Unintended Consequences of Tutoring Seniors

Anyone working with computers and the Internet for any time bumps up against the Law of Unintended Consequences. Geekdom is full of examples. However, we seldom think of it as applying to moral decisions — particularly moral decisions involving tutoring seniors in computer literacy. Yet that has happened again to me an it involves the unintended consequences of the thorny issue of copy protection — again.

Perhaps I just have a thing about authority. The whole copy protection thing just irritates me, and it has ever since the 270k floppies in my Apple ][ were protected by playing games with the sectors. (Not protected very well, but that is another story.) Then and now, the breaking of copy protection is a worthy mental challenge, but stealing the copy-righted works is not a decent activity. By any measure, re-distributing data that has been copy-righted is illegal and, in my estimation, immoral. But in contrast, making copies for my own purposes can be illegal while being, in my estimation, purely moral. Laws that make my personal copies illegal are completely immoral, in my opinion. Whether you agree or not, we should agree on what is legal.

Unintended Consequences of Tutoring SeniorsSo what does this have to do with tutoring seniors in computer literacy? Well, again I have been asked to teach students how to copy protected files. On one hand, knowing how to do this is a perfectly legitimate activity, but since the students might want this information to be able to perform both immoral and illegal activities, should I show them (assuming that I have access to this arcane knowledge, which I neither admit nor deny)? And would showing them put me at risk?

Pondering this dilemma gives me pause. As with solving puzzles or decision theory exercises, I decided to try to simplify the request so I could sneak up on an answer satisfactory to my sense of proper behavior. Instead of attacking a legal and moral conundrum simultaneously, simplify by eliminating the illegal aspect first. To do this, consider a hypothetical student who requests instruction on how to safely access legal pornographic material. This is simpler than the student who wants to copy commercial DVDs because the illegal aspect is gone. We are left with a only moral considerations. (And maybe reputation considerations if it should turn out that I have a knack for it, which I deny attempting to determine.) Would I take the job? First, as I just indicated, it would take some research on my part, and that would effectively lower my hourly income since I do not usually charge for research but only tutor in things I already have at least a passing familiarity with. This would be new territory for me.

As to the underlying morality, I have no scruples about people enjoying sexual activities of their choice and displaying them discreetly if they choose, but I do have serious qualms about exploitation. Most, if not all, commercial pornographic material is exploitive. Therefore I would decline the job and save myself the research task. No mental anguish or hesitation here. [BTW, speaking of unintended consequences, the founders of the Internet probably never dreamed that terabytes of storage would be dedicated to nude Pamela Anderson.]

Okay, so we have established that students can ask for training in subjects which I do not care to present for moral reasons, and therefore I might occasionally turn them down. I have no qualms about politely declining a job. However, since the students are potentially ongoing customers, I try to use finesse in stepping away from the offer. There is no need to irritate clients. If they came to you for one task, they might at a later date return for another, mutually satisfactory task.

Continue to pare the initial puzzle into smaller parts for easier analysis. Suppose I were convinced that the student asking how to reproduce copy-protected material would only use my teaching in ways I consider moral. Would that enable me to present the appropriate material? Not necessarily, because even if I have no respect for DRM, I can honestly respect the possible repercussions from legal authorities. [Note: the word "respect" is used in two ways in the previous sentence: It can mean to honor as in "I respect good teachers." It can also mean to fear as in "I respect the ability of the government to punish violators of DRM." ] To determine how to proceed, it would be good to know how many people currently make private copies of material. Not that moving with the crowd justifies anything, but if everyone on the freeway is going 70 mph, then you lose time and put yourself at risk if you insist on driving at the legal speed limit. Of course by going 70 you expose yourself to arbitrary citation since that is illegal. The same is true of copying. How risk-tolerant are you?

Consider the opposite simplification. Assume the student is known to want to copy his neighbor’s collection of DVDs and freely make numerous copies to give to family and friends. In that case, the student can certainly look elsewhere for help. I want nothing to do with him. I might not even be polite. Finesse is not called for in this case.

By considering these questions ahead of any request for specialized tutoring, a teacher can be prepared to respond appropriately without unnecessary exposure or inadvertently irritating a customer. I cannot recommend a course of action in such cases other than thinking through all the options and ramifications before acting. If you are like me, you prefer to have a response thought out ahead of time rather than responding in real time in a potentially delicate situation. You might take the job or not, but do it from a thoughtful position.

