Take the recent call for mandatory education of Internet users. With unwitting e-mailers spreading viruses, worms and other malicious code, wreaking billions of dollars in commercial damage, what better way to solve this problem than to require computer users to take courses on how to install and update antivirus programs, erect firewalls and plug security holes? What's more, how about compulsory education in copyright law so users know not to illegally download music files and other protected material? Individuals must earn licenses before they can operate a motor vehicle, the reasoning goes, so why not license those who navigate the information superhighway? Maybe the Internet wouldn't remain such an unruly and dangerous frontier if a rudimentary code of conduct were drilled into its users.
Passing the Buck
The intent is noble enough. But the proposed solution--assuming its proponents are more than half serious--shifts the burden of responsibility from those who create and enable the problem (virus writers, crackers, developers of shoddy software) to the cybermasses. There are laws against spreading malicious code, attacking networks and sharing copyrighted content. Enforce them vigorously before demanding mandatory training for every computer user. A compulsory primer on copyright law might be a boon to copyright lawyers, but it won't stop illegal file sharing. Better to sue those suspected of engaging in the practice, as the RIAA did with 300 individuals last month.
A recent Associated Press story goes so far as to suggest that Internet users "be taught how to read software agreements carefully, lest they find themselves subject to unwanted pop-up ads." It's safe to assume most computer users already know how to read; now we're going to teach them how to read carefully?
OK, most of us don't want amateurs performing bypass surgery on our loved ones or wiring our homes, but is it really necessary to monitor and certify every last shred of human activity, including Internet usage? Such a certification might make us feel like we're advancing Internet literacy, but in the end it wouldn't ensure knowledge or compliance. How many licensed drivers even know the rules of the road, much less obey them? And how would we administer and enforce an Internet certification--with DMV-like oversight bodies?