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Click on Morality

Fasten your seat belts for a quick tour of cyberspace, with mouse clicks at notable intersections of technology, politics, and morality.

Click, Washington. There the US Supreme Court has struck down a law that criminalized the Internet's traffic in X-rated material that might reach the eyes of children. The Clinton administration, anticipating this result, had already altered its earlier support for the law and recommended that policymakers start concentrating on other ways to tame the Net for kids.

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The sooner that's done the better, because cyberspace has more than its share of pornography (sadly, it's one of the few items of Internet commerce currently making money), and concerned parents need all the guidance, information, and help they can get.

Click, Germany, where state regulators have fewer constitutional brakes and a grim determination to guard the public morality. The hottest case at the moment involves a Dutch Web site called "XS4ALL." This site makes available an assortment of radical publications, terrorist how-to manuals, etc.

The German police (some officers are actually assigned the Internet beat) are trying to crack down on individuals whose home pages on the World Wide Web include links to the offending site. So far, they're finding that for every one they try to squelch, others pop up - a little like dandelions. The Germans are right, nonetheless, to be concerned about access to this kind of excess.

Click, any college town in America where desperate students are known to surf the growing number of Web sites that offer ready-made term papers. The subjects span English to entomology, and faculty members at a number of schools are wondering how many of the suspiciously canned-sounding papers they've recently read were plucked from the Net.

Students, meanwhile, should be reminded that good teachers have antennae capable of detecting even technology-aided cheating - and that learning requires original work.

This tour, quick and incomplete as it is, should serve to underscore the obvious: A leap in technology demands a leap in ethics. Government, Internet service providers, designers of filtering software - all have a role in making sure the latter leap keeps up with the former.

But the leading role will probably fall to family and individual users of this vast new communications tool themselves. They can exercise their moral judgment and click on "exit" any time they want.

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