Since I have not taken a strong stance against copying material here, some readers might think I support illegal activity. That is not true. I am only exploring considerations due to unintended consequences. A concerned person should have these in mind when responding to such a request. This is not a call to arms for civil disobedience. It is a call for thoughtful consideration.

How I responded is private.

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  • Ralph Schaefer

    Well put.  My only objection is to your use of the phrase “… purely moral ….”  I, personally, consider the moral aspects of a question to be the primary guide.  How is one to distinguish between laws that are immoral but differ only in degree?  For example, I believe abortion takes the life of a sentient, if infantile, human being yet it is, with qualifications, legal.  That same legal system purports that I would be a criminal for merely protecting something I possess.

    I, therefore, have no qualms at all about making back-up copies and locking the originals away in a safe environment.

    • Sdeforest

      Interesting comment.  I think a difference is that people of good faith can argue about when humanity or life starts, but the same question does not exist about copying.  That does not address the moral issues, just the legal underpinning.  Ultimately the question is do we have the incentive to oppose bothersome legalities.  As a young man, I held a secret clearance, but also picketed the Pentagon in opposition to the Vietnam war.  Neither action was illegal, but some people think one action was immoral; others think the other action immoral.  I felt comfortable with both.

  • http://profiles.google.com/techie.geek.girl Tracy Fortune

    Ok, I’ll address only the subject presented here: whether to “train” someone do something with/on a computer if you feel it is illegal or unscrupulous…”Morals” aside, I’d simply say, “that is currently deemed an illegal activity so I must decline”. That seems pretty easy?

    If the people in question don’t know what Google is or can’t be stuffed looking into it & doing their own research, that’s up to them.

    • Sdeforest

      The people in question do not know how to search effectively.  That is part of the point.  Another point implicit is that always doing what is legal is not always moral.  Some people equate the two concepts.  These tend to be extreme conservatives.

      • http://profiles.google.com/techie.geek.girl Tracy Fortune

        Sorry, I should have clarified that. I do show people how to use search terms to locate information. I meant that I get asked about things that are easily found on the net- and that I believe far more than you think DO know how to do it, they just can’t be bothered to learn it themselves (they know perfectly well what Google is, even if they’ve only seen kids, grandy’s, or friends use it). Legal vs. moral- I was speaking specifically of music/video/movie downloading from torrents. This is the number one thing I get asked about. I don’t feel that it’s up to me to decide whether it’s “right”- I just tell them that they can research it themselves and decide if they want to do it…

        • Sdeforest

          Fair enough.  BTW, I do not routinely use torrents, but know how to.  Similarly, I know about the Pirate Cove, but do not talk about it–except here?  Since privacy is a sometime thing,  I would rather avoid questionable sites.  Your strategy is good.

          • Anonymous

            I utilize torrents very frequently- as I am addicted to trying out Linux OS’s (live discs mainly- but also utilities after) and they are generally downloaded fastest via a torrent.

            RE: the tutoring side of things- I like helping older folks. They call because they want to learn & I’ve devised a way for them to keep a video of each lesson so they can refer back to it whenever they wish…Much better than taking notes & much more user-friendly! I use Windows Media Encoder 9 w/the Vista patch. Works on Win 7, as well…brilliant & free! Install it to their PC, 1st thing, and off you go.

            Cheers!

        • Sdeforest

          Fair enough.  BTW, I do not routinely use torrents, but know how to.  Similarly, I know about the Pirate Cove, but do not talk about it–except here?  Since privacy is a sometime thing,  I would rather avoid questionable sites.  Your strategy is good.

        • Sdeforest

          Fair enough.  BTW, I do not routinely use torrents, but know how to.  Similarly, I know about the Pirate Cove, but do not talk about it–except here?  Since privacy is a sometime thing,  I would rather avoid questionable sites.  Your strategy is good.

