The Private Sector: Cyber sinners

It's very easy to be bad on the Internet; but should we?

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later
   Write us

To submit a letter or an essay for consideration for The Private Sector, please send it via e-mail to or via regular mail to Post-Gazette Business Section, Private Sector, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15222. Please include your telephone number, municipality and return address for verification.


San Antonio businessman Howard Giles recently paid $300 -- not including license, meat processing and taxidermy fees -- for two hours of hunting on, hoping to bag any animal that might wander across his monitor. About an hour into the hunt, Giles dropped an itchy trigger finger on his mouse, fired a 30.06 round through the neck of a wild hog -- it had stopped to eat some corn in the Texas hill country, presumably safe from a hunter 45 miles away -- and so became the first person ever to enjoy the online ease and convenience of one-click killing by remote control.

Another online hunt occurred Saturday; the shooter, a paraplegic from Indiana, fired with a special joystick he manipulated in his mouth, but bagged no game in Texas. More cyber-shooters are lining up to follow, unless the Humane Society or another outraged organization -- bills banning the practice are pending in 14 states -- manage to kill the site before it kills again.

But I wouldn't bet on it.

Because plenty of extremists -- many of them even more crazed and less stable than someone who would kill a pig with his PC -- will argue that you can't put stop signs on the information superhighway; the Internet, they'll tell you, should be an open road to go anywhere you want and do anything you can, a point-and-click freeway of downloaded desire and instant gratification. If it feels good, do it. If it might be illegal or unethical in the real world, do it anyway.

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette
Click illustration for larger image.

Plenty of otherwise reasonable, ethical people agree -- people who enjoy the wicked opportunities and wanton possibilities (and virtual anonymities) their keyboards and cable modems afford them; people who won't insult someone in person but who'll post hate-filled, vitriolic messages on blogs and bulletin boards; people who won't walk into a music store, stuff a CD up their shirt and walk out the door, but who'll download any MP3 that limewires their way; people -- like the MBA applicants from this month's other online controversy -- who wouldn't sneak into admissions offices and rifle through files but who bypassed server security and accessed private information, then rushed to online forums to rationalize what they'd done; people who behave one way in person and another way online and seem, at least on the surface, untroubled by the contradiction.

For them, the Internet means always justify the moral ends.

But when they acquire music for which they haven't paid, whether in a store or on a computer, they're still stealing. When they sneak into an office to access private files, whether they picked a lock or hacked a site, they're still breaking and entering, and trespassing. Their computers and their Internet connections make these things easy, accessible, even attractive, but they do not make them right.

This phenomenon, this alarming contradiction, goes beyond situational ethics; it creates a new, dimensional ethics, by which values and choices and judgments, even a basic sense of right and wrong, are defined not by moral or ethical principle but by physical and virtual space. Don't consider why or when we're doing something so much as how and where we're doing it. In the real world, they walk the line. In the virtual world, they see no lines. There are no Internet shoulds or should nots; only cans and cannots.

Alone at a computer -- with no victims, no witnesses, and only a distant, echoing conscience to ignore -- transgressions, so presently possible, seem a lot less transgressive; consequences, a lot less consequential. It's just you, your mouse, and your ID; your Ego's playing solitaire, your Superego's stuck behind a firewall, and your browser -- Explorer! Safari! Firefox! -- urges you to go get whatever you want.

And it's awfully tempting to be freed from rules and laws and boundaries, to be unfettered from recourse and accountability, to believe that if something is possible, it also is permissible. Haven't we all -- MP3 pirates and MBA intruders, online hatemongers and hog shooters, even simple Web surfers like you and me -- at some time in our lives, wished we could break a rule or a law and not get caught? Maybe thought about robbing a bank or road-raging someone? In the end, we resisted those urges not because we were afraid of getting caught, but because we knew that even if we could, we shouldn't.

But online, where getting caught is hard to imagine and rule-breaking is just a mouse click away, even when we know we shouldn't, we often do. We succumb. We forget that morality begins with small gestures and simple choices, such as paying for a CD or waiting for an admissions letter.

The faster we browse and point and click, the farther our modems and monitors and keyboards allow us to stray, the more delicate those choices become.

As the wonders of the digital dimension cloud our sense of right and wrong, they compromise our abilities to make moral distinctions and to measure the real, ethical distances between them.

Good, if rarely followed, communication wisdom says we shouldn't write anything in an e-mail today that we wouldn't be comfortable reading on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow. Even greater wisdom is that we shouldn't do anything online today that we wouldn't also do off-line tomorrow.

With careful consideration and honest introspection before we point-and-click to kill pigs or steal songs or snoop data, we can bridge the divide of dimensional ethics. We can open our digital eyes and measure our virtual souls and remind ourselves that, no matter what amazing feats technology allows us to do, the true test of our morality, and so the true test of our humanity, is what we allow ourselves to do.

Chad Hermann, of Squirrel Hill, is a lecturer in management communication at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?