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The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News


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COLUMN: The hope for ethical clarity in terms of use

Dan Hahn
Dan Hahn is a graduate student studying English and can be reached at 217-581-2812.

People frequently share passwords to online subscription services without second-guessing the ethics behind their decision.

Much of the phenomenon pertains to end user license agreements, which most people accept without reading or thinking twice. This topic is oddly taboo, considering how widespread the practice is.

Advocates of sharing passwords argue it allows individuals, without financial means, to access online services or content. For them, it is not an ethical debate at all.

It is about inclusivity and ensures that the benefits of a subscription service are accessible to friends and relatives. If a service provider doesn’t stop anyone, then how can it be wrong?

Password sharing also facilitates collaboration and networking. Sharing resources saves time, money and eliminates redundancy.

Further, it could be argued that many people might wish to try a service before fully committing to a subscription and password sharing could eventually lead to more paying customers. However, this behavior may also result in lost revenue for service providers.

On the other side of the argument, we need to consider that password sharing is, in most cases, a violation of a service’s terms of use.

This brings up an interesting paradox: if someone who shares a password does not accept the terms of use, then why did they click accept? 

What does accept even mean? Not to mention, sharing a password is insecure, and allows someone to masquerade as the account holder.

Does someone with a friend who shares passwords deserve a service more than another person who has no such connection? Why is it that some people get things for free while others do not? Indeed, we all know that life is not fair, but are password sharers therefore leveling the playing field or creating deeper fissures between the haves and have-nots?

Textbooks, while governed by copyright laws, do not have terms of use. But, textbooks might be a good analogy for college students to consider.

I know someone who as an undergraduate almost never bought their textbooks. His strategy was to make a friend in class and borrow their book. It may be frugal and legal, but is it fair or even ethical?

I argue that these types of behaviors undermine the good will of individuals who do pay for their subscriptions and their books. Indeed, if no one paid, many industries simply could not exist.

I believe that password sharing is a pertinent moral question most people do not consider, and I do not claim to have a clean record by any means.

In the end, it is not necessarily a matter of ethics but a question of identity and anonymity. The internet, for better and for worse, is a “wild west” of anonymous people and unregulated activity. For example, most people have an email address that is the equivalent of a “burner phone.” These accounts are free and legal, and we use these pseudo identities to present ourselves as anonymous.

Further, there are virtual private network services that can mask a person’s location. The recent trend of Swatting famous people and government officials is a perfect example of the disruptions that anonymity can cause people in real life.

Of course, sharing account credentials appears to not harm anyone on the surface. Most people like to believe they are anonymous, when much of our data and identities are tracked through our devices.

Eventually, online service providers, perhaps with the help of government regulation, may solve the problem of anonymity on the internet. The problem of EULAs and password sharing may also be solved someday.

Netflix recently cracked down on password sharing for their service. So, how long will it be before other companies follow suite?

Ultimately, as the internet evolves and regulations emerge, my hope is that ethical clarity will soon make the terms easier to read, understand and agree to. However, I remain skeptical that these muddy waters will become easier to navigate any time soon. 


Dan Hahn can be reached at 217-581-2812.

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About the Contributor
Dan Hahn
Dan Hahn, Columnist
Dan Hahn is a graduate student studying English and can be reached at 581-2812.

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