Chain Letter Ethical Dilemma

© Copyright 1996 by John Halleck

"Chain Letter" Dilemma - Part One


The attorneys general for the state of Deseret and it's neighbors are out to fight chain letters and pyramid schemes. They have suggested legislation outlawing them, and have provided for stiff penalties. It seems obvious that a person who sent chain letters to five friends is less of a criminal than someone who sent out thousands of such letters. The penalties are therefore much higher if the number of letters or communications is higher, and penalties are especially severe for "Mass Operators" who mail out more than a thousand letters.

The views of Joseph Blow

Joe is a chain letter recipient who remailed his letter.

I got this chain letter from a friend. It said that it was legal since it was not being sent by the U.S. postal service and was not "really" a chain letter. All I did was post ONE copy to a bulletin board. I didn't know that it was illegal.

When you sign up for the bulletin board, they don't tell you that chain letters are illegal. Besides, I'm not even located IN the state of Deseret. How am I supposed to know that my posting from East Dakota would violate the law in some other state?

The views of the State of Deseret Attorney General:

When he signed up for the bulletin board, they didn't tell him Fraud, extortion, and murder were illegal either. It isn't their job to tell him such facts.

Mr. Blow distributed a chain letter to 29,000 machines, with heaven only knows how many total readers. He knew that the mailing list had readers in other states (and even other countries) because he had seen postings (messages) from them. Pyramid schemes are a threat to society at large, and massive schemes clearly cause much more damage. The fact that he used a computer to mail thousands of copies does not change the fact that he admits to having mailed them. We recommend that he be extradited and tried on the offense, and - if found guilty - be given 10 years in prison.

Why is this a COMPUTER ethics problem and not just a common ethics problem?

In the "non-computer" world, it is on the order of 10 times as much work to mail out 10 items as it is to mail out one. A mailing of thousands of anything is a major undertaking, and a person doing this for illegal purposes IS a major operator. With computers it is often nearly as easy to mail to thousands of places as it is to mail to one.

An argument of intent based on actions becomes a lot less clear. There are even cases where someone has, in fact, sent items to a national newsfeed inadvertently. Should one's feeling of "right and wrong" about the issue be based on intent or on the amount of damage done? The technology makes it just as easy to get the message to other countries as it does to other states. This often makes it hard to remember that you are often operating nationally or internationally. Some form of communications are actually illegal (chain letters and death threats for example) but the rules vary from place to place. With non-computer communications it is usually clear that you are mailing to another state or country, but with computer newsfeeds you may not be able to tell without a lot of work. While it is not reasonable to most people that you should know the rules in every conceivable jurisdiction, it is equally unreasonable to assume that you don't need to know about any of them.

"Chain Letter" Dilemma - Part Two

Why weren't there thousands of replies to Mr. Blow's reposting of the chain letter?

System administrators tend to get angry about things like chain letters on their system. Whenever somebody in authority saw Mr. Blow's letter, they simply deleted it.

Computer Administrator View:

Letters like this are a waste of everyone's time. They cause a flood of letters that interferes with normal usage of the system. We just delete them every time we see them. Why not? They are illegal anyway, and besides, they are being sent over MY system, using MY disks, and over network connections that I pay for. I have every right to keep this sort of stuff off of my system.

No, we don't keep a record of each nuisance of this sort. It would involve too much paperwork.

Civil Libertarian View:

Even though each individual node (mainframe computer) in the network is privately owned, USENET news is treated by everyone as a public forum. If an administrator censors a message on his/her machine he/she has also censored it on the machines that depend on his/her machine for news.

A system administrator has no right to censor anybody's mail on sites other than his/her own, and clearly has no right to practice censorship of a public forum without giving people some way to protest the action. This censorship is being done anonymously, without records, without recourse, based on the personal standards of the site administrator. In this case it was an arguably illegal message, but the site administrator could just as easily be deleting messages that did not agree with his/her political or religious views, and nobody would be the wiser.

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This page is © Copyright 1996 by John Halleck
This page was last modified on April 23rd, 1998