Raising Good Citizens for a Virtual World: How Do We Help Our Children be Safe and Ethical When Using the Internet? A Families Connect Course for AASL, 2000
Even very young children can quickly identify whether the behaviors in these examples are right or wrong:
- A boy finds a magazine with sexually explicit photographs. He shows its contents to his peers who become upset.
- A student steals a set of keys and uses them to gain access to the school office where she changes her grades and views the grades of other students.
- A student locates a story, recopies it in his own writing, and submits it to the teacher as his own work.
- A student steals a book from a local store. She says the only reason she stole it was that she did not have the money to purchase it.
When children and young adults start using technology, especially information technologies that consist of computers and computer networks, they start operating in a new world: a virtual world. Suddenly behaviors may not be as easily judged to be right or wrong. What would your son or daughter’s response be when given these situations?
- A girl downloads a sexually explicit picture from a site on the Internet on a computer in the public library. Others can easily view the computer screen.
- A student finds the teacher’s password to the school’s information system and uses it to change his grades and view the grades of other students.
- A student uses the copy and paste command to place large parts of an electronic encyclopedia article into an assigned paper. She turns the paper in as her own work.
- A student makes a copy of software program borrowed from a friend to use on his computer at home.
What’s different about “computer ethics?”
Computer ethics, better labeled “information technology ethics,” deal with the proper use of a wide range of telecommunication and data storage devices. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with moral judgments, issues of right and wrong, and determining what behaviors are humane and inhumane. Most codes of ethical behavior describe actions as “ethical” that do one or more of the following:
- promote the general health of society
- maintain or increase individual rights and freedoms
- protect individuals from harm
- treat all human beings as having an inherent value and accord those beings respect
- uphold religious, social, cultural, and government laws and mores
A simple way of saying this is that an “ethical action” then, is one that does not have a damaging impact on oneself, on other individuals, or on society.
In both direct and indirect ways, children begin to learn ethical values from birth. Families and the church are assigned the primary responsibility for a child’s ethical education. Schools have traditionally had the societal charge to teach and reinforce some moral values, especially those directly related to citizenship and school behaviors. Most of the ethical issues that surround technology deal with societal and school behaviors, and it is both appropriate and necessary that both parents and teachers help instill good online behavior in our future citizens. Church, youth group and business leaders all can also play an important role in instructing their communities’ youth in the appropriate use of technology.
Why do technology ethics then deserve special attention?
There are a variety of reasons. Using technology to communicate and operate in a “virtual world,” one that only exists within computers and computer networks, is a new phenomenon that is not always well understood by many adults who received their formal education prior to its existence. Both fear and romance usually accompany new technologies. Our mass media has produced movies like War Games, The Net, and Mission Impossible that capitalize on the unfamiliarity many adults have of communications technologies. Movies, bestsellers and television programs often make questionably ethical actions such as breaking into secure computer systems seem heroic or sympathetic.
Our new technological capabilities also may require new ethical considerations.
- The ability to send unsolicited commercial messages to millions of Internet email users (spamming) was not possible before there was email or the Internet. Does the fact that the financial burden of unsolicited advertisements now falls on the recipient rather than the sender create the need for new rules?
- Organizations collect and use data about individuals to do target marketing.ä When does the knowledge of an individual’s tastes and interests help organizations provide customized services and when does that knowledge help them manipulate the user?
- Digital photography has made the manipulation of images undetectable, an impossible feat with chemical photography. What obligations do communicators have to present an undoctored photograph, even if its message may not be as powerful as one that has been digitally “enhanced?”
- Prior to the Internet, minors faced physical barriers of access to sexually explicit materials. What safeguards do schools, libraries, and parents need to take to keep children from freely accessing inappropriate materials? Which will better serve our children in the long run - software filtering devices or instruction and practice in making good judgments?
- Intellectual property in digital format can now be duplicated with incredible ease. Do we need clearer definitions of property? Can an item that is taken without authorization, but leaves the original in place, still be considered stolen?
- Computer viruses, hackers, and chat rooms filled with invisible strangers have been a factor in most our lives for less than ten years. How can parents become aware of the dangers to which the Internet exposes their children ö and themselves?
One of the most significant reasons that computer ethics deserve special attention is because of our rather human ability to view one’s actions in the intangible, virtual online world as being less serious than one’s actions in the real world. Most of us, adults or children, would never contemplate walking into a computer store and shoplifting a computer program. Yet software piracy (the illegal duplication of computer programs) costs the computer business billions of dollars each year. Most of us would never pick a lock, but guessing passwords to gain access to unauthorized information is a fairly common activity. Few of us would leave the doors of our homes unlocked, but we do little to secure the property we store in our computers.
Information technology misuse by many people, especially the young, is viewed as a low-risk, game-like challenge. Electronic fingerprints, footsteps, and other evidence of digital impropriety have historically been less detectable than physical evidence. There is a physical risk when breaking into a real office that does not exist when hacking into a computer database from one’s living room or den. Illegally copying a book is costly and time consuming; illegally copying a computer program can be done in seconds at very small expense. The viewed pornography on a website seems to disappear as soon as the browser window is closed.
