An ethic of serious business on the cyber playground

We need rules of the road to help the high-tech generation negotiate a fun - and dangerous - new world.

Back in the '80s, the motion picture industry thought the VCR would bring an end to cinema box-office receipts. It didn't happen. Today, the music recording industry says its traditional music-distribution system faces a similar threat: software that enables millions of people to share digital music files on the Internet.

To stem the loss of billions of dollars in investment and profit, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has filed more than 250 lawsuits against individual downloaders and warned that thousands more could follow.

The Internet may seem like a cyber-playground, but online activity is fraught with danger - whether it's scams, hate sites, predators, fraud, or pornography.

Because online safety demands personal integrity and the ability to recognize danger and respond appropriately, young users - and their parents - need lessons in ethics and discretion to avoid sticky situations on the Web.

What are kids and teens doing online? They're researching, chatting, instant messaging, gaming, and file sharing. They're downloading the latest games, movies, and music. And they're doing these things in relative anonymity and ignorance. The anonymity makes them feel as though they can go anywhere and do anything without being held accountable.

What are parents doing while their children are online? They're reading, watching TV, cleaning, and working. They have little regard for the power and breadth of the Internet, and just don't comprehend the threats it can pose.

This is a formula for tragedy.

Policymakers are scrambling to find ways to effectively contain the range of new risks that technology presents to kids, teens, adults, families, entrepreneurs, commercial enterprises, and governments.

Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to control the millions of young surfers on the unregulated high seas of the Internet. Moreover, legislation and remedial lawsuits come into play too late - after the harm is done.

Ultimately, behavior on the Internet involves personal choices: which URL to type in, whether to download a file, when to give personal information, when to exit a program. Ignorance of potentially devastating consequences - from legal complications to physical victimization - leads to behavior that probably wouldn't occur if users were empowered with knowledge. Education is key.

The RIAA's self-defense lawsuits will, no doubt, deter some illegal online behavior. They certainly inform the public of the serious consequences of doing what millions of kids are doing online - in ignorance - every day. In fact, the RIAA recently released encouraging survey results that indicate public awareness of the illegality of sharing copyrighted material has nearly doubled during the past year.

That's progress, but has illegal file sharing diminished appreciably during the same time frame?

While the RIAA is serving the proprietary interests of its membership in pursuing legal action against illegal file sharers, an unfortunate side effect is that the RIAA looks to be suing kids for their lunch money. This is unfair because the pursuit of one's legitimate proprietary rights should not be cast in a negative light.

The RIAA should be encouraged to teach kids and teens about the illegality and potential consequences of sharing copyrighted material - especially the spread of computer viruses and exposure of children to pornography.

File sharing is a choice. Kids and parents need to know when it's illegal and understand that it may have seriously harmful consequences, even if unintended.

The best approach - one that would have long-term results within online culture - is to spend money on teaching high-tech generations how to drive safely on the Internet superhighway.

Teri Schroeder is CEO of i-SAFE America Inc., a nonprofit Internet safety education and outreach foundation.

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