Friday, October 30, 2009

When in Doubt, Blame the Internet

Coming into work yesterday, I heard a segment on the radio about teen dishonesty, in which a spokesperson for the Josephson Institute repeatedly made a causal connection between lax morals among the young and access to the Internet.

Indeed, the Institute, which boasts of having White House approval for their Character Counts program, has been pressuring Google for several years to omit advertising and search engine results that would lead students to content from term paper mills, sometimes in ways that seem to support the rhetoric of the movie and record industry in calling everything piracy and ignoring how great writers have appropriate material throughout our entire literary and rhetorical tradition.

Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis. Helen Keller pilfered an early short story, “The Frost King.” Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, has been accused of stealing twice. The list goes on. Plagiarism is as old as the printing press, which allowed text to be distributed wider, easier, and cheaper.

The advent of the Internet has reinvented the practice. Any academic institution that considers itself free of piracy is probably either turning a blind eye or fooling itself (and should check the April edition for a free anti-plagiarism tool).

Not only is it possible to copy and paste online text into essays, but it is incredibly easy to buy entire essays and pass them off as one’s own. Google says it will address the issue by banning companies that sell essays online. Google also blacklists companies that sell or promote weapons, tobacco, cigarettes, or gambling.

That’s not to say those items are not available elsewhere online, but rather that Google is trying to live up to its unofficial motto: Do No Evil. At the time of writing, the inclusion of companies selling essays online had not yet been included in Google's AdWords Content Policy document, but a Google spokesman confirmed the sale of essays in the AdWords service had been disallowed and updates to the Content Policy would be made in the near future.

As Writing Director of the Humanities Core Course, I have to deal first-hand with the consequences of plagiarized student work, but I don't appreciate seeing the Internet demonized or unworkable models for policing intellectual property praised.

Actually, I have had a skeptical view of the methods and causal claims of the Josephson Institute for a long time. I well remember working at a delinquency prevention center for the California Youth Authority, where I ran an after-school tutoring program and computer lab. My supervisor loved the slick pamphlets and videos of the Josephson Institute and wanted to take academic time away for their secular sermons, which I usually refused to give. If we had any free time to talk about ethical dilemmas in the classroom, I often spent the time on emphasizing how the harm for students' lapses could be minimized, since I thought that low-income students of color with family members in the justice system often paid disproportionately for their transgressions. Thus, I was more likely to mention birth control distribution or strategies for avoiding people packing weapons, rather than abstinence or principled stands on violence.

After all, even exhibitionism, dissimulation, and transgression may have their own kind of moral authority on the Internet.

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