When you talk about cleaning up the Internet, likely you're thinking about hardcore pornography on the World Wide Web.
Discuss morality and cyberspace and you'll probably make the direct leap to sexy chatlines and teenage girls who travel to Nebraska to meet some middle-aged online Romeo. Or perhaps what you have in mind are websites that tell you how to build a bomb.
And while it's true that you can get, well, just about anything you want from the Internet - from cybersex to the Anarchist's Cookbook - in fact one of the gravest issues the electronic superhighway faces right now is theft.
Wholesale computer software piracy is going on at an alarming rate. Where's this heist happening? Well, if you have a teenager or a clever computer person around, it's probably going on wherever you keep the family computer.
Electronic bulletin boards provide access to just about any computer program - for free. Any kid - and, sadly, it's kids who are most vulnerable to the attraction of "free" software, since they don't understand the legal ramifications - can download programs from these bulletin boards at no cost. Amazingly, people who would never dream of shoplifting a copy of a copyrighted computer program from a store shelf have absolutely no compunction about hooking up and performing the electronic equivalent on-line.
Some of the bulletin boards even try to excuse this wholesale hijacking of intellectual property by suggesting that, since young people can't afford to buy the programs legally, it's perfectly okay for them to pirate the program. In fact, some sites would have you believe that, since this is a way for young people to start using the software, thereby increasing sales down the road, that such piracy actually is in the best interests of the software industry.
And it's so very simple. All a prospective pirate needs to do is locate a website that offers the software, download it and install it on his computer. The only downside to this is that it takes several hours to download a major application.
Many parents, especially those who are not computer literate or who are unfamiliar with the Web, are unaware this is going on. The only clue that someone in their house may be doing it is if their phone or data line is tied up for hours at a time. Ironically, cut-rate competition among Internet service providers, which has led to unlimited time accounts, makes downloading such large files possible.
And, curiously, there is a counter-culture ethos that dismisses objections to such piracy with any number of arguments. One Canadian university website sums up the "Hacker's Ethic" this way:
"Sadly, due to the traditional ignorance and sensationalizing of the mass media, the once-noble term hacker has become a pejorative. Among the true computer people, being called a hacker is a compliment. One of the traits of the true hacker is a profoundly antibureaucratic and democratic spirit. The spirit is best exemplified by the Hacker's Ethic. This ethnic was best formulated by Steven Levy in his 1984 book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Its tenets are as follows:In fact, many computer experts don't view hackers with any hostility. Some describe them as akin to the mechanic who gets under the hood of your car to diagnose a problem.
The Internet as a whole reflects this ethic."
- Access to computers should be unlimited and total.
- All information should be free.
- Mistrust authority - promote decentralization.
- Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
- You create art and beauty on a computer.
- Computers can change your life for the better.
It's the so-called "cracker" who causes the problem. Hackers break into websites just to prove they can do it. Crackers are their destructive evil twins. They are bent on anarchy and destruction by breaking into websites and damaging them or stealing software.
One of the great advantages of the Internet is its ability to disseminate information fast and freely across borders. Sadly, it's that same capability that causes some of the worst roadkill on the information highway.
Not only can you buy term papers online and access deviant pornography, you can download some of the most expensive programs now sold, including Adobe Photoshop 4.0 with 4.01 upgrade, Lotus, Quark - you name it. All you need is a modem and a little patience, and you can have just about any program your microheart desires. Even if you don't want to take the time to download the entire application, there are databases of valid registration numbers available, so that you can register stolen copies.
A LOSING BATTLE
Two international organizations, Business Software Alliance (BSA) and Software Publishers Association, (SPA) are waging war on the pirates, but it's a losing battle. An independent survey on software piracy, commissioned by the SPA and the BSA, estimated that more than $13.1 billion was lost worldwide in 1995 to illegal software usage. There was a loss of $2.2 billion in the U.S. alone.
In the U.S., President Bill Clinton recently signed into law the No Electronic Theft Act, passed by Congress in November. Under the law, a person who "wilfully" infringes on copyright material worth at least $1,000 could be subject to criminal prosecution, even if he does not profit from it. This gets around claims by the website pirates that they aren't making money from the illegal copying.
Not all the losses are a result of Internet copying. A large portion are due to illegal copying in the Asian and Russian markets. China and Russia are notoriously known as "One copy countries" because the entire nation can be supplied with mass software recopied from a single legal copy.
Copying is so pervasive that Microsoft encountered counterfeits before it had even released Windows 95 and a pre-release copy was downloaded to the Internet. Microsoft and its guru, Bill Gates, are easy targets for pirates, largely because they find it so easy to justify stealing from the richest man in the world. They will tell you their crime is "victimless". There is a growing young generation of computer users, mostly those who use other than Microsoft operating systems on their computers, who view Microsoft as the Evil Empire, and therefore fair game for pirate attacks.
As if software piracy weren't enough, there are other invasions happening on the Internet. Also available on the web are detailed instructions on how to hack into the telephone system. Called "phreaking", it's when hackers use a touchtone decoder device to break into the phone system.
The BSA and SPA have attempted to crack down on illegal software copying. Last month BSA announced it had collected more than $27 million over the past five years from U.S. companies that have been caught red-handed copying software.
BSA launched aggressive "Nail Your Boss" and "Blow the Whistle" ads encouraging workers to turn in companies that use bootleg software. Disgruntled employees were encouraged to call a toll-free "anti-piracy" hotline. In California alone, BSA recouped $5.4 million over five years.
The Internet is a marvellous tool that can connect people across international borders. It contains a wealth of information that's available to anyone at reasonable cost. Sure, there are the odd wackos. And we should root them out to maintain the integrity of legitimate Net users.
That's why this piracy is so troublesome. What we're talking about here isn't a computer problem, it's a moral issue. The more software stolen in this fashion, the more jobs are lost in the industry. Some estimates put that job loss as high as 300,000 in the U.S. alone.
As the saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch - or free software. If it sounds to good to be true, it's probably pirated.