‘Cyber Ethics’ – Oh, Please!

After being summoned to a Manhattan television studio to serve up some instant punditry on the arrest of the notorious Canadian hacker, Mafiaboy, I caught a live TV feed on the breaking story.
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After being summoned to a Manhattan television studio to serve up some instant punditry on the arrest of the notorious Canadian hacker, Mafiaboy, I caught a live TV feed on the breaking story. On-screen was a pumped-up Janet Reno, wagging her finger as she conducted a scolding press conference.

Attorney General Reno was on a tear, urging that Mafiaboy – the unidentified 15-year-old accused of hacking CNN's computer network – be severely punished by the Canadian courts. The fact that this suddenly infamous young cyber villain had yet to be convicted of any crime was not mentioned.

"I think that it's important ... to let young people know that they are not going to be able to get away with something like this scot-free," Reno said. "There has got to be a remedy, there has got to be a penalty."

The clincher came, however, when Reno brought up the subject of morality in cyber space. "We have got to renew our efforts to teach young people – children – cyber-ethics," she said.

I nearly fell out of my chair. "Cyber ethics!" Reno was proposing the first truly new Internet concept I'd heard in months. Teach children about morality in cyberspace. Maybe, I mused, any moral transformation of the Internet might start with adults. The kids, it seems, pretty much get it right now.

PUBLIC TRUST

In an era when public trust in the ethics of commercial Websites is almost nonexistent, it struck me as extraordinary that the attorney general of the United States had turned her guns on a brilliant teenager who had outsmarted the security experts at one of the world's largest news operations. Evil maybe. But perhaps just too bright for his own good.

Reno's comment nagged me. How do you teach cyber-ethics to children when many of the largest and most successful global corporations are challenging ethical boundaries every day? Aren't we in a period when Web entrepreneurs are testing the legal limits of what they can and cannot get away with? Their concern is making money without generating lawsuits, not morality.

For example, there's been little discussion of morality in the national debate over Internet privacy. But to many people, privacy is a simple matter of right and wrong. If I buy something from you, do I have an expectation that the details of our transaction are kept private? Most of us have that expectation because we think it's the right thing to do.

This belief, unfortunately, hasn't extended to the Internet. Is it ethical for companies to surreptitiously take our most personal information and freely sell it on the open market to highest bidder? This is perhaps the hottest political question facing e-commerce today.

RIGHT AND WRONG

Perhaps, when it comes to what's right and wrong on the Internet, the kids are simply taking a cue from their elders. Whether it's Mafiaboy tinkering with corporate Websites or millions of college students downloading pirated music, the Internet represents a new ethical frontier without the traditional boundaries of the physical world.

In a recent interview, Don Tapscott, author of the book "Growing Up Digital," said young people probably know it's illegal to download commercial music without paying for it. "But, he noted, "there's nothing inherent in the Net that transmits good values to kids. They're doing something that in their world is the norm."

Another man having trouble dealing with the state of Internet ethics is Michael Eisner, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company. At the recent Variety/Schroeders Big Picture Conference in New York City, Eisner went on a Reno-style offensive about protecting his company's intellectual property against Internet pirates.

"I am always amazed when I walk the streets of New York and stroll past an open fruit stand," said Eisner. "Thousands of people go by each day respecting the fact that if they want an apple they need to pay for it, even though it would be incredibly easy just to take it."

But, Eisner continued, when it comes to the Internet and the intellectual property of media companies, people don't bring the same level of honesty. "These pirates try to hide behind some contrived New Age arguments of the Internet, but all they are really doing is trying to make a case for age-old thievery," he said.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

Eisner then began to cite Disney's heavy-handed strategy "to make the Internet truly safe for intellectual property." His tactics include increased lobbying for better corporate protection in Congress, a global campaign to better-protect the media companies in foreign countries, "education" to convince the public they should pay for media on the Internet and use of more-powerful encryption technology.

As Eisner continued, his attitude and demeanor spoke louder than his words. Unlike the owner of the public fruit stand, Disney's CEO clearly doesn't trust his customers. Acting from fear, his company wants to dictate consumer conduct through onerous laws and restrictive technology.

In sharp contrast, the fruit stand owner – who puts his faith in the goodwill of people – is rewarded with a level of honesty that entertainment executives can only dream of.

What drives the Internet conduct of Mafiaboy and millions like him won't be stopped by law enforcers armed with a highly selective view of what's right and wrong.

Perhaps a more lasting solution for the Internet community might be found in the words of Felix Adler, founder of the New York Society for Ethical Culture: "Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in thyself."