To curb the rising number of crimes being committed on the internet—including fraud, intellectual property theft, electronic hate mail, and web site hacking—the U.S. Justice Department (JD) is spearheading an all-out campaign to teach cyberethics to children.

With a $300,000 grant from JD, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an IT trade organization, has organized a national education campaign to be launched in May, called Cyber Citizen Partnership. The campaign will teach kids the basics of right and wrong behavior on the internet—and how serious meddling on the web can be.

“It’s not just fun and games. The consequences are very serious when you are playing online,” said Jessica Herrea, a trial attorney with JD’s computer crimes and intellectual property division. She cited an incident in which a Boston youth unintentionally brought down a regional air traffic control station for six hours after hacking into a local telephone company’s computer system.

The youth was sentenced to two years of probation, during which time he has been banned from using a modem. In addition, his computer was confiscated, and he must pay the phone company $5,000 and perform 250 hours of community service, according to JD’s web site.

“The technology and power a computer gives—whether it be [to] an adult or a kid—is tremendous,” Herrea said. “If we can teach people the proper behavior of going online, we can curb the criminal behavior we see online.”

Peter Smith, executive director of the ITAA Foundation, said the technology is still so new that society hasn’t had a chance to instill and reinforce acceptable decorum for surfing the web.

“Children are taught not to go into someone else’s home and roam around,” he said. “They know it’s wrong.” But when it comes to the internet, the rules are still fuzzy to them, he said.

The Cyber Citizen campaign, which will target fourth- through sixth-graders, will create parallels between the real world and the online world, encouraging kids to behave the same way in both situations. If you wouldn’t say something in person, for example, then why would you say it in an eMail message?

The seeming anonymity of the web contributes to the problem, Smith added. People think they can get away with being rude and behaving inappropriately online, because no one can see who they are.

Starting in mid-May, Cyber Citizen Partnership will raise awareness of computer responsibility through a series of television commercials, billboards, print advertisements, posters, videos, and an interactive web site. The initiative also will provide a curriculum for educators, and JD noted that schools bear a strong responsibility to teach their students ethical use of the internet.

Fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders will be targeted because research and talks with child psychologists and behavior specialists suggest this age group would respond best to such a campaign, Smith said.

“We wanted to find the optimal age range where kids would be most receptive,” Smith said. “It’s easier to instill good habits from the beginning rather than changing them.”

The funding earmarked by JD is just enough to get the program going, Smith said. ITAA will be partnering with businesses, such as Scholastic Inc., to keep the program going.

In addition, JD has developed a web site devoted entirely to the topic of cybercrimes, called Cybercrime.gov.

The site tells how to report an internet-related crime. It also includes a link to the “Internet Dos and Don’ts” section of JD’s Kids Page, which discusses ethical computer use and outlines the consequences of hacking. The teachers’ and parents’ section of the Kids Page offers a computer-crime lesson plan for elementary- and middle-school children.

The Cybercrime web site also contains a report about unlawful behavior on the internet made by the president’s advisory group, headed by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

Called “The Electronic Frontier: The Challenge of Unlawful Conduct Involving the Use of the Internet,” the report suggests that schools and libraries adopt an acceptable use policy for the internet. Organizations such as the Regional Technology and Consortia developed by the U.S. Department of Education are good resources to consult for more information, according to the report.

U.S. Department of Justice (JD)
http://www.usdoj.gov

Information Technology Association of America
http://www.itaa.org

JD’s Cybercrime web site
http://www.cybercrime.gov