  • Kaleb Berry

    What I think about the article is that this can lead into many ways. I am sure Seniors will not taught about copyright infringement,In-fact some may can do it by accident. About copyrights, there is a lot of things you can get for free, like when you said downloadable content for free. An Instance like downloading software can be like easy as, downloading a Dreamweaver trail then searching a key gen. I think the reason why people do these things is because they basically do not want to pay $500 dollars for a piece of software. People also would do anything for pleasure if they are addicted enough do it. I mean, we cannot anything to stop it. Cause it’s out there, It’s like stopping wars from happening in the world. Not gonna happen. I think this is just standard people doing the right or wrong things online. The internet is another earth, and planet are being brought to that new planet and now being taught how to live. And to survive out here one needs protection from the hackers and the phishing and etc. Just like people protect their homes. Private or not, you can admit to copyright content, but who is gonna stop you. I mean their are thousands of people that is doing the same exact things. Looking for ways to bypass and get everything free We cannot stop people, only ourselves. I kinda call this the sociology world of the internet.

    • Sdeforest

      Do not know why we got two copies of this comment, but i like it.  A major difficult always is trying to change people by law.  It did not work with prostitution, alcohol consumption, pot, and now copying.  However, the rate of usage can be lowered by legal action.  Maybe that is the hidden agenda.  Talk about prohibiting, but really strive for reducing usage.

  • Kaleb Berry

    What I think about the article is that this can lead into many ways. I am sure Seniors will not taught about copyright infringement,In-fact some may can do it by accident. About copyrights, there is a lot of things you can get for free, like when you said downloadable content for free. An Instance like downloading software can be like easy as, downloading a Dreamweaver trail then searching a key gen. I think the reason why people do these things is because they basically do not want to pay $500 dollars for a piece of software. People also would do anything for pleasure if they are addicted enough do it. I mean, we cannot anything to stop it. Cause it’s out there, It’s like stopping wars from happening in the world. Not gonna happen. I think this is just standard people doing the right or wrong things online. The internet is another earth, and planet are being brought to that new planet and now being taught how to live. And to survive out here one needs protection from the hackers and the phishing and etc. Just like people protect their homes. Private or not, you can admit to copyright content, but who is gonna stop you. I mean their are thousands of people that is doing the same exact things. Looking for ways to bypass and get everything free We cannot stop people, only ourselves. I kinda call this the sociology world of the internet.

  • Anonymous

    What I think about the article is that this can lead into many ways. I am sure Seniors will not taught about copyright infringement,In-fact some may can do it by accident. About copyrights, there is a lot of things you can get for free, like when you said downloadable content for free. An Instance
    like downloading software can be like easy as, downloading a
    Dreamweaver trail then searching a key gen. I think the reason why
    people do these things is because they basically do not want to pay $500
    dollars for a piece of software. People also would do anything for
    pleasure if they are addicted enough do it. I mean, we cannot anything
    to stop it. Cause it’s out there, It’s like stopping wars from happening
    in the world. Not gonna happen. I think this is just standard people
    doing the right or wrong things online. The internet is another earth,
    and planet are being brought to that new planet and now being taught how
    to live. And to survive out here one needs protection from the hackers and the phishing and etc. Just like people protect their homes.
    Private or not, you can admit to copyright content, but who is gonna
    stop you. I mean their are thousands of people that is doing the same
    exact things. Looking for ways to bypass and get everything free We
    cannot stop people, only ourselves. I kinda call this the sociology world of the internet.

  • Anonymous

    What I think about the article is that this can lead into many ways. I am sure Seniors will not taught about copyright infringement,In-fact some may can do it by accident. About copyrights, there is a lot of things you can get for free, like when you said downloadable content for free. An Instance
    like downloading software can be like easy as, downloading a
    Dreamweaver trail then searching a key gen. I think the reason why
    people do these things is because they basically do not want to pay $500
    dollars for a piece of software. People also would do anything for
    pleasure if they are addicted enough do it. I mean, we cannot anything
    to stop it. Cause it’s out there, It’s like stopping wars from happening
    in the world. Not gonna happen. I think this is just standard people
    doing the right or wrong things online. The internet is another earth,
    and planet are being brought to that new planet and now being taught how
    to live. And to survive out here one needs protection from the hackers and the phishing and etc. Just like people protect their homes.
    Private or not, you can admit to copyright content, but who is gonna
    stop you. I mean their are thousands of people that is doing the same
    exact things. Looking for ways to bypass and get everything free We
    cannot stop people, only ourselves. I kinda call this the sociology world of the internet.

