Teach your children well

Just as Luke Skywalker had to confront both sides of the Force, so, too, will students who learn to use the wonders of the internet inevitably come into contact with its Dark Side. It should be just as important, therefore, for schools that provide internet access and teach web surfing to emulate good Jedi masters and include the ethical use of the web as part of the curriculum.

When I was in high school, they still taught driver’s education. While that course has disappeared from many schools because of escalating costs, it provides a good analogy: Teaching students to use computers and connecting them to the internet without also teaching them about the basic rules and laws that apply to this technology would be like teaching them to drive a car without introducing them to stop signs and speed limits.

Sitting in front of a computer screen, whether in a classroom or at home, students might have a hard time imagining that they are operating a device that has the potential to get them into serious trouble. In the electronic reality of computer games and simulations, consequences are noisy and often accompanied by terse messages. A refreshed reality is no farther away than the ESC key or a deft combination of CTRL-ALT-DEL. But the dark side of the web is loaded with criminals and opportunities to stray into unlawful activities that can land a student in a prison with no ESC.

A 15-year-old student in Utah found a way to use the internet to get folks to send him money. He used the web to promote sales of computer parts and accepted payment through a post office box he opened under an assumed name. He failed to deliver the advertised parts. Without leaving his room, he had committed a federal crime. Students who only learn the “how to” of computers without incorporating either the positive ethics of web use or a healthy respect for the crimes and penalties attached to its misuse can get into far more trouble than they may know.

Since it was amended in 1986, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has been used to prosecute computer fraud, “trespassing” (unauthorized access), and other forms of cyber-crime. In one of the more celebrated cases, an MIT student propagated a “worm” program (a self-replicating virus) across the web. It shut down more than 6,000 computers and cost users hundreds of thousands of dollars just to remove it. If it had been a destructive worm, it would have caused damages in the millions. Spreading computer viruses may be a game to some bored programmers, but it can result in heavy fines and serious jail time.

Even just using the internet to spread the written word can have serious consequences. Students have been charged with computer terrorism for threatening or encouraging violence against politicians or fellow students.

A far more common crime, making unauthorized copies of software (“software piracy”), is the subject of the Anticounterfeiting Consumer Protection Act of 1996. This law allows penalties up to $100,000 for stealing or importing stolen copyrighted or trademarked computer code. The law responds to documented reports showing that about 40 percent of the software in use in the U.S. is pirated, and at least 85 percent of computer users have used or are using stolen programs. Students should be aware that if they receive a “free” copy of a piece of pirated software and turn around and send copies to their friends, they are committing a federal crime.

While both the detection and prosecution of computer crime are emerging areas of the law, the problem is not going to disappear—and companies that are losing billions of dollars in revenue are not going to ease their pressure on lawmakers. New state laws are being enacted every year to curb abuse of the internet. As the techniques for discovering and enforcing the laws against computer crimes become more sophisticated, these laws will have sharper teeth. Students need to be taught that some actions not only are morally wrong, but also can get them into serious legal trouble.

Educators cannot ethically teach students how to surf the web without including instruction on the proper and lawful use of computers. We need to make sure that mentoring internet use is more than demonstrating logon procedures and how to manipulate a web browser. As beginning student drivers, we had to learn the “rules of the road” as well as the techniques for handling the automobile. Similarly, web-smart students should be taught the rules and ethics of the information superhighway.

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