Bill’s Guidelines for Learning to Use the Internet “Safely”




In the past six months (as of March 2006) there have been numerous media reports demonstrating the risks that occur when novice people draw worldwide attention to themselves on the Internet. Most of these reports focus upon teenagers and social networking sites, but the overall paradigm problem can exist for everyone.


It’s true, in the past twelve or so years our civilization has grown a tremendous resource that can give opportunities and “free entry” to almost any intelligent person with access to a computer and the Internet. For that reason, a number of legal and social issues have developed suddenly, and the response of the legal system as well as corporate and educational culture is still evolving and a bit uncertain.


Any new technology has negative consequences for misusers. Learning to use the Internet responsibly is a bit like learning to drive a car. Automobiles are not bad just because there can be accidents or even pollution; it is people who make mistakes in the way they drive them.


Here are “Bill’s” tips, for teens, parents and general adults, on what to bear in mind given all of these media reports.


Part 1: Support Educational Efforts


Remember, in the good old days book publishers would go to great lengths and due diligence to prevent legal problems from the works that they publish. That is much less the case today, and people typically post things on the Internet with hardly any thought of the (at least) theoretical (however remote for most users) legal consequences. That’s not a reason not to use the Internet. But it is a reason that most citizens need to have a better understanding of a number of legal concepts. The list includes copyright, trademark, libel, invasion of privacy, right of publicity (a particularly important concept given the nature of search engines), trade secrets, unfair competition, and secondary or downstream liability, as well as criminal concepts like obscenity, child pornography, and “harmful to minors” materials. Some of these concepts are driven by positive law (that is federal and state statutes), and some by common law and notions of equity (“fairness”). Some concepts vary around the world. The United States has a stronger tradition for respecting free speech rights than any other country, because of the First Amendment adopted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights.


Education in these concepts needs to start much earlier in the school systems. The ability of teenagers to understand these ideas will correlate to their general progress is language (reading) and mathematical (reasoning) literacy. Instruction in these concepts ought to start in middle school, at least in honors courses, when some kids already have the ability to program and tinker with computers. It should be staged into English and social studies courses throughout high school. Typically, some of this is taught in journalism elective courses (run by English departments) in junior and senior years, in association with the school paper (the Smallville Torch) and yearbook. Software vendors and ISPs should work with school systems and textbook authors to develop instructional materials appropriate at various grade and placement levels. It seems like corporate America has a lot of work to do in this regard.  Many teachers and administrators will need instruction on their own. Programs will be needed to provide information for parents, who are often woefully unprepared to supervise their adolescent children. Parents will particularly need help with the proper use of filters and (preferably) content labeling systems that are coming into practice.


Like book publishers, ISPs and blogging service providers typically have indemnification clauses that would theoretically require the self-publisher to reimburse the provider for any legal judgments against it caused by the provider's content. Many laws limit downstream liability to providers and such legal pursuits have been very rare in actual practice, but the idea that we would expose our kids to this possibility without more education and training does seem unsettling.


The computer is like any other innovation; it needs to live in balance with other activities. The communication opportunities can bring tremendous efficiencies in an age when people should conserve energy, but need to be brought into balance with all kinds of normal in-person activities and social interactions.


Part 2:  Different Internet Components Pose Different Risks:


Many of the sensational media reports in recent months involve different components of the Internet, and these all offer their own opportunities and risks. Let’s run down the list.


Item 1: A basic Internet connection and account from an ISP.  (A variation of this occurs if the customer sets up his own). ISPs offer a variety of web hosting plans varying from shared and dedicated servers, with regular and merchant accounts.  For the typical family, the main resources will be email, Web access, and maybe peer-to-peer (next item). Parents can assign different screen names for different kids with different levels of screening.  One of the major risks is viruses and worms. A computer purchases from a reputable manufacturer and retail outlet will usually come with firewalls and anti-virus software, which should be installed and maintained. Operating systems, particularly those from Microsoft, need to have regular security updates run. Strong passwords should be used and maintained. Some viruses can be spread by Internet connections and web access alone, even without email or attachments, although everyone should learn to use great care in opening email attachments or downloading programs from unknown websites. Spam filters should be used.  Computer users who do not provide proper security run at least a remote risk of liability should their machines be hijacked for criminal use by hackers, even though such cases (of downstream or mistaken liability) seem to have been rare so far.


 Item 2: Peer-to-peer computing. This has been popular with kids. One of the major uses has been to download music and now movies, and there have been many legal problems with copyright infringement. Allowing peer-to-peer computing without supervision can pose one of the major legal risks to parents, since the music industry has been suing individual users for major copyright infringement for illegal downloads. Kids often do not understand why the downloading is illegal, since they see free television, and this points back to the education issue. Computer manufacturers and ISPs nearly always offer inexpensive legal downloading subscriptions and these should be considered.


