Cyber-ethics throw wrench in mom's world view

It was dinnertime, and the household was in its usual state of bustle. I was making supper in the kitchen, and our teenage daughters, Claire and Juliana, were in the TV room. Their afternoon doesn't follow the sequence - homework first, then playing outside - that I remember from childhood. With our girls, homework is accomplished sitting at the computer amid a stream of music, instant messaging, and phone conversation.

They use the Internet to do all the same things that I used to do as a kid - homework, listening to music, communicating with friends, playing games. In fact, all of us have moved much of our lives onto computers, for play, shopping, and communicating.

But when my husband arrived home that evening, fresh off the radio news, he had a clear agenda: He asked the girls if they had downloaded any music recently. Well, of course they had: They trade music files with friends as casually as we traded record albums when I was young.

"Guess what," he said. "Not anymore, not in this house."

It was the week that the Recording Industry Association of America sued 261 people - including teen - who'd downloaded music off the Internet. One young girl's mother settled out of court for $2,000. The legal problem hadn't really registered with me - I don't even know how to download a song. But the seriousness of the industry's tactics struck home with my computer-savvy husband.

Discussion ensued. I wondered if he was overreacting. No, he said, pointing out that the music industry is targeting children, older people, casual users, and serious music downloaders. With Juliana headed to college next year, we have no room for financial missteps.

Still, the girls protested. Claire asked whether downloading music is actually wrong. All their friends do it; what's all the fuss now?The answer we had to give is that it just can't happen in our household because we can't afford to get caught.

That's a very unsatisfying answer to give a child. It falls under the "because I said so" category - the kind of answer I hated hearing from my parents, and one I vowed to never utter to my own child. But how am I supposed to understand - let alone explain - why downloading music from the Internet is wrong?

The music industry says it's tantamount to stealing. Yet, as the Internet culture has developed, we've come to think of intellectual property on the Internet as virtually free. We've already paid for the privilege of access. We can do research, get recipes, read articles, send messages - all for free. Why is music so different?

All of a sudden, the music industry throws up a roadblock on this heretofore free highway and tells us to pay a toll.

I ordered my children not to download for fear of getting sued - not because I thought the action itself was wrong. In essence, I was telling them that it isn't the principle that's important, it's the consequences. This is a wrongheaded and confusing message - pernicious, too. It reflects an ethic that is evident in such controversies as Jayson Blair's and Stephen Glass's yarn-weaving for publication, coaches faking credentials, and corporate executives destroying records of their wrongs. Joining their ranks - even in a small, relatively innocent way - makes me squirm. All of a sudden, after music downloading has become ingrained in online culture, the industry wants me to tell my kids it's wrong - but only because of lost revenue. And all of a sudden, I'm forbidding my kids to download - but only because of losses that could come to me.

The music industry tries to increase our sense of compunction by arguing that downloaders are, in effect, stealing musicians' livelihoods. Yet many musicians - from David Bowie to small unknown bands - disagree. Trading music on the Internet is a form of marketing for small bands who could use the exposure. Sampling obscure songs could, after all, persuade the downloader to buy an entire album or attend a concert. And Mr. Bowie, who has made millions, believes the whole concept of copyright may be going the way of the dinosaur.

Maybe our children are pioneers in a new online landscape - one the music industry is finding difficult to navigate. When so much on the Internet is available free of charge, the industry naturally is going to have a hard time setting rules.

However, my husband and I made the decision stick, and our kids didn't put up a protracted fight. We trust them not to do any further downloading. But the resolution is dissatisfying. I've become the voice of moral relativism to my kids.

I suppose the morally superior thing to do would be to stand up for what I think is right - and to download freely if I believe it to be fair. But frankly, we don't have the time or energy - or the patience to sort through a logic we can't comprehend.

Jennifer Howland is a freelance writer and editor, and the mother of two teenage daughters.

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