Business Ethics: technological developments

If the law does not keep pace with technological developments (and it always seems to be at least one step behind), the consequences can be devastating, even in the seemingly simplest of things. What could be more technologically routine these days than e-mail? And yet …

Justin Ellsworth was a Marine who gave his life for his country. By all accounts he was a brave and fine Marine, and we all owe him the highest debt of gratitude.

But we were also left with a serious question—what to do with his e-mail?

His parents wanted access. They wanted to see what their son had to say. However, e-mail is private, and Yahoo, his e-mail provider, had a terms-of-service agreement with him that guaranteed its privacy—even his death. And while we sympathize greatly with his parents, there is also a precedent to be concerned about. One can’t simply waive the privacy issue, as a decision to release the information could have serious consequences for e-mail privacy for us all.

Case Assignment

The issue needs to be discussed, thought through, and resolved. That is why we study cases like this, so we can think these things through and try to respect the family, the deceased, and the needs of society. So I ask you:
•Should Justin Ellsworth’s parents have been given access to his e-mail?

Answer the question in 2-4 pages. Assess the issue with separate and thorough explanations of the utilitarian and deontological considerations.

Go to the Web and to the Trident online library and find as much as you can on this case.

You can read about it by going to ProQuest:

Leach, Susan L. (2005). Who gets to see the e-mail of the deceased? Christian Science Monitor, May 2, pg. 12.


?Many legal experts say Yahoo! acted correctly. It denied the family’s informal request and only yielded under court order.

“I would hope that the Yahoo! position here would become a trade practice—that e-mail would only be released if a judge approved it,” says Gerald Ferrera, executive director of the Cyberlaw Center at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.

For Yahoo!’s part, the company says it still stands behind its commitment to treat each user’s e-mail as private and confidential. “We are pleased that the court has issued an order resolving this matter … and allowing Yahoo! to continue upholding our privacy commitment to our users,” says Yahoo! spokeswoman Mary Osako.

Most people leave their privacy in the hands of e-mail providers, rarely reading through the terms of service and privacy policy before clicking the “I agree” box. Yahoo! states that its accounts are nontransferable and that “rights to the Yahoo! I.D. and contents within the account terminate upon death.” Destroying the data once the contract ends simplifies life for Internet service providers (ISPs), says Mr. [Alan Chappell].


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