted to befriend Megan. On the day of the suicide, Megan and Josh had an argument online. Some other participants also joined in and in no time, there were messages and bulletins being sent to friends and schoolmates containing false accusations about Megan about her physique and sexual tendencies. This led to Megan’s suicide. From this case we can see how dangerous such a situation can be over the Internet, where like-minded people join with the stalker and behave unethically and inappropriately to the detriment of the victim.
The second suicide case took place in Abu Dhabi when Emma Jones, a British teacher killed herself (9) after being defamed on the social networking site ‘Facebook’. The responsible harasser was her ex-boyfriend, who posted naked photos of Emma on Facebook. Allegedly he had obtained the photos illegally from Emma’s computer. This public defamation coupled with the fact that she was working in an Islamic country that is very restrictive on such issues contributed to Emma’s suicide.
Stakeholders Involved and Related Ethical Issues
At first glance, the stakeholders in cyber-stalking are mainly the stalker and the victim. However, it may not always be that clear to identify all stakeholders. The victim’s near family can become a stakeholder due to the victim’s possible actions, such as suicide, after being the victim of a privacy invasion or of public defamation. The controlling authorities of mediums that aided the stalker in retrieving sensitive information about the victim are also stakeholders. This however cannot be stated conclusively as legislations vary across various jurisdictions. In a certain jurisdiction, an action may be considered legal while in others it may not.
In a case study of internet stalking (10), a twenty-year old girl named Amy Boyer from New Hampshire was murdered in October 1999. The murderer, Liam Youens, used to stalk her on the internet by searching for her personal information. Using search engine tools that are readily available to everyone, he was able to go through online databases and learn where his victim lived, worked and other personal details. He then set up two web sites, one of which publicly exposed all of Amy’s private details he managed to get hold of. On the other site he explicitly described his plan of murdering Amy.
In this case, Amy’s immediate family members are stakeholders as they have to suffer her loss. The involvement of organizational entities as potential stakeholders is subject to ethical dilemmas. For example, the ISPs hosting the web sites might have a responsibility of monitoring the contents it hosts to avoid such cases. Also, the users reading the web sites might have an ethical obligation of informing the relevant authorities and assist the victims.
We can therefore conclude that it is not always a clear-cut answer when identifying the involved stakeholders. They vary according to the case as well as what we judge as ethically right or wrong.
In the case where the stalker is still an adolescent, the parents and teachers are also stakeholders as they are responsible for the development and education of the person in question. When they however see the deficiencies of laws and technology to deal with such issues, they realize they are quite powerless to avoid such a situation. As regards laws related to cyber-bullying, they are ambiguous and poorly put into practice (3). One reason for this is the lack of technical expertise and resources on the parts of the authorities such as the police, which would make it difficult to actually enforce the laws. The authorities would not have a clear understanding of a certain situation if necessary education and training has not been provided beforehand to deal with such situations.
If we are to ethically analyze the shareholders in various situations concerning the internet, we first have to know who supposedly is in control of a situation and who has to take responsibility (11). Internet infrastructure companies such as Cisco and Oracle are considered as shareholders by some as they ‘provide’ the internet network. However although these companies may provide the backbone structure, they would have limited interest in the content on their infrastructure.
One can direct the blame on the ISPs, however these host limited content. Most newsgroups and chat rooms are nowadays hosted independently not by ISPs, and are not always easy to trace. It can be argued that a paradigm shift of Internet content has occurred from locally to globally (11). Whereas previously we had specialist ISPs hosting and providing all the content, we moved on to an era where the content is provided by the general end users. Examples of this are personal blogs and Twitter feeds.
ISPs cannot be relieved of all the blame though. Even though one cannot expect them to pre-check content posted by their users, they should be willingly able to help should they receive a complaint or notification about particular content they are hosting or malicious users making use of their ISP services.
Roger Darlington in (11) suggests that we first should understand what the word ‘ethics’ means and represents in the context of the Internet before we can conclude who is a stakeholder or not. To have a better understanding of who is responsible for what on the Internet, he suggests that:
We should accept that the Internet is “not a value-free zone”. We should act in a civilized manner as in the end it is us (the end users) who shape the Internet when providing content and services.
Our actions on the Internet should be consistent with what we do in the real life. We should comply with laws when making use of the Internet in the same way as we do practically. The author suggests that we do not invent a new set of laws and values for the Internet; instead we apply the laws we are used to in the physical world for issues including discrimination, pornography and copyrights to name a few.
We should be aware that the Internet is used by people from different cultures, religions and ethnicity. Where possible we should thus try to accommodate as much of the Internet society as possible.
We should be responsive and accept feedback from the Internet user community.
One should make a discrepancy between what is legal and what is ethical. An action might be considered legal yet unethical. There is no law stopping a divorced man from setting up an online profile pretending to be a middle-aged woman who wants to befriend his ex-wife. Most people however would consider this behavior unethical.
