Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Promise and the Problem: The Internet and its World Wide Web

In a recent discussion at the Ethics Center, the Internet, and especially its graphical World Wide Web, was alternatively described as "the ultimate intellectual jumble," "a beast who can't be tamed," "the first truly democratic medium," "a scary world," and "just a reflection of the lights and shadows we encounter IRL (in real life)."

Without doubt, all are true. The Internet, including e-mail, Usenet, and the World Wide Web, provides those connected to it with an unprecedented amount of information at one location: the home, office, school computer, or public library. The information available on the Internet is seemingly limitless--in variety, quantity, and quality--and this lack of boundaries is possible because anyone, from a school child to a corporate CEO, can post anything in "cyberpublic view".

As they have everywhere else, however, those interested in the "shadier" side of life--pornography, gambling, hate speech, bomb-making, and so on--have set up shop on the Internet. This has some parents, who would otherwise love to grant their children free access to this remarkable information resource, concerned. A recent survey of Bay Area parents showed that nearly half of the 500 parents surveyed were more concerned about sex on the Internet than on television and that 77% would supervise their children's access either through filtering software or some other method. Yet, only 12% of parents were thinking of canceling their Internet access.

Parents aren't the only ones worried about the Internet. Employers worry about their employees' use of the Internet during business hours, and lawmakers--here and abroad--worry about Internet crimes, including gambling, child pornography, and the solicitation of minors for real-world encounters with pedophiles.

These problems are in many ways similar to those that accompanied the new technologies of the past. A system of values that had moral force pre-Internet has begun to clash with an emerging values system, established for and by "cyberculture" for use in "cyberspace" and, fortunately or unfortunately, ultimately in the real world. Much the same thing happened with the invention of the printing press, the radio, the telephone, and television. Just as they altered the things we thought about, the symbols we thought with, and the arena in which thoughts developed (as critic Neil Postman pointed out in the Foreword), so also will the Internet. Today this medium is a global work-in-progress in almost every way. Each of us can alter it and shape its impact, but we must recognize that it has already altered us; everyday, it helps to shape us as individuals, a society, and a world. Eventually, like every other medium before it, the Internet will become part of our natural environment and most of us will take it for granted, like the air we breathe.

Yet the Internet is not just one more technological wonder in the history of technological wonders. More than any other device in human history, the Internet makes available information and communication on a global scale. Many consider it the first medium to let us really test the founding vision of the framers of the Constitution: if a rational and reasonable person had unlimited access to unlimited ideas and channels of information, the truth would emerge naturally, without government intervention. In large part, this vision gave rise to First Amendment protections.

In addition to virtually unlimited information, the Internet, through the use of hypertext linking, gives the user a great deal of control over the information he or she gathers. Considering this and the ease with which one can "publish" something of one's own, the Internet is perhaps the most diverse user-controlled information and communication resource yet. According to Jerry Berman and Daniel J. Weitzner, such a resource offers "...a real possibility for a new, less-restrictive approach to achieving long-standing First Amendment diversity goals." For Berman and Weitzner, as well as many Internet activists, the Internet is the virtual embodiment of the democratic ideal of free speech.

This has happened in large part because of the popularity of the World Wide Web, generally regarded as the brainchild of Tim Berners Lee, now in charge of the Web Consortium at MIT, an international group guiding the development of Web standards. He had the idea for a "linked information system" in 1989 when he began considering solutions to the problem of information loss at CERN, the famous physics research facility.

In an early talk, he said, "the world-wide web is conceived as a seamless world in which all information, from any source, can be accessed in a consistent and simple way." This idea has captured the world's imagination and the Web is growing exponentially. In 1995, there were 23,500 web sites. By January, 1996, there were 100,000. It is estimated that today, less than two years later, there are 1 million sites, with many being added each day.

The Web has in fact developed the way Berners Lee originally imagined it: it is uncontrolled; no one owns it; information of any sort with no limitations or restrictions can be posted with little cost; and anyone else can find the information whether they know what they are looking for or not.

These system-wide characteristics make the Web at one and the same time a remarkable information resource and a grave source of concern for parents who wish to protect their children from readily available sexually-explicit materials. These system-wide characteristics also work against an easy solution to the problem we now face.

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