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The Price We Pay for Information Availability


Jason D. Grose

Department of Technical Communications

University of Washington

MAY 15, 1997

(This is a paper I wrote about the World Wide Web while attending college.)

Three short years ago, a force invaded and changed our world. It permeated our knowledge base and spread into our very homes. Suddenly, nearly every industry responded to the mesmerizing grip this force had on the population and we would never be the same. It hypnotized our children and altered our collective human psyche. Is this some horrible alien invasion? No, the insidious force is the proliferation of the World Wide Web.

From every advancement in technology comes both good and bad effects. The Internet is not immune to this fact therefore a discussion of the societal effects, both good and bad, is the subject of this paper. The far-reaching effects of such a public and available system of information dissemination in today’s complicated world warrants discussion starting with the historical niche this latest technology fills. As this world-wide depository of information grows, what happens to the line between public disclosure and privacy of the individual? How much control should we, as a global society, dictate through laws or should we try to impose ethical behavior through other means? What are the trade-offs between mass availability and information security? These issues, which I discuss in this paper, are but a small sample of the issues we must grapple with as a society in the face of an exploding technology.

The Information Cycle

Information is the basis for human existence. We, as humans, start learning the moment we exit the womb until the moment we enter the grave. On an individual level, we store, analyze, and retrieve information using our human memory. Early humans only had this one storage mechanism to survive but over time, we discovered how to store information for later retrieval in the form of writing. Suddenly, large amounts of information became available to a larger percentage of the population. But even up to the 1500s, only a select few, usually monks, could read and write and therefore held the keys to the human informational vault. Information availability was still in the Dark Ages with the wisdom gathered over generations passed on by word of mouth.

Then in the 15th century, a revolution happened. The printing press, a simple mechanical device, destroyed the informational monopoly. Suddenly, books were cheap and information was available to anyone willing to learn to read. We as a species became collectively smarter. Old ideas sparked new and the fire was lit. As a result of widespread availability of knowledge, a person could benefit from the work of others and was free to create new concepts rather than re-inventing ones that had already been explored.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the cycle starts again. Where the lack of information slowed the human progress of our forefathers, the over-abundance of it plagues the modern scholar. We are lost in an informational avalanche. Consider a typical library and imagine just how many books a person could physically read even if that person read 24 hours per day. How much of that library could a person get through? Even a small branch of a local neighborhood library could not be finished in a lifetime. Learning has become the art of selecting what material you need out of the vast pool of information available.
With the advent of the Internet, another explosion occurred. Suddenly, the world has access to even more information that any single person could ever get through. With computer technology, the information you select is brought to you. With search engines such as Yahoo, the user can electronically retrieve narrow collections of specified information in seconds. By using key words, the user lets the machine do the searching. The system is not perfected yet but it has lessened the search time for pertinent information defined by the user. This time that is saved allows the user to allocate more time to the real learning process: digesting the material.

But not all is gleeful in cyberland. Serious issues deeper than the altruistic quest for knowledge plague this exciting new technology. One of the biggest, and probably most misunderstood, is privacy.


It seems ironic that the issue of privacy has become such a big issue for a technology that was founded on the concept of sharing information. Privacy is an issue that worries many people on the Web. On one side of the issue you have those such as King County Medical Blue Shield data-security administrator and recent Internet symposium participant Kirk Bailey. "The Internet is basically dirty public wire, from a technical viewpoint. No e-mail should be sent unless it's conceived like a postcard; anybody can read it." (Henderson, C4).
At the other extreme, you have the people who give little thought to the subject of privacy and embrace the public forum the World Wide Web offers. Paul Jenson, a database technician for a major electronic corporation, is not worried about his privacy over the web. “Many people think that providing information such as credit card numbers on the Internet is dangerous and stupid, yet they freely hand their plastic to a bus boy they do not know when they dine at a restaurant.” (Jenson).
Mr. Jenson goes on to point out that the amount of information available is not what has changed, but the ease at which it can be accessed. Most everyone’s name, phone number, and address is available to virtually every homeowner in their city in the form of a phone book listing. Yet when you ask them to make the information available on the Web, they feel threatened.
The truth of the matter is that there are indeed those with mal-intent lurking around the Internet and the serious cases that come into the public eye get a lot of attention. This attention, in turn, worries the users of the system who have little to no knowledge about the World Wide Web and believe that these unauthorized invasion of privacy is widespread. This situation equates to the panic that is caused by airline crashes. In such tragedies, hundreds of people may die but when compared to the number of safely delivered people every day, the percentage is astoundingly high for a safe trip. On the Internet, so many transactions take place everyday, that the chances of villainous tampering of your information is statistically very low. To avoid the convenience of using the Internet for the sake of privacy is akin to avoiding airplane travel for the sake of safety.

