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Piracy: When "Just say no" isn't enough

CNET's Mike Yamamoto writes that lessons of right and wrong can take many forms--and can be dangerous if the motives behind them are driven by commercial interests.

In the '80s, Nancy Reagan said to "just say no" to drugs. In the '90s, anti-smoking campaigns were everywhere.

Will warnings against online piracy be the Internet's equivalent of these public service announcements for the new Web-addicted youths of America?

In the debate over the ethics of Napster, much discussion has been devoted to the values of children and teenagers in today's society. Because so many have grown up on the Internet, the thinking goes, the notion of paying for something so easily disseminated as music seems ludicrous, if not downright wrong.

Much of the solution, according to the entertainment industry, is to imbue the next generation with a more traditional sense of right and wrong where copyrights are concerned. That's where things get sticky: This "education", as the entertainment industry nobly calls it, would seem fraught with potential conflicts of interest in an online world increasingly dominated by Web portals and other community sites with close financial ties to Hollywood studios.

Suppose a large company that is equally strong in new and old media (AOL Time Warner) decides to embark on such an education program. The vehicle for the message could be the "Computer Club" of AOL's Kids Only channel, which introduces new members with the cheery note, "Kids today love computers and spend so much time on them, and that's why we started a club!"

It isn't difficult to imagine a list of do's and don'ts that would include advice such as:
1. Don't leave chat room with strangers.
2. Don't go to any sites marked "adult."
3. Don't do anything illegal, such as stealing music you haven't paid for.

As's John Borland wrote after last year's merger, "AOL must walk a fine line when developing new Internet services to ensure they don't threaten Time Warner's existing businesses." The media empire runs several record labels under its Warner Music Group.

Already, industry-sponsored conferences are addressing the subject. A session on Internet ethics among children was on the agenda at this month's Economic Crime Summit, an event associated with the National White Collar Crime Center. Scheduled to head the discussion was the co-founder of a site called who was to debut a book titled "Internet and Computer Ethics for Kids (and Parents and Teachers Who Haven't Got a Clue)."

Some of the questions to be addressed: "How should kids behave on the Internet? How can parents help their technically fluent children? What can the schools and teachers do to assist?"

The message doesn't need to be so obvious on commercial sites like AOL's Kids Only; as every parent knows, children absorb information in ways adults can't even understand.

And that is where conspiracy theorists like myself can have a field day. Sites could use even the most innocent shows and games as tools to disseminate subliminal messages.

For example, my 2-year-old son loves to play games on Nickelodeon's site, especially ones based on a new cartoon called "Dora the Explorer." A running theme of Dora's adventures on her shows and games is a run-in with an evil fox named Swiper, who is always trying to steal her stuff.

Swiper has yet to go after anything like copyrighted songs downloaded to an MP3 player, but you get the idea. Lessons of right and wrong can take many forms--and can be dangerous if the motives behind them are driven by commercial interests.

That's especially troubling given that entertainment companies see a need to educate children at such an early and impressionable stage in their lives. But it is easy to see why they feel the need to focus on such young ages: Once they have developed the kinds of habits that have caused record labels so many headaches, such as downloading music through Napster, it's too late.

I can easily see my son reacting to any blatant warnings as an invitation for mischief if he were older. To that end, AOL would be wise not to experiment along these lines on its Teens channel, which featured this top blurb in its music section this week: "Bad Girls: They're young, they're hot, and they're not that innocent."

If young people continue to resist paying for things hitherto offered for free, then we can expect to see a proliferation of underground networks that could create a type of anti-Web that lives beneath the mainstream Internet. Even if the courts are able to rein in Napster, other rebel networks have vowed to pick up where the music-swapping service left off.

Taking the notion to a somewhat Orwellian level, this underground would extend well beyond music as cash-strapped companies begin charging for everything from articles to software to survive the dot-com shakeout. Since the Internet economy slowdown decimated advertising revenues last year, even the once-mighty Yahoo has begun dunning people for some services.

"On one level, Generation Y is a targeted audience people can't resist. They spend money on music, clothes, car stuff, whatever," said Joshua Sinel, chief executive of Blue Barn Interactive, which builds community sites. "At the same time, it's a group that came of age in the free Internet world."

All of which shows why online companies will do their best to keep young people from going elsewhere to get similar services they don't have to pay for. After having lost much of the current lucrative youth market, free sites don't want to make the same mistake with the next generation.

This is where my paranoid tendencies come into play.

I have never used Napster, Aimster or any other like services, partly because of my well-documented laziness but also because I don't always agree with their philosophies. Of far more concern to me, however, is the prospect of manipulation by big media--especially where my children are concerned.