Computer Ethics - Part 2
A bill was passed in Congress, aimed to protect the rights of children and to limit their exposure to illegal and immoral internet content - Computer Ethics introduction. The bill created a new type of federal crime: according to COPA, “anyone making communication for commercial purposes with minors (i.e., children) that includes any material harmful to minors without restricting such access should be penalized” (CBS, 2007). The new bill had to protect children from accessing pornography sites and had to become an effective form of legal censorship. One of the major benefits of the bill was in that it would serve an effective filter of internet content for children.
Needless to say, parents do not always have an opportunity to check what their children do online. Unrestricted access to illegal and immoral Internet material is likely to result in adverse psychological effects in children. Today, when the Internet is becoming a widely accepted form of leisure and pastime, more and more children engage in various types of online activities, many of which are either harmful or undesirable. As a result, more and more children are being exposed to online pornography – in most cases, by accidentally encountering sexually explicit web sites while surfing the net (CBS, 2007). Statistically, almost every second child recognizes having seen online pornography in the last 12 months (CBS, 2007). Most children state that the pornography content they saw online was unsolicited (CBS, 2007). These websites, on the one hand, produce undesirable effects on children and, on the other hand, make them want more. File-sharing programs present the most serious pornography dangers, while filtering and blocking software does not work effectively to restrict child’s access to pornography and related online content (CBS, 2007). As a result, the major benefit of the bill was in that it would guarantee that children did not access immoral and unethical Internet content.
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However, the bill’s requirement to submit credit card details in order to verify the user’s age poses more serious ethical dilemmas. The bill seems to violate the basic principles of anonymity and privacy. It should be noted, that the main benefit of anonymity is protecting online users from the threats of identity theft, privacy breach, and consumer profiling (Baase, 2007). By requiring online users to submit their credit card details each time they access a pornography website or any other type of “unsolicited content”, the bill increases the number of potential victims of identity theft.
Another question is in what criteria government officials and legal authorities will use to judge the quality of every website’s content. The proposed bill makes the boundary between discrimination and appropriate legal conduct increasingly blurred: there is no guarantee that officials will be objective in judging what websites must restrict access to their content. This is, actually, what Baase (2007) calls direct censorship: the author writes that businesses can often use regulatory power to delay or prevent competition. The proposed bill does not protect online businesses and websites from unjustified discrimination on the side of legal officials and competitive businesses which, trying to expand their share of online presence, will use all possible means to destroy their competitors.
Finally, the bill as a form of censorship goes against the principles of free speech and directly violates the First Amendment. There should be no law that abridges the freedom of speech. The meaning of the new bill is too broad to protect the rights of children without violating the basic constitutional rights of online users and website owners. As a result, there is still the need to create a law which will effectively filter the content and will, at the same time, protect the basic constitutional rights of individuals and businesses. Whether children require legal or technological protection (i.e., filters) is difficult to define, but it is clear that the proposed bill will not resolve the existing ethical controversies online.
That students and children can easily access the so-called “bomb recipe websites” confirms the narrow-sightedness of the government and its inability to create effective mechanisms for filtering Internet content. The government is increasingly concerned about the need to limit children’s access to pornography; meanwhile, thousands of children can access and use available online information about bombs. Obviously, pornography does not kill, but bombs do, and it is high time the government paid attention to the limits of available internet content. The case of a schoolboy who built and set off the bomb at school implies that (a) children are free to access all types of Internet resources, regardless of their contents and (b) the time has come when the government must restrict access to websites that teach users how to build bombs.
Online users need no more than 30 seconds to find bomb cyber-instructions (Gibbons, 1999). Children who build and set off these bombs are not aware of the harm they may cause to people and property. Given the availability of the information about how to build bombs, children simply fall the victims of the unlimited access to Internet content. Online resources not only teach children how to build bombs but provide information about where to find gunpowder and how to buy other materials and parts without arousing suspicion (Gibbons, 1999). “Shrapnel is very important if you want to kill and injure a lot of people – be sure you have plenty of newspapers down because accidents do happen and if you have a big black stain on yer carpet, mom and dad might ask some questions” (Gibbons, 1999). This is just a piece of what adolescents can read online about bombs. The availability of this information is likely to result in more violence, and the case of the young student confirms that free access to information about bombs is dangerous. It is equally threatening and misleading. It tempts children to engage in violent experiments without thinking about the consequences of such actions. Obviously, content filters do not work effectively enough to prevent children from the risks of unnecessary violence and to warn them about the potential dangers of their online decisions. Thus, the time has come when governments must develop systemic approaches to Internet content.
If children say that they are too small to decide how dangerous the bomb is, the government must take the responsibility for filtering the Internet content and protecting children from unnecessary violence. The recent EU initiative proposes that bomb recipes and similar websites are blocked across the EU (Reuters, 2007). Internet providers and the government should work cooperatively to prevent children from accessing websites that contain information about bombs and killing. However, this task is equally critical and challenging. Restricting the availability of the Internet content poses a series of ethical issues, from limiting free speech to requiring that online users submit personal identifiable information to verify their age. Such information increases the probability of identity theft. Even if “instructing people to make a bomb has nothing to do with the freedom of expression, or the freedom of informing people” (Reuters, 2007), many users are likely to oppose to the new information initiatives. Yet, it is clear that free speech does have its limits and when children build and set off bombs in schools, free speech becomes irrelevant. Moreover, the actions of children prove the unreliability of technical solutions which have to filter Internet content. The incident proves the need for developing rules and regulations which would manage access to information about bombs and which would, simultaneously, control the actions of online users. This is not only the question of morality and ethics, but this is also the question of public safety. Ultimately, such rules and regulations will give the public a sense of confidence regarding their children and their own safety. Websites that instruct people to make bombs must be banned from public access. The government must be prepared to sacrifice the principles of anonymity for the sake of the public safety and the safety of children.
Baase, S. (2007). Gift of fire. Prentice Hall.
CBS. (2007). Study: children bombarded with online porn. CBS. Retrieved from
Gibbons, T.J. (1999). Internet, books offer quick access to bomb recipes. Tim Gibbons.
Retrieved from http://www.timgibbons.net/professional/clips/news_journal/nj_bomb.html
Reuters. (2007). Web search for bomb recipes should be blocked. Reuters. Retrieved from