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
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
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,
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
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."
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
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