Dangers of Networked Information

In the wake of the tragic massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., USA Today published on May 4 the results of a poll stating 65 percent of Americans believe the government should do more to regulate content on the Internet. Apparently a lot of us think that if it weren't for the Internet and the video game Doom, Harris and Klebold might have just become the name of a law firm instead of a terror ring.

Where the safety of our children is concerned, it's hard to argue against governmental -- and, perhaps more to the point, parental -- control over access to potentially dangerous things like guns and information. Even the most rabid defenders of the First and Second Amendments acknowledge the need for restrictions on the behavior of children to prevent immature emotions from developing into horrible acts of violence.

But when controls on information are imposed arbitrarily by corporate bureaucrats rather than by elected government officials, and when the restrictions apply to the behavior of adults, the issues of regulating access to information -- both to the Internet and within private intranets -- quickly become cloudy. To illustrate, here are a few case histories that question the ethics and legality of corporate information control, drawn from my own experience:

  • Should a corporation selectively filter its employees’ access through the Internet to certain kinds of content? Most of us would agree with filtering access to pornographic sites or to political and racial hate sites, but how about access to employment agencies or to a competitor's recruiting site? Maybe instead of blocking such sites, corporations should quietly monitor and log their employees’ visits to them, perhaps for later use in performance appraisals or salary reviews? Frightening thought, huh? Without getting specific, been there, done that. Should I be losing sleep over this? I am.
  • Once, after helping build an office automation system for an agency of the U.S. government, the director asked me to add a special option to his screen that would enable him to secretly read the e-mail of the people that reported to him in his organization. Appalled, I refused, covering by lying to him that it couldn’t be done technically. Was he wrong for asking me to do this? Was I wrong for refusing to do it?
  • A university client of mine inadvertently attached their undergraduate student network to their administrative network one day. In short order, a few enterprising students hacked their way in and began changing their class records. The students made no attempt to hide their activity, and bragged about it in the school newspaper. When the administration found out, they suspended the students. The students promptly sued and were ordered reinstated by a judge. The judge said the students had a right to use the school’s academic computer systems as they saw fit, and it was the school’s responsibility to keep the students out of the administrative systems. Was the judge right? Should the administration have appealed the ruling? They didn’t.

Experiences like these ask a fundamental question of principal: To what extent can corporations and organizations pass and enforce "laws" that govern access to networked information? Are all network filters legal or are they illegal forms of prior restraint? The First Amendment tells us Congress can’t enact laws that infringe on a person’s freedom of expression, but it doesn’t mention rules enacted by corporate CEOs. --Al Cini is a senior consultant with Computer Methods Corp. (Marlton, N.J.) specializing in systems and network integration. Contact him at al.cini@computermethods.com.