The Moral Authority

One of the most pressing debates confronting cyberculture today is the mix of morality and the Internet. A common mistake is to try to attempt to blame immoral behavior on the availability of material on the web. This is wrong. The behavior that has gathered so much negative attention today is not the web’s influence on the moral fiber. Rather, it is the moral fiber that is reflected in today’s use of the web. Technology is just a tool and the web is just a vehicle for expression and potential corruption. To say that the web corrupts our society is wrong. It is more correct to say that society corrupts the web. Banning or even limiting the use of the web will not solve the problem.
As a result of confusion over who must “clean up the web,” two schools of thought have evolved. The first is the self-regulating attempt to set moral standards among the industry itself, therefore heading off the need for the second choice: government intervention. “Many thoughtful Internet citizens realize that if they don’t come up with some kind of workable self-censorship systems, the heavy hand of government will clamp down - or at least try to,” states James Mayer of Newhouse News Services. (Mayer, C3).
It is impractical to expect at least some government intervention on such a far-reaching technology. Charles Marson, a San Francisco attorney, former American Civil Liberties Union legal director and symposium panelist, states this view by saying, "To ask politicians to keep their hands off a phenomenon like the Internet is like asking them to reject campaign contributions. We can expect, therefore, that the closing years of the 20th century will produce a confused and dangerous jumble of new legal rules." (Henderson, C4).
In the first of many lawsuits to come out of this question, New York is defending its own censorship law. On November 1, 1996, New York passed the New York State Internet censorship law that makes it a crime to disseminate “indecent” materials that are “harmful to minors” through any computer communications network.
Ann Beeson, an ACLU national staff attorney states that the New York governor may be trying to protect minors but that the sad fact is that the law does not and cannot protect minors.
“The only immediate harm on the horizon is the millions of Internet users, including our plaintiffs, who face criminal prosecution for exercising their right to free speech. Parents, not the government, should control what their children see online.”
(Pietrucha, C1).
With all of the hype surrounding pornography and other questionable material available on the Internet, the simplest and most effective control is pointed out by Ms. Beeson: parental involvement. Any teen who wants to find pornography will if it is at the corner store or the Internet. Trying rely on the government to set up laws for every medium is futile and if a parent wants protection, they must sit down with their children and educate them. The old saying rings true in this case; you cannot legislate morality. But the parents can instill moral values that thwarts deviant behavior.
To try to help parents, the computer industry has come up with some innovative tools. There are filtering programs such as Cybersitter, NetNanny, and SurfWatch that block certain questionable sites using keyword searches of the site. To get around these programs, many adult oriented sites purposely remove sexually explicit names in their titles and therefore side-step the filter. Again, it must be the parents job to monitor their children’s surfing habits. Legislation, although necessary and useful, cannot compete with the strong moral values that must be instilled by parents.