Although ethics are only moral guidelines and are not imposed on us like law is, they are more worldwide in judging if an action is right or wrong. As we already mentioned, various jurisdictions have inconsistent laws about similar issues concerning private information. In some countries, it may be legal to accumulate personal data on its citizens and store them in a public repository, while this practice might be illegal in other countries wishing to protect the citizens’ privacy.
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Ethical dilemmas arise in such a case. A stalker citizen living in a country that protects privacy can use a paid service that operates in a country where there is no privacy protection to obtain information about his victim that lives in the stalker’s country. The service is not illegal as it operates from a different country, however such action borders on whether it is ethical or not.
It is difficult to deal with such ethical issues due to a lack of technological understanding from certain authority parties. Political parties demanding that there should be more control on hosted content such as newsgroups and chat rooms would most of the time have limited knowledge about how these are hosted. Also they ignore the fact that it is a near impossible scenario to monitor and control all the information exchange that takes place.
Even when laws are not in place, a responsible party such as a web hosting company should have a moral responsibility to control the content it hosts. For example, if a company hosts a web site about how to make or detonate a bomb, it should not walk away claiming to not be responsible if such information is made use of by members of the public for malicious purposes.
Roger Darlington in (11) proposes some useful solutions to prevent ethical problems on the internet such as cyber stalking and cyber bullying. Laws should be modernized to reflect changing times and to make them in context with the use of the Internet. They should take into account new crimes that are not possible in the physical world such as grooming of under-age girls in chat rooms as well as cyber stalking to name a few. Such actions should be punished by crime fighters who are specifically technically trained for such high tech situations. These fighters should possess all necessary resources to tackle such cyber criminals.
As already mentioned, most of cyber stalking and bullying takes place in open online communities, where the harasser can defame and expose his victim in front of a large audience. Due to this fact, these ‘spectators’ witnessing such unethical behavior should be morally obliged to take action and help the victim. In the United Kingdom, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) runs a hotline where Internet users can confidentially report such criminal behavior or contents. These foundations would be equipped with knowledge and techniques how to deal with such situations by judging the legality of the cases and identifying the culprits. If the content is deemed illegal and is hosted within the foundation’s jurisdiction area, they can issue a notice to the relevant ISP hosting the material to take action by removing the content (11).
In 2002, the Data Protection Act (12) was amended in Malta to protect private data from getting into the hands of cyber-stalkers, cyber-bullies, harassers, and all those with a malicious intent to defame or invade the privacy of a victim.
The document contains a number of clause articles that help protect private data. The seventh Article ensures that when data is processed, it is “processed fairly and lawfully”. The data collected should be specific and used for explicitly stated legitimate purposes. This clause protects the subject from revealing more data than is necessary or required. Article nine of the document clearly states that the subject must give consent before such data provided can be processed. The subject also has the right to revoke his/her consent to sensitive data processing providing legitimate grounds for the revocation. This is specified in Article 11.
Cyber-stalkers wishing to learn personal information about a subject can illegitimately pose as a third-party company that makes use of this sensitive data for marketing purposes. Article 10 of the Data Protection Act specifically protects the subject from such third-parties by having the choice not to disclose his information with such parties.
Article twelve focuses specifically on ‘Sensitive Personal Data’, and states that the processing of sensitive data can only take place if the subject gives consent or else has made this ‘sensitive’ data public. This latter case is one which stalkers profit from, as they make use of already publicized data to defame an individual without any needed consent from the subject in question. They would not have obtained the information illegally as it would be publicly available, for example on the victim’s Facebook profile. One can easily view pictures of the victim and read personal information such as locality and workplace if the victim has not adjusted his/her privacy settings accordingly.
Only in extreme cases, such as if a subject is being investigated or is an issue for national security, public security or the defense should secrecy restrictions be temporarily lifted. This is stated in Article 23.
The Data Protection Act also prevents third parties with possible malicious intentions from processing and accessing personal data. In fact, Article 25 specifies which persons are authorized to process data.
In the previous section, we discussed whether it is ethical if a stalker citizen living in a country that protects privacy can use a paid service that operates in a country where there is no privacy protection to obtain information about his victim that lives in the stalker’s country. Article 27 deals specifically with such a case, whereby the transfer of sensitive data to a third country is subject to it having adequate levels of protection for this data. So if this third country does not protect the data as resiliently as the citizen’s country, then the third country would have no right in requesting for such information.
Ethical Analysis: Consequentialist Theory
A consequentialist ethical theory is a theory that focuses on the overall general consequences arising from an action. This type of ethical theory judges the rightness or wrongness of an action by analyzing the consequences of such an action. In fact it can be defined as “a general normative theory that bases the moral evaluation of acts, rules, institutions, etc. solely on the goodness of their consequences, where the standard of goodness employed is a standard of non-moral goodness.” (13)
Utilitarianism is an example of a consequentialist ethical theory. In Utilitarianism, an action is considered ethically right if it results in the best consequences. Jeremy Bentham, an ancient philosopher and advocate of utilitarianism, defines a right action as “that action is best that produces the greatest good for the greatest number” (14).