Item 3: Chat rooms (and news groups). These, along with instant messaging, allow users to carry on real time conversations. They require the installation of specific software available from major ISPs.  Some chat rooms, if not from reputable companies or not properly monitored, have attracted persons with criminal intentions looking for minors, as well documented on a recent NBC “Dateline” series, accompanied by police stings. Some news groups have been set up to trade child pornography. It is particularly dangerous for minors to send webcam pictures of videos of themselves over chatrooms or these groups. Parents should monitor this possibility closely. However, many chatrooms are well run and are safe.


Item 4: Social Networking Sites. These are large websites that allow users to set up accounts in which they can write their own blogs and journals and share photos. They have been popular with teenagers and college students as a way to meet people online. Particular attention should be paid to whether an account is public (and available to any visitor from the Internet) or restricted to persons from an approved list of educational institutions, which makes the site safer.


Given the practical risks, teenagers should use great care in identifying themselves, and definitely should not post where they live on these sites (unless they know the access to be severely limited). Teenagers should limit pictures to “headshots”, tasteful or business-appropriate photographs fully dressed. People generally should not post their personal whereabouts or logistical plans on these sites. There seems to be little constructive purpose in doing so, given the security risk. Media reports have focused on kids’ bragging about rebellious behavior on these sites, statements that can be used against them by employers or even law enforcement. College students may feel that bragging about drinking is a political protest, because they may feel passionately that they should be viewed as full adults at 18.


Teenagers will also want to express their political views on these sites, although I think this is a more appropriate issue for the next item (personal sites). The free speech rights of teens, because they are minors, and of teachers, because they work with minors, can be controversial. We think that political speech is fine as long as it follows the practice of good taste and good writing that would be taught in a high school English class. It is not appropriate to single out or “flame” other individuals (including teachers); it is appropriate to discuss issues.


One major technique that would help is if social networking site companies would do more to limit their memberships to those associated with groups of specific schools (facebook has pretty much done this), and treat a social networking mechanism as something more like a corporate intranet, not (unlike a political debate site or blog) something intended for the entire planet.


Item 5: Personal Websites and Blogs. A web domain can be set up by purchasing a domain name and an a matching account from an ISP (which often register the name and uses name servers to match the name to the content). Anyone with a credit card (age 18 or older – often younger in practice) can purchase one. A blog is a particular kind of website where entries are posted in reverse chronological order by software.


Care should be taken in choosing a domain name, to make sure that an existing trademark is not infringed upon. Generally, it is all right to use one’s own name, although there are certain security considerations. Since the owner has to register a contact address with WHOIS, one should either use a private mail box or use private registration, a new security service offered by registration companies. In the future, it is likely that apartment owners and even condo or homeowner’s associations will not allow the public use of residential addresses on WHOIS because of the security (and perhaps zoning) concerns. Bear in mind that there are some “skip tracer” websites that offer to track down the residential addresses of anyone (for detective purposes), even though these have not usually led to security problems.


A major reason that people set up domains is to buy and sell things. For this purpose people often set up merchant accounts. Given the risk of liability for identity theft, it is unwise for most novices to store credit card information on their own domains, although there are services (Paypal) that will do this for them.


Another major reason is social and political speech. Much of this speech is non-fiction narrative and is often in the nature of research work. Here, all of the intellectual property law concerns mentioned above come into play. Credit should be given as it would in a term paper. Deep links to other websites are usually all right as long as the material is not “framed.” When mentioning another writer in credit, always spell the name exactly as it appears in the source, and respect the author’s pseudonym if one was used.


Speakers may want to demonstrate literary writing, such as poetry, fiction and screenplays. Attention needs to be given to legal concepts regarding sexually explicit material or possibly extreme violence. Special care is necessary when criminal or objectionable behavior is depicted. There is a body of law well known in books regarding unintentional libel when a character resembles a living person. A person might libel himself for the sake of demonstrating a story, but even this can present issues (such as inducement or indirect solicitation, in some states). Be careful with names of characters since they can be searched, and be particularly careful with names that would accidentally single out some person.


I wonder if it would be a good idea to require minors who want social networking site accounts or their own domains (those would seem harder to get if they require credit cards, usually meaning age 18 or more) to pass a multiple choice quiz on some of the legal and ethical concepts of web use. Maybe even the grownups should have to pass one!  A lot of people would have trouble passing one without some training or classroom instruction.


