a christian perspective on the world today

The Case for Personal Integrity Online

The end of the year- which will be with us sooner than many of us would like- is often a time for reflection and contemplation. What’s been good, and what’s been bad? And, how can I make the next year better? Sermons aren’t my speciality, but a colleague’s suggestion leads to some thoughts, which may be sermon-like/ I hope that won’t offend, but after many years of knocking around he internet, it seems there are someb things worth mentionig at this juncture as general guidelines for all.

You could file this under the heading “personal online integrity,” and it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It seems that now, more than ever before, people are doing things online they’d never be caught dead doing “in real life,” as the phrase goes. Stealing music, television programs and even movies online is one good example.

Few of us would walk into a video rental shop, music distributor or department store and try to sneak out with an armload of DVDs under our jacket, but too many of us will happily download items we haven’t paid for, and then use them as if they were our property.

My first rule is, therefore, taken from that great set of principles, the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not steal.

Full stop. Stealing is stealing is stealing—and you shouldn’t do it. If there’s a truly free music download (Apple’s iTunes and some other online music services do offer these from time to time), then enjoy yourself. But if it feels “wrong” when you’re visiting a given website, or if you know what you’re doing is wrong, challenge yourself to make an integrity-based decision.

Among other reasons not to indulge, there have been more than a few documented cases of computer “worms,” “Trojan horse” software programs, and other viruses being transmitted to the PCs of less-than-honest users who thought they were getting something for nothing.

Just as there is more than one type of stealing, there are other things you shouldn’t do online. If you buy or sell via online auctions such as eBay, or if you market via other online services that help people sell used books and other items, be as fair and accurate in your descriptions as humanly possible. If you win an online auction, please pay promptly and in the form requested. If you’re selling, don’t hold back on shipping the merchandise once the payment has cleared.

And while we’re at it, let me urge you—especially if you’re a student, a writer, an artist or even a (real) preacher—not to steal other people’s work and pass it off as your own. You’ll get caught, eventually, and usually in an embarrassing fashion. Plagiarism—the fancy word for word-theft—isn’t a lark; it’s robbing someone else of due credit for their own hard work and creativity.

Not plagiarising leads to another commandment-based guideline: Thou shalt not bear false witness.
Whether it’s on a job-hunting website, an internet dating service, or the aforementioned eBay, just tell the truth. If you look more like Barry Humphries than Tom Cruise, don’t give the wrong idea to other people. If your education isn’t the equivalent of Stephen Hawking, don’t present yourself as his natural successor. If something you’re advertising online is in good condition, don’t represent it to others as being superior.

These things sound like common sense, so “common” in fact that they should seem second nature to each of us. However, what were once socially accepted norms in society seem to have vanished in a “virtual” world where we can become what we wish to be, as opposed to what we are. (A recent
radio advert in the United States imagines a “lie detector” hooked up to a woman composing an online personal ad: “I like to run” she types, only to get a mild electric shock, “OK …through the mall!”)

Thus, being honest online is something we have to do because we want to do it. On the internet, as the famous New Yorker magazine cartoon reads, “No-one knows you’re a dog.

One final thought, addressed to the adults reading this as much as anyone: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Online “chats,” online pornography and far worse, can be found by those who look for them. In cultures, such as Australia and the United States, where sexuality permeates the media, it’s tough to stay pure. But keeping a guard on your heart—online as well as offline—will pay great rewards here, and in eternity.

Mark Kellner is a veteran computer columnist for the Washington Times newspaper and a fellow-pilgrim following Jesus
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