What Matters to Non-Experts About Property and Privacy Rights?

Stephen Lilley, Ph.D., Andra Gumbus, Ed.D. and Frances S. Grodzinsky, Ph.D.


We who study and teach computer ethics are familiar with what matters to experts regarding software property rights and privacy rights in cyberspace. For example, we know that Richard Stallman cares most about maximum dissemination of software for social benefit. He favors free software over protected software because the former is unencumbered (Stallman, 1992). We also know that experts representing the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) care most about profit from intellectual property and, accordingly, favor strong copyright provisions and enforcement. Stallman and the RIAA stake diametric absolutist positions: Software should be free or protected regardless of the author, the application utility, the economic system, the user intent, etc. For them, specific circumstances do not matter. Helen Nissenbaum (2001 & 2004) has recommended sensitivity to contingent elements both in terms of property and privacy. For her, the details of the case or social context do matter. Her contexts are similar to the “situations” found in James Moor’s (2004) privacy theory.

In her article, “Privacy As Contextual Integrity,” Nissenbaum (2004) explicitly promotes a context-relative approach. She notes that social contexts are governed by norms of appropriateness and norms of distribution in regard to the flow of information. For example, it is appropriate for a close friend or physician (in a healthcare context) to probe about one’s health and emotional state but if a salesperson did this within the context of shopping one would treat it as a violation of privacy. She proposes that “information gathering and dissemination be appropriate to that context and obey the governing norms of distribution within it.” (101)

Research Question

Given that ethical issues concerning privacy and property affect all users, the authors decided to conduct an exploratory study on the non-expert’s attitude about property and privacy rights. Are they absolutists or context-relativists? Are there contextual norms or conditions that matter to them? We pay attention to the experts because they help shape the social debate from “above” by means of conceptualization, rhetorical argumentation, and policy recommendation. Nevertheless, non-experts are not without influence–they shape the social debate by their decisions and actions at the ground level through their roles as students, consumers, and employees (see Buchanan (2004) and Gotterbarn (1995).

Research Study

Our investigation constitutes one part of an international study of college students conducted in the 2008-2009 academic year, of which we were co-sponsors. Although this was a multi-site study (USA, UK), we limit our report to the data collected from our site in the United States. Students were asked to respond using a Likert scale (i.e., strongly disagree to strongly agree) to approximately 20 computer ethics scenarios based on property and privacy issues. In some instances two scenarios were the same except for one twist, for example, the acceptability of making unauthorized copies of commercial software for private use and the acceptability of making unauthorized copies of commercial software for university work. We analyzed responses to this and other pairs to determine whether or not subjects care about context variables such as private use/university work and also for-profit/non-profit making (using university computing facilities), permission/no permission (using other people’s passwords), and consent & knowledge/without consent & knowledge (under surveillance). Context sensitivity was operationalized as selecting different values for a pair (e.g., agree to private use and disagree to university work).

Summary of Findings

Forty-six percent of a total of 251 respondents demonstrated context sensitivity to the private use/university work difference and 53% to for-profit/non-profit making. Sixty-five percent were sensitive to permission/no permission and 85% to consent & knowledge/without consent & knowledge. This finding supports Nissenbaum’s claims for the significance of norms of appropriateness and distribution. On average, women and students under the age of 25 were more context sensitive than men and older students.


Buchanan, E. (2004) “Ethical Considerations for the Information Professions”, In R.A. Spinello and H. T. Tavani, eds. Readings in CyberEthics. 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 523-534.

Gotterbarn, D. (1995) “Computer Ethics: Responsibility Regained” In D. Johnson and H.Nissenbaum, eds. Computing, Ethics and Social Values. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 18-24

Moor, J. H. (2004) “Towards a Theory of Privacy for the Information Age.” In R.A. Spinello and H. T. Tavani, eds. Readings in CyberEthics. 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2004, 407-417.

Nissenbaum, Helen (2001) “Should I copy My Neighbor’s Software?” In D.M. Hester and P. Ford, eds., Computers and Ethics in the Cyberage. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 297-307.

Nissenbaum, Helen (2004) “Privacy As Contextual Integrity.” Washington Law Review, Vol. 79 (1), pp. 101-139.

Stallman, Richard (1992) “Why Software Should Be Free.” http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/shouldbefree.html. Accessed July 19, 2006.

Warren, Samuel and Louis Brandeis (1890) “The Right to Privacy.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 14 (5), pp. 193-220.