Item 6: Message Boards.  Many ISPs, organizations and media companies (such as run message boards for discussing specific shows or issues. For the most part these are monitored (like email listservers). Use common sense on these. Most entertainment companies have disclaimers indicating that they own any material that is posted. Therefore keep comments relevant to the specific topic of the board, and be wary of giving away any plot or other ideas that you may be planning on your own. These boards present interesting problems because of the supposed “third party” agency rules common in the entertainment business.  Be very careful about discussing your employer, even anonymously, on investor “trash boards.”


Concerns about Personal Reputation, Employers and Schools.


There have been recent media reports that employers regularly check the social networking and personal websites of job applicants (perhaps even existing associates), or will Google the applicant’s name.


Of course, when someone knowingly publishes something he or she is putting it into a public space and giving others permission (subject to normal interpretation of copyright law) to use it. Therefore normal use of privacy law does not apply.


Nevertheless, it seems that there are rather obvious ethical problems if employers do these searches carelessly. It’s easy to get the wrong individual, some people have nicknames, and a person’s “search engine” profile can be affected by bibliographic references given by others and even by well intended comments by others.


In fact, for years employers have been mainly concerned about the misuse of their own computer networks. The concern over outside use has grown rapidly since about the time of 9/11 for a number of reasons, including security but particularly the awareness that people really can build reputations online (conflicting with what they have to do publicly for the company), and also the possibility that trade secrets can be inadvertently compromised.   


Some people suggest anonymous speech as the best course, and the ACLU vigorously defends the right to anonymous speech.  Political speech is much more effective when the identity of the speaker is known. But many advocacy organizations and pressure groups exist precisely because many individuals are not in a position to speak out publicly.


Special thought should be given to the possibility that a speaker may surrender legitimate legal rights with voluntary statements made un a public space (the Wed) with "free entry."  It is well known now that a few people have been convicted for offenses based on their "bragging" on personal blogs (such as for drug use or underage drinking).  What is more subtle is that persons may be inviting others to behave prejudicially against them (and possibly others associated with them). If persons allow themselves, under free entry, to be connected to behaviors against which there is extreme social animosity (even because others read their materials carelessly), they conceivably could forfeit the rights to defend themselves against libel or invasion of privacy torts later. This possibility -- a kind of "First Amendment in reverse problem" -- is very unclear, new and undeveloped at this point, but employers and particularly university and school administrators seem concerned about this possibility with respect to students and even teachers.  

Celebrities, of course, often have their views and pictures circulated online (often by fans) and are in a much better position to maintain their physical security and reputations than are “ordinary people.” There are exceptions (Princess Diana). This does seem unfair and needs attention. Perhaps celebrities maintain that they really “earned” their right to publicity by winning a competition. Younger male celebrities have tended to become more open to being found in public than were celebrities in the past.


I think that this is an area where Human Resources organizations need to develop a “Best Practices” model.  Hopefully this will be done voluntarily, without legislation. Some elements of such a model would include disclosing their “right of publicity” policy to job applicants and associates, and, especially, basing that policy on the nature of the duties of a particular job. The “public image” of someone who speaks or sells in public for a company is more critical than is the image of an individual contributor. Nor do I buy the idea that it ought to be looked at as a personal "Rorschach test". But employers may look at amateur sites and blogs as "non legitimate" and therefore want to treat them is "inside the workplace" speech when found by other employees or especially customers. Search engines can work both ways!

I am particularly concerned by the notion that people should manipulate their online profiles “professionally” to please and placate others, rather than speak with some candor. I do not buy the idea that a blog or profile is the same thing as an interview suit.


The Internet has been a free-for-all for its first dozen or so years, and there are tens of millions of blogs and personal websites. Nevertheless, the idea of self-promotion without accountability to others (such as family) seems wrong from the cultural perspective of some people. There could be attempts in the future to wall off people (from employment, housing, etc.) people who have drawn attention to themselves in ways that appear inconsiderate of the feelings of or possible risks to others. Especially in social justice areas, democracy benefits from the free flow of individual speech, which gets stronger when people are not afraid of being identified, and technology always proposes questions about how people who “paid their dues” the old fashioned way can keep their turf. Nevertheless, the ethical questions about accountability to others are compelling too. This is a new debate that is coming, and it is a bit unsettling.


 ©Copyright 2006 by Bill Boushka (aka “John W. Boushka”). All rights reserved, subject to fair use.


An NBC4 Digital Edge report suggests that users can surf much more safely many times if the log on as guests or individual users (under Windows XP) than as administrators, which is often the defacto default for many home users. See "Safe Surfing: An easy way to protect your computer" and look for the video icon. 


Letter to Jim Moran about Internet safety 5/4/2006


Suggested blogging policy


Return to personal directory


Return to home page


Blogspot entry for safer use of the Internet