Another interesting problems arises when you consider the availability of our nations psyche. If you give everyone access to everything, how do you safeguard against corruption. For example, the Constitution of the United States has a physical existence; the document still exists. Since its creation, millions of copies have been made and distributed all over the world. Every American is protected under the contents of this historical document and its importance is legendary. But what if you had a copy that said something different that what is commonly understood? What if your copy gave you the right to kill randomly? What would happen?
Obviously it would be easy to disprove such a forgery by comparing it to any legitimate copy but it is also actually possible to go to Washington D.C. and verify the contents of the actual document.
Consider a similar hypothetical situation using the World Wide Web when everything, including national documents, are computerized and stored in computers. If an ingenious hacker could infiltrate the national archives and change the wording of the Constitution, would that not change the rights of every American? If successful, how could you prove it was changed?
The above example might seem a little extreme but it was used to prove a point. The more our society depends on a technology that has its basis on availability, the more that society exposes itself to potential corruption and contamination of its archival information.
We must view the Internet as a continuum. At one extreme end we have total informational availability with no controls. While this situation ensures total access to everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Grateful Dead, it also opens the gate for everyone, including the very young, to see the seediest, dark nature of human existence.
On the other side of the continuum, we have filters, censorship, and selective control. These descriptors might sound negative because of their negative reputation over the last few decades but these practices are around us every day. Childrens’ books do not contain graphic violence nor explicit sexual content even though these concepts exist. Why are they excluded? Because most authority figures, namely adults, understand the need to shelter young minds from such concepts.
At each end, you have good and the bad aspects to deal with. Total access allows everyone to pick the fruit of the human knowledge tree but also allows immoral content to reach impressionable minds. Total censorship can filter this damaging material but the practice also gives enormous power to a few individuals: power that can corrupt absolutely.
Where on this continuum do we as a society operate? That is the hottest debate in today’s World Wide Web community. When we can answer this question not only as a nation but as a species, only then will the full power of the World Wide Web be harnessed.


The debate over the effect of the World Wide Web on today’s society has nothing new at its base. Concerns over privacy, moral and ethical behavior, and public information is still at the base of the argument. The old questions have resurfaced because a slick new technology has connected a larger percentage of the human race. Because of a network of cold machines, the human interaction problems must be dealt with.
Pastora Cafferty, a historian at the University of Chicago who has published several books on cultural diversity, has deliberately avoided computers for years. "We are becoming more tolerant of the invasion of our privacy in part because so much of our leisure time is spent talking to strangers in electronic chat rooms," Cafferty says. "When you spend time communicating with faceless, nameless strangers, what does that do to individual and societal behavior? We don't know." (Griffin, C1).
How do we begin to address the problems outlined in this paper? Clifford Stoll, author of "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway" has a simple formula that bridges the gap between man and machine. "To promote mental health, anyone who works on computers should be required to say hello to five real people before they log on in the morning," Stoll writes. "Insist on 60 minutes of conversation for every hour online. And each computer manual should be followed by an evening with a novel."

Stoll reminds us that the Internet, the machines, and the technology are not at the heart of these problems. It is us, the humans, and the way in which we interact that must be addressed.


Banisar, David. “Battle for Control of Encryption Technology.” IEEE-Software.  July, 1993. p95-98.

Browning, John. “The Internet is learning to censor Itself.” Scientific-American.  Sept, 1996. p38.

Dubois, J.E. The Information Revolution : Impact on Science and Technology New York : Springer-Verlag ; Paris : CODATA, c1996.

Froomkin, Michael. “The Metaphor is the Key: Cryptography, the Clipper Chip, and the Constitution.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review.  Jan, 1995. p709-897.

Griffin, Jean Latz. “Time Out for Reflection.” The Seattle Times, 11 February 1996: C1.
Jenson, Paul. Personal Interview. May 1997.

Henderson, Diedtra. “Forum Examines Law, Ethics and the Internet.” The Seattle Times, 11 September 1996: C4.

Mayer, James. “Cyberspace Cultural Clash Spawns Ethical Quandaries.” The Seattle Times, 28 May , 1995.

Pietrucha, Bill. “New York Court Gets Wired For Online Censorship Case.”
The Seattle Times, 04 April 1997: C1.

Quittner, Joshua. “Home Pages for Hate.” Time.  Jan 22, 1996. p69.

Raskin, Xan,  Schaldach-Paiva, Jeannie. “Computer crimes.” American Criminal Law Review.  Spring, 1996. p541-573.

Young, J.R. “‘Indecency' on the Internet.” Chronicle of Higher Education.  April 26, 1996. pA21-24.

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