  • Stlhobbit

    Well thought through & well said.  Thank you

  • Jpgirard

    As someone who has published copyrighted material (novels) I would like to say something about the concept of copyright, because is is something that a lot of people don’t seem to understand, unfortunately including some judges. (These misunderstandings are reinforced by attorneys who represent real or alleged copyright holders, and who make idle threats against people they know are unfamiliar with the law, which unfortunately includes most Americans) Copyright began during the Renaissance, a time that was very much like the present, in that new information technology (printing) had effectively destroyed the ability of the church to control information. The church, like many now who claim ownership of information, tried to cling to the old rules, accusing people of theft and sometimes getting the legal system to support them, but it was a lost cause. Copyright was a new system for dealing with the changed reality. It was based on the notion that information belonged to the people (partly because that was necessary to enable the creation of new information and technology) but also acknowledged that the creators of information needed to be able to profit from their work, to give them the incentive to create it. The resulting compromise was a system whereby information creators retained ownership of the material for a period of time, after which it entered the public domain.  Under international copyright law, the period of exclusive ownership (which is, by the way, automatic) lasts 7 years, after which it can be renewed for another 7, after which it belongs to everybody. This system unfortunately never contemplated a world in which most copyrights would be held by people who purchased those rights from the original creator, nor did it contemplate a world in which it would be much easier for large  organizations to use the law to enforce bogus copyright claims than for an individual to challenge such claims. At any rate, the salient points are these: There is no such thing as permanent ownership of information. Once material is in the public domain there is no way to ”reclaim” copyright (no matter what some lawyer may tell you). A creator does not relinquish the original owhership rights simply by failing to give notice; he or she must actively renounce ownership. Infringement of copyright is a civil tort, not a crime (again, no matter what some lawyer may tell you). They can sue you but they cannot have you arrested (unless they can prove criminal intent,  which is rarely the case with individuals). As a practical matter, it is not worth the time or cost involved in suing an individual (except to “make an example” of someone to scare everybody else). Copyright holders cannot prove actual damages in the case of someone who received material from someone else, unless they can show that that person would otherwise have purchased it from them.  As a practical matter it is safe for an individual to distribute copyrighted material at no charge. Incidentally, music publishers have been attempting unsuccessfully to block such distribution since the invention of radio (and later of private tape recordings. In legal terms it is almost certainly not actionable (and certainly not illegal) unless you are competing with the copyright holder by selling copies. As a moral matter, I am more concerned about the attempt to control information in perpetuity than the free distribution of that information to the public.

    Having said all that, I would argue that such concepts as copyright, libel and even privacy (as pertaining to published material) have probably been rendered as antiquated as feudalism by the new information technology. New systems will arise, and those who cling to the old systems are trying to turn back the tide, just like the church after the invention of printing.  

  • Scotmcm

    Pretty soon the whole concept of “copying” software will be a thing of the past.  Today you can go into a store and pay hundreds of dollars and walk out with nothing more than a card with a code printed on it.  You go home and download Office for free and make it yours when you enter the code.  It will soon be this way for everything and it kinda changes what can be be sold.  It will no longer matter what data is on your drive anyway, merchants will just sell permission to use their products.  I believe that teaching any subject requires the prerequisite ethical instructions that go along with what ever issues might be involved and ultimately the best judgement of the teacher.  

    • Sdeforest

      The problem is that after you download it, it is not yours.  Your have purchased a limited license to use.  You do not have permission to copy unless the terms of your agreement allow installation on several machines.  Ethical instructions is the slippery definition that I was struggling with.  When I was a boy on the farm, it was ethical to have white-only churches with no apologies needed.  Even then I felt that was unethical, but I was a minority.

    • Sdeforest

      The problem is that after you download it, it is not yours.  Your have purchased a limited license to use.  You do not have permission to copy unless the terms of your agreement allow installation on several machines.  Ethical instructions is the slippery definition that I was struggling with.  When I was a boy on the farm, it was ethical to have white-only churches with no apologies needed.  Even then I felt that was unethical, but I was a minority.

  • Sdeforest

    Wow! attracting an intelligent, informed response like that is a blogger’s dream.  I really appreciate it.  Of course, I agree with what you write, so maybe that has something to do with why I like it.  One point you overlooked is implicit in the words “creator of information”.  Part of the reason the church was miffed was that it did not acknowledge any creator other than the deity.  The definition we use today differs greatly from what they would mean. 

    BTW, I copied your response to my Senior blogging file–no harm; no foul?

  • Sdeforest

    Thank you.  Good thoughts like that keep me going.

  • Sdeforest

    Thank you.  Good thoughts like that keep me going.