Utilitarian and Deontological Arguments in Yahoo! Privacy Laws

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Date Submitted: 09/05/2011 10:35 PM

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Module 1 Case Assignment

301: Business Ethics

August 28, 2011

On November 13th, 2005, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth was killed in action while on foot patrol in Iraq. Like many of those who serve in deployed locations Justin’s primary form of communication with his family was via email. Thinking that Justin’s last thoughts, memories and musings about his tour in Iraq could be found in his e-mail, his family contacted Yahoo! and requested the password in order to gain access to his e-mail. Citing their Terms of Service (TOS) which states that accounts are non-transferable and any rights to a yahoo ID or contents w/in an account are terminated upon death, Yahoo! denied the Ellsworth’s request. It was only after the Ellsworth’s took Yahoo! to court and Yahoo! was given a court order to release the information, did Yahoo! finally consent and give the Ellsworth’s Justin’s e-mails. It is also in Yahoo!’s terms of service that “…Yahoo! may access, preserve and disclose your account information and content if required to do so by law,” so legally, they were being given a court order to hand over the e-mails, and so they did, still following their TOS. However, instead of giving them the actual passwords and breaking their TOS, they gave the Ellsworth’s a CD of over 10,000 documents that were in Justin’s inbox (received e-mails). They did not hand over the e-mails that were in his drafts folder or in his sent folder.

In this paper, I am going to discuss the different ethical decisions that Yahoo! should have made. Should they have taken the utilitarian route (beneficial to the largest amount of people)? Or should they have approached it from the deontological route (Obey the law, no matter the consequences)?

According to British philosopher John Stewart Mill, the basic principle of utilitarian ethics is where “actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.” In other words, actions are...