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.