Online Piracy, Ethical Behavior, and the Unintended Consequences of Technology

Are We Fighting the Right Battle, but in the Wrong Place?

By Diane Barbour,
CIO, Rochester Institute of Technology (NY)

I read with interest Graham Spanier’s article “Piracy on the Seas of Higher Education” in the 4/27/2005 issue of C2. Like many other university administrators I am concerned about the lack of ethical behavior and the misuse of university resources by our students as they engage in peer-to-peer file sharing of copyrighted materials. Having acted on the recommendation of the Education Task Force of the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities, my institution engaged an online music service as a way to offer a legal alternative for music. The service was heavily marketed to students and parents during orientation sessions and throughout the academic year. One year later, however, only a very small percentage (approximately 8 percent) of students who could use the service (the service is not available for Macintosh users) have signed up for the service (which, I might add, is currently at no cost to the student).

Despite this marginal success with the legitimate online music service, we will continue to market and offer the service and we hope to add an online movie service from the same vendor in the fall. We will also continue our educational programs on protecting intellectual property and we will insist that students sign our Computer Code of Conduct. The reality is, for the time that our students are part of this community we will need to provide them with both academic and entertainment services.

Students who have been served subp'enas for illegal file sharing admit they were engaging in an illegal activity. However, they contend that, while they will no longer engage in this activity, their friends (who were lucky enough not to get caught) will not be deterred from continuing to use the i2hub and other file sharing programs. The change in behavior of our students after being sued was driven by the economic impact (most students indicated they would be paying the fines themselves from summer earnings), not by a renewed appreciation of copyright laws and a desire to preserve the intellectual property of the artists.

By the time students arrive on campuses, they have been listening to music and watching movies online for several years and mostly for free. The behavior has become second nature to them. While they know the practice is illegal, it is not perceived to be particularly wrong. I think we need to focus on the root cause of this behavior which is the fact that ethical behavior, as it relates to technology, is not being taught in K-12. It is time to more actively engage our social scientists and K-12 teachers, to focus on teaching cyber ethics at an early age. Research has been conducted on how cyberspace has changed moral reasoning and moral behavior. It is not clear that the research is being applied in the K-12 environment as a way to shape future generations.

Cyberspace came along too fast for parents to instruct and mentor the current student population about cyber ethics. In a 2001 Time/CNN poll, 62 percent of children stated that parents know little or nothing about their children’s activity on the Internet. A survey conducted in 2003 at my institution produced a similar result. In the same 2003 survey, 70.5 percent of respondents stated that they had received no formal computer ethics education or training before coming to college.

Ethical behavior needs to be a part of education at all levels and computer use is no exception. Advances in computing and networking technologies can have unintended, and sometimes negative, consequences. However, the advantages and positive opportunities that new technologies offer have always outweighed the short-term negative consequences.

The academic community is doing its part to combat illegal file sharing through education, policy, and, enforcement. Focusing the same attention on K-12 would help to ensure that a more educated student population will come to our campuses in future years. As we punish students for illegal behavior let’s also take steps to ensure that their younger brothers and sisters will fully understand why that punishment was necessary.

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