Do We Need an Internet Ed. Class?

While I was attending the excellent privacy conference Dan Solove and Chris Hoofnagle organized in D.C. a few days ago, it occurred to me that just as one takes driver’s ed. before being able to drive a car, it might make sense to have a required Internet Education class in middle school. Driving is a key way people engage in the economy, and the Internet, especially email and social networking use, is becoming as essential if not more so. Given all the benefits and problems of the Internet from meeting new people and peer production to unfortunate gossiping and dog poop events, it dawned on me that Internet Ed. might fill a gap that appeared as I listened to various people at the conference.

During the two days, several discussions seemed to turn to the way information placed online can offer tremendous benefits but also pose harms. That idea is not so new. But an underlying theme was that this tension is greater than before. Given the increased reputation problems of the Internet, some folks talked of a more paternal approach to reminding people about privacy (or lack of it) on work computers. The problems of PGP and complex privacy policies as opposed to easy-to-read ones as opposed to heavy opt-in ones and how people perceive the differences posed several paradoxes. In other talks people expressed concerns about cutting off the openness that has made the Internet what it is today. Many questioned just how informed people are about privacy and even if informed how much they care. These ideas should be familiar to those interested in privacy, but so many people sharing ideas about an evolving area of the law and truly seeking to find ways to solve problems made the conference invigorating.

For example, Lauren Gelman is working on how online presence operates under a binary system of public or private yet many think of their online presence as limited essentially to those in one’s circle but with a few new people possibly joining the circle. To me it seems that in some cases people might know that anyone could look at one’s pictures, blogs, MySpace pages etc. In others, some might know that but just not expect that outsiders would look. And some may be quite unaware of the way little things can catch fire and draw attention to what had been a small, personal moment. And then it hit me, why not have Internet Ed.?

Internet Ed. at an early stage might address the possible generation gap in understanding what is privacy and how the Internet works. Like driving, using the Internet can open up tremendous possibilities for fun and for work. Like driving, irresponsible or uninformed Internet use can lead to undesired consequences. Like driving, horror stories of how a picture from a drunken party ruined someone’s job prospects may not deter irresponsible Internet behaviors across the board. Still, by setting out the way in which irresponsible or immature behaviors such as sharing too much information about one’s personal life, not checking about how a site uses personal financial information, and childish rants can affect one’s life, people would have some sense of the possible repercussions of their acts. None of this idea is to suggest that people won’t continue to rant etc. regardless of age. And none of this idea is to suggest that people should act the same way at all times under some sort of enforced code of conduct (although the idea behind sites that choose to establish rules and use their community norms to shape the rules seems well in line with some of the benefits of the Internet). Rather, as a friend noted, the Internet may be similar to tattoos and piercings. In the near future many more will have them and so it will not be as big a deal. Still, in some areas of life such as politics and upper management, one may have to explain that largish hole in one’s ear or the tongue sneaking out of one’s collar towards one’s jaw. So Internet Ed. may help bring home the idea that certain acts may seem great and even be great at the time but others, and even the person who liked the act at the time, may see those moments differently later in life.

Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions

5 thoughts on “Do We Need an Internet Ed. Class?

  1. Very interesting idea — but I fear that the dominant implementation would be along the lines of “the Internet is a very scary place!” If you think that university IT is often underfunded, understaffed, short on expertise, and beholden to know-little and want-to-know-less administrators, wait until you meet secondary and primary school IT!

  2. This idea, and Mike’s qualification, are very intriguing. As a college sophomore, I still remember the nightmare that is the generation gap. Teachers are often taught by students who are more adept at using the Internet. But my feeling is that this is changing incrementally. Young teachers who have grown up w/ digital technologies are, understandably, much better at utilizing tech in the classroom and any Internet Ed. initiative should recognize this.

    Perhaps it would be an interesting endeavor to invite collaboration on creating a curriculum for Internet Ed.

  3. Mike and Kevin,

    I think that the Internet is a scary place may be an inevitable part of the message (think Red Asphalt). And yes the potential for not so great instruction (or even obsolete instruction regarding the state of the art) is high. Still, the idea of explaining wise use and unintended consequences seems like it would persist as useful ones regardless of medium.

    Also I wonder how much those with technology comfort think about the way the information may have a life of its own.

    On a different note, I think there were some efforts to take a public service approach to the area and have parents teach kids about safe sites, sharing personal information, and so on. Whether it is institutionally done and the best way to get there, is an open question for me.

    Last, Kevin, when you say collaborate, what did you have in mind?

  4. Red Asphalt – that takes me back! It’s a classic. But that film didn’t teach me anything except how to laugh at real images of violence. ;-(

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