However it is not always clear how a quantitative measurement of right or wrong due to an action can be defined. Also it is difficult to compare utilities as they are subject to individual interpretations. One can argue that harm done to a man and a tree should be treated equally as bad, while others argue that harm done to a human is more wrong than harming a tree.
The utilitarian theory does not state that no wrong consequences can result from an action. It is only concerned with the greater good, so if a small minority of people suffers great harm while the vast majority enjoys a small benefit, the overall action is considered as ethically right.
Apart from being concerned with the consequences from an action, Utilitarianism can also be applied to laws and rules. This type, called ‘Rule Utilitarianism’ is concerned with the consequences from a rule. A rule is considered ‘good’ if it satisfies the majority of the people.
Applying this ethical theory to the concept of cyber-stalking and harassment over the Internet, we must decide if an action is morally right or wrong by analyzing the consequences it has on the respective shareholders.
The amendment and enforcement of legislation against cyber-stalking is ethically right in a consequentialist view. It harms the minority that go against it, however the majority of the Internet society benefit from having a safer environment.
The same argument can be applied to the already-mentioned ethical issue about whether ISPs should monitor the contents they host and act if a complaint is received. By controlling the content they host, ISPs would be punishing those who post malicious messages or information by banning them from posting for example. The greater good is ensured though, as the Internet society as well as the potential victims of such harassers would have a safer future experience on the Internet.
Ethical Analysis: Duty Theory
A duty ethical theory, or Deontology, is rather different from Consequentialism. In Deontology, an action is right if it satisfies a principle or moral rule, without any concern for the overall consequences. It is the acts that determine if something is ethically right or wrong, not the consequences as in Consequentialism. Morality is determined according to rationally recognizing one’s duties towards others (15).
Same as in Consequentialism, Deontology can also be branched into two types: a set of ethical theories concerning actions and another set concerning the rules (15). Both sets of ethical theories however state that the ‘good’ comes from our own ability to carry out our moral obligations.
Kantianism, or Kantian Ethics, is an example of a deontological ethical theory which falls under the deontological set of theories concerning rules. Kant states that for one to act morally right, he needs to act according to his duty, which must be good in itself. The motives of the action ultimately determine if an action is ethically right or wrong.
In cyber-stalking, the stakeholders must act according to what their duty is. Taking the ISP ethical issue, the ISP must always seek to satisfy and protect his clients, providing that what they are posting on the Internet is morally correct.
We discussed many cases where the stalker or harasser hides behind anonymity to attack the victim. It is the duty of the stalker to respect the victim over the Internet and act in a consistent way as he would when face-to-face with the victim. Failing to do so will result in unethical behavior according to Kantianism.
All stakeholders must perform their duty to behave ethically correct. We shall take into example the already discussed case where a citizen makes use of a detective service operating in a third country to discover information about another person living in his country. Law makers and law enforcers in both countries should act ethically and perform their duty in protecting their citizens, by amending specific laws which protect a person’s privacy even online. In this scenario, it would become illegal to obtain such information using this service, thus it will be the citizen requesting information who is behaving unethically.
In the Amy Boyer case, the general public who read the websites set up by Liam Youens had the duty to inform the relevant authorities such as the ISP hosting the websites. According to the Kantianism view, the complaint by these users to the relevant authorities is the correct ethical action to perform.
Cyber-stalking and online harassment is a major issue that is ever increasing as more people make use of online facilities to disclose private information. Whether disclosing the data involuntary, by filling forms with sensitive data that ends up being shared with third-parties, or voluntary by posting it on personal profiles such as Facebook and MySpace, it is becoming increasingly likely and easier to stalk a person by obtaining all necessary personal information.
Such stalking often has devastating effects on the victim. We discussed several cases where acts of stalking or defamation over the Internet ended up with the victim committing suicide. In most cases, this would be because of the public humiliation suffered by the victim when the harasser and similarly-minded people behave unethically over the Internet. We showed that such people feel more unconstrained when attacking from a safe and anonymous environment than when facing the victim in the physical world.
Legislations need to be devised to minimize such cases as much as possible. Locally, the Data Protection Act is one such legal document that protects sensitive data of the citizens. The problem however lies with inconsistencies between various jurisdictions in accepting and implementing such legislations. Only when a set of unambiguous and consistent rules is devised can all the relevant stakeholders in such cyber-stalking issues know what the right course of action to behave ethically is.
To help us in our moral and ethical judgment and how we should act in cyber-stalking issues, we discussed and contrasted the two major theories of ethics of conduct: Consequentialism and Deontology. While Consequentialism states that the right action is the one that produces the most intrinsic good for the majority of the stakeholders, Deontology states that the right action is to perform one’s duty in the circumstances. For both ethical theories, we focused on Utilitarianism and Kantianism respectively as a practical example. For each, we evaluated how the stakeholders should act when faced with the ethical issues and cases that were discussed.
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