Thinking about the Shi Tao Case

The case that you just read involving Shi Tao and Yahoo’s involvement in his prosecution for divulging “state secrets.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and it may well not have happened at all if Yahoo had not breached his privacy to provide that identifying information to the Chinese government. It certainly seems as if a stronger consideration of individual privacy would have been beneficial in this case. As long as a government is able to crack-down on dissent it will be able to squelch any attempts to become more democratic.

In discussing Johnson's argument, it seemed that the best we could do was to cast privacy as a social good which benefits everyone by making it possible to have a democratic government. Shi Tao, however, does not live in a democracy. China is (roughly speaking) a communist country, and privacy might not be viewed as a social good in a nation of that sort. That doesn't mean that we should ignore the privacy of people in non-democratic states, though. There might be other ways to defend the right to privacy. 

In the USA, the "right to privacy" is not explicit. It can be inferred from the 4th and 5th amendments to the US Constitution which protect against unreasonable search and seizure and self-incrimination. Some right to privacy seems to be assumed by these amendments, and by other rulings made in various courts. It does seem reasonable to think that there are just some things which we may keep private. Unfortunately for Shi Tao, he lives in China and is not an American citizen so these laws do not apply to him.

For this reason, some have called the right to privacy a human right. Human rights are roughly equivalent to the natural rights that we discussed in Module 2. The argument could be made that some privacy is necessary to live a decent human life, and so we have the right to some privacy. Humans are social animals, but we're also inclined to keep many things to ourselves or to demand the ability to dole out information and access to our lives as we see fit. This argument applies more cleanly to the Shi Tao case because a human right is one which accrues to all persons regardless of where they are or what their local laws are. According to this argument, then, Yahoo should not have given Shi Tao's information to the Chinese government because that would be a violation of his human rights. 

So, how is our own situation like Shi Tao’s? Well, we’re not in prison and we live in a much more liberal democracy , so we don’t have to worry as much about what we say and do in less-than-private circumstances. The same principles apply to us even if the circumstances are less dire. Put yourself into the shoes of a person who has privacy on the level that Shi Tao did. How likely are you to say or do things which would set you apart from the people around you? Would that sort of life be one with more or less freedom than your current circumstances? Would it be a life that is acceptable to you? If it would not be, then perhaps we should guard our privacy more closely than we have been. 

Give some thought about how these arguments and examples change your view of privacy. Is it more important to you than it was before?