sealPurdue News

April 16, 2003

Computing choices: Don't let your mouse trap you

Thomas B. Robinson, James R. Bottum

Reliable, high-speed computer networks and Internet access have altered our daily lives, particularly for those of us involved in higher education. The Internet has provided members of our Purdue campus community with a powerful tool to rapidly gather and process information on a scale that was unimaginable even 20 years ago – and it's all just a mouse click away.

The Internet also has had the secondary benefit of connecting us all in an immediate way through e-mail and instant messaging. It's truly amazing to think that most of today's students probably don't remember when "snail mail" was the primary method to communicate with family and friends.

This combination of academic and personal use is what makes the Internet connectivity provided by Purdue so indispensable. Unfortunately, it also is what causes many people to become ensnared in the Web's sticky problem of misuse.

Regular users of the Internet are well aware of all the great "free" stuff that lies scattered, like virtual buried treasure, on the Web. The problem is that some of this content, contrary to being free, comes with a potentially high cost – it is illegal.

Items, such as pirated music files and illegal pornographic content, abound. The decentralized nature of the Internet ultimately makes each of us responsible for what we download to our computers. Every click of the mouse represents a choice – a personal decision that has benefits and consequences.

The Internet is a lot like an Interstate highway. It can take you far, but if you break the rules, it can lead to serious trouble. Each individual user of the Purdue network must take responsibility for the choices made. And Purdue, as an Internet service provider, also has a responsibility to ensure its computing resources are used in a way that not only promotes learning, but also abides by the law.

Businesses and institutions, such as universities, have wrestled with the issue of what is appropriate Internet and computer network usage. Universities, in particular, have struggled to find ways to deal with a growing misuse of Internet and network resources while still creating an environment in which users' privacy is respected.

Purdue has no interest in being Big Brother. Our time is much better spent in making sure students, faculty and staff have the technological tools they need to excel rather than ferreting out violations of the law and the university's usage policies.

However, we cannot shirk our responsibility to be vigilant and aggressively investigate violations that are brought to our attention. To do anything less would be, in the long term, harmful to the university and the majority of students and others who use our computing resources in a thoughtful and responsible manner.

The university's e-mail policy makes a point to emphasize and guarantee a balanced respect for users' privacy. The policy states: "While university electronic mail administrators will not monitor the contents of electronic mail messages as a routine procedure, the university does reserve the right to inspect, copy, store and disclose the contents of electronic mail messages at any time. However, it will do so only when it believes it is appropriate to prevent or correct improper use, satisfy a legal obligation or ensure proper operation of the electronic mail facilities. Any electronic mail administrator who believes such actions are necessary must first obtain the approval of an appropriate administrative authority."

In the final analysis, there is no way for the university to guarantee the appropriate and legal use of the Internet and other computing resources while preserving the complete privacy of users. The best and surest way to ensure our privacy begins with each of us. All of us must utilize these resources in a way that reflects good judgment and respect for others.

So the next time you're getting ready to make that mouse click, don't think about Big Brother. Think instead about fellow users in the Purdue computing community and yourself.

The next click of your mouse represents a personal decision that, like every other decision, sends out a ripple that could impact your future and contribute to an environment that may affect generations of users yet to come.