Autonomy and Privacy in the context of social networking

William Bülow and Misse Wester


The ethical issues in relation to new developments in information technology are framed in terms of privacy (Van Den Hoven 2008; Rössler 2005; Nissenbaum 1998). Privacy is held to be an important value in western liberal democracies and other values, such as democratic rights, liberty, dignity and autonomy are fundamental to most people, and having a private sphere is a necessary condition for being able to exercise these rights. That is, individuals ought to be able to control information about themselves and how it is being used in order to lead autonomous lives.

Due to new developments in informational technology, a large amount of personal data is stored by different actors in society. While the phenomena of collecting personal data is not new there are mainly two things that have changed in the past decade or so: first, more information is being collected than ever before and secondly, information is not just stored but is subjected to some sort of analysis (Lyon, 2006). Information about individuals isare collected as they act in the normal course of their public lifes. Information is shared in transactions with retailers, mail order companies and medical care. Also, everyone who is using the internet, paying with a credit card are giving up his or her privacy on daily basis (Rössler 2005). However, in social networks, where personal information s released voluntarily, questions of autonomy are more complex as the concept of privacy takes on a different dimension. Social networks are voluntary in the sense that users choose to reveal information about themselves, but at the same time enables other users to share personal information to an unintended audience. These issues will be discussed in this paper. We argue that this other dimension raises new kind of ethical problems and dilemmas in relation to autonomy and privacy interests, especially when the concept of privacy is extended to younger generations.

In order to clarify the ethical aspects of developments in information technology, it is important to indentify how different sorts of information stored about individuals related to the issue of privacy. The protection of informational privacy is held to be important because it is an intrinsic part of our self-understanding as autonomous agents to have control over our own self-presentation and self-determination (Rössler 2005). That is, how we want to present and stage ourselves, to whom and in what context. By the means of controlling the access of information about ourselves to others, we are simultaneously regulating the range of very diverge relations within which we live our lives. The threat to informational privacy posed by prevailing and emerging ICT, then, consists in the potential of reducing the individual’s ability to control information about themselves. In the case of social media however, individuals choose to share information about themselves in a very active way. For example, Facebook has over 500 million users that share personal information with other users (; accessed on March 1st, 2001). In the year 2010 about 30 % of uses were between 14 and 25 years of age and this group is very active in sharing all kinds of personal information. As information released on the Internet is difficult to regain control over, this younger group might share information now that will later be problematic for their personal integrity. How is the concept of privacy being used to protect future needs?

In Sweden, the Data Inspection Board (DIB) introduced stricter demands in 2008 for public schools to install surveillance cameras in order to increase the safety for the students. The DIB states that cameras can be used in schools at night and over weekends, when school is not in session, but permission for all other usage must be subject to close scrutiny. The underlying reasoning of the DIB is that the integrity of young individuals must be strictly observed since they are not able to foresee the consequences of compromising their integrity (DIB decision 2008-10-01). Combining this view: that younger generations need protection from consequences they cannot foresee, with the increased sharing of personal information on social networks – where does that lead? The reasoning of the DIB resembles a common discussion about autonomy found in the philosophical literature: the one concerning paternalism. That is, the claim that it is sometimes justified to interfere in persons’ behaviour against their will, defended and motivated by the claim that the person will be better of protected from potential harm ( While paternalism can be justified in some contexts, it may be questioned whether one really can or should hinder students from using social networks. Facebook is an important part of the everyday experience of students and is a basic tool for and a mirror of social interaction, personal identity, and network building among students (Debatin et. al. 2009). However, information shared on Facebook can sometimes conflict with future preferences and privacy interests of the students. The information which a person openly shares at a certain time of his life might be information which the persons later on in his life want to control the access to.

Based on this sort of reasoning we will address the following questions: do we have a certain obligation to protect the future privacy interests of students now using social networks? How can such interests be protected? Also, how are these claims compatible with the claim that students should be able to interact and willingly share information about themselves on social networks? Clearly these problems are important to address in relation to the widespread use of social networks.


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Data Inspektionen (DIB) decision 2008-10-01;, avaliable in Swedish

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Nissenbaum, H. (1998), Protecting Privacy in an Information Age: The Problem of Privacy in Public, Law and Philosophy, 17, 559-596

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