Not long ago, ethical technology questions were only of interest to a very few specialists. But as the use of information technologies spreads throughout society and into our homes, as its importance to both the national economy and to individual careers grows, everyone, including our children, will need to make good ethical decisions when using computers. Studies show that persons involved in computer crimes acquire both their interest and skills at an early age.
Many organizations and individuals have written lists of ethical standards for technology use. One of the mostly widely used and easily understood sets of computer use principals comes from the Computer Ethics Institute <http://www.brook.edu/its/cei/cei_hp.htm>, reprinted here with permission.
The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics by the Computer Ethics Institute
- Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.
- Thou shalt not interfere with other people’s computer work.
- Thou shalt not snoop around in other people’s computer files.
- Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.
- Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.
- Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid.
- Thou shalt not use other people’s computer resources without authorization or proper compensation.
- Thou shalt not appropriate other people’s intellectual output.
- Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.
- Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that insure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.
The Association for Computing Machinery’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (1993) <http://www.acm.org/constitution/code.html> stresses many of the same ideas as The 10 Commandments of Computer Ethics. Their “moral imperatives” include:
- I will contribute to society and human well-being
- I will avoid harm to others.
- I will be honest and trustworthy.
- I will be fair and not discriminate.
- I will honor property rights including copyrights and patents.
- I will give proper credit for intellectual property.
- I will respect the privacy of others.
- I will honor confidentiality.
Arlene Rinaldi has written a well-respected set of Internet guidelines called The Net: User Guidelines and Netiquette <http://www.fau.edu/netiquette/net/>. This more informal set of expected behaviors helps new users learn the manners and etiquette of an often-impatient online community. In her guide, newbies (inexperienced telecommunications users) learn that:
- typing in all capital letters is considered shouting and therefore rude
- sending chain letters via email is improper and a waste of resources
- humor and sarcasm are easily viewed as criticism and should be used with care in electronic communications
Rindaldi isolates proper conduct for a variety of areas of telecommunication use including telnet, FTP, e-mail, discussion groups, and the World Wide Web.
Most schools and libraries now have adopted an Acceptable Use Policy that governs their use of the Internet and other information technologies and networks. The rules in these policies often apply to both staff and students. Parents, as well as school staff and students, need to know and understand these policies. The Mankato School’s Acceptable Use Policy (adopted from the Minnesota School Board Association’s recommended policy) <http://www.isd77.k12.mn.us/guidelines.html> is an example. Included in the policy are some explicit rules of use:
- Users are prohibited from using school district Internet resources or accounts for the following purposes:
- To access, upload, download, or distribute pornographic, obscene or sexually explicit material.
- To transmit or receive obscene, abusive or sexually explicit language.
- To violate any local, state or federal statute.
- To vandalize, damage or disable the property of another person or organization.
- To access another person’s materials, information, or files without the implied or direct permission of that person.
- To violate copyright laws, or otherwise use another person’s property without the person’s prior approval or proper citation, including the downloading or exchanging of pirated software or copying software to or from any school computer.
- Unauthorized commercial use or financial gain.
- Internet uses shall be consistent with other school district policies. (These are listed.)
Parents should examine a variety of guides to increase their understanding of ethical computer use. They should also obtain a copy of the rules of their public library and children’s school. Parents must understand, teach, and model the guidelines.
For the home, simple, easily remembered principles are probably the best. In our home, we use these criteria:
Johnson’s 3 P’s of Technology Ethics <http://www.infotoday.com/MMSchools/nov98/johnson.htm>:
- Privacy - I will protect my privacy and respect the privacy of others.
- Property - I will protect my property and respect the property of others.
- a(P)propriate Use - I will use technology in constructive ways and in ways which do not break the rules of my family, church, school, or government.
Parents need to be aware and understand that another, counter set of “ethical” behavior also exists - that espoused by hackers. Being described as a “hacker” once indicated only a strong interest and ability in computer use. Popular use of the word has changed, so that now “hacking” describes gaining unauthorized access to computerized systems and data. The term “cracker” is also used, but is often used to describe a hacker who has a malicious intent. Some common hacker beliefs, stated by Deborah Johnson in Computer Ethics, 2nd Edition (Prentice-Hall, 1994) include:
- all information, especially digital information, should be free and available to all people
- breaking into computer systems points out security features to those who are responsible for maintaining them
- hacking is a form of learning about computers and is harmless
- hackers help monitor the abuse of information by the government and business
As adults, we need to know and understand these counter-culture beliefs and be able to offer reasons why they need to be questioned for both their logic and their ethics.
Major areas of concern
The scope of information technology ethics is very broad. For the purposes of this short guide, we will be looking only at some common cases when children and young adults will need to make ethical choices or have the unethical actions of other effect them. I have categorized the issues under the major headings of privacy, property, and appropriate use. In the next three lessons, each of these areas will be examined by looking at cases. These cases and others like them should be used to foster home and classroom discussion. Additional questions for reflection are listed at the end of each lesson.
- How is ethical use by parents, teachers and other adults the same or different from that of children and young adults?
- What additional responsibilities do computer programmers have that computer users do not?
- Does the school or government have a role in assuring its citizen’s data privacy?
- Are illegal acts always immoral? Are immoral acts always illegal?
- What are some examples of the unrealistic use of computers in the media?