What a Site!


This case looks at the complicated issues around off-hours internet usage on lab computers.



Not long ago, at Confused State University, a situation occurred that led some graduate students to think about how Internet access affects their work environment. The university provided Internet access to the entire faculty, staff and students via a university server, which could be used for academic/business or private use. Our drama opens in a small computer room in a federally funded research lab.


  • Jessica, a graduate student
  • Frank, a graduate student

Scene 1: Jessica and Frank are using neighboring computers in the lab's computer room. She turns around to ask Frank to take a look at some data with her. Upon turning to speak with Frank, she sees that a pornographic site is downloading.

Jessica: Hey, Frank, can you take a look at this strange micrograph? Oh, I see you're already taking a look at something!

Frank: No, it's not how it looks! I was just trying to type in a web address in the browser window, and this site started downloading! The browser remembered being pointed to a site starting with "s," and it prompted this site to download. You have to believe me. I mean, we've been friends and co-workers now for over three years, and you know this has never happened. I think someone was browsing this site recently, and I'm the lucky one who is now having to deal with their actions!

Jessica: Well, you're pretty fortunate that I know you and that I believe you. I think we have a problem with someone in the lab or someone coming into our lab and looking at these sites after hours and on weekends.

Frank: Do you think it's a lab member? You do realize that the department has a common key that opens every lab in this wing; it could be anyone.

Jessica: I was waiting to see if I could confirm my suspicions before I did anything, but I think I know who it is. I came into the lab on Saturday night to grab a book I needed, and I decided I'd check my e-mail really fast. I walked into the computer room and saw Mark at the computer. He heard me walking in, and he quickly turned off the computer and mumbled an awkward "Hi" and left the room. I sat down to use the computer he was on; the computer prompted me that it had been incorrectly shut down. I figured something was strange, and I just checked the history log on the browser. It turned out there was a nice long list of pornographic sites that had recently been visited. I left and didn't mention anything to Mark. It may have been a coincidence, but I have a feeling he's at fault.

Frank: Have you caught him since?

Jessica: No, but it happened again recently, or you wouldn't have stumbled onto that site.

Frank: I'm concerned that this could happen again to me or to another innocent bystander, and I also think it's wrong for anyone to use our government-funded facility to look at pornography. What should we do?

Discussion Questions

  1. Does it matter if Mark is using lab computers to view pornographic sites? What if the sites had been radical religious sites or political sites?
  2. Does the fact that this unauthorized computer use is occurring "after hours" matter?
  3. What should Frank and Jessica do?
  4. Would the scenario have differed if library computers had been used to view pornographic material?
  5. How is this situation similar to or different from other people in the lab using the computers for private purposes?
  6. Was Jessica justified in checking the history log, or did she infringe on Mark's right to privacy by doing so?
  7. Should a policy be widely distributed to inform people about the "ethical" use of computers? If so, how would such a policy be implemented and enforced?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 5, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2001.

While it is probably not uncommon for computer laboratories to be used to access pornographic material, this case is complex. This commentary focuses primarily on the difficult question of what Jessica and Frank should do. It does not address the definition of pornography or the issue of freedom of expression.

Jessica and Frank are right to be concerned. There are good reasons why it is improper for anyone to access pornography in a public or multi-user computer lab. Not only is the use of the lab for pornography a violation of the lab's purpose, the user runs the risk of exposing others to the pornography when they have not chosen or consented to being exposed. Those who are unwittingly exposed to pornography will not consider the lab a comfortable place to work. Women are likely to made to feel particularly uncomfortable. Hence, the lab and even the university are put at risk of lawsuit and loss of research funding.

Jessica and Frank ought to be concerned. That much is clear. However, it is much more difficult to figure out what if any action they should take. Let's consider their options.

Jessica and Frank could do nothing. This response doesn't seem right. For one thing, it means that the problem persists and the risk to the lab and the university continues. Some ethicists might even argue that by doing nothing, Jessica and Frank would become complicit in the wrongdoing. They look the other way, and that allows the problem to continue.

Alternatively, Jessica and Frank could tell the lab director what they know. This course is probably their best option, for it is the lab director's responsibility to ensure that the computers in the lab are being properly used and that lab users find the lab a comfortable environment in which to work. Hence, telling the lab director about the incidents would help the director do the job of supervising the lab.

The problem with this alternative is that when Jessica and Frank tell the director what they know, they will have to convey their suspicions and evidence regarding Mark, as well as the initial experience of finding evidence of use of the computers for accessing pornography. In a perfect world, Jessica and Frank could count on the lab director to treat this information properly, not to jump to the conclusion that Mark is guilty, and not to take any rash action against Mark. However, since we don't live in a perfect world, Jessica and Frank are appropriately worried that telling the director what they know may have the effect of a false accusation. They worry that Mark may not be given a fair hearing.

A third alternative, aimed at protecting Mark from false accusations, is for Jessica and Frank to confront Mark before saying anything to the lab director. I don't think this option is a good idea; it seems somewhat shortsighted. Mark may deny the accusations, admit their truth or refuse to say anything. Either way, it is not clear what Jessica and Frank would accomplish. If Mark admits that he is the one who has been accessing pornography, has the problem been solved? There is no guarantee whatsoever that he will change his behavior. If, on the other hand, Mark denies the accusations, Jessica and Frank are no further ahead than before confronting Mark since they wonÀt know whether he is telling the truth. Moreover, if Jessica and Frank confront Mark and get one of these responses, the director of the lab is kept in the dark about a problem in her/his domain of responsibility.

Yet a fourth alternative would be to tell the lab director about the pornography but not tell about Mark. This strategy would alert the director to the problem but would not point the finger at Mark. However, this course of action seems odd. If Jessica and Frank have some reason not to trust the lab director, then they should probably go to the lab director's supervisor. If, on the other hand, they trust the lab director, they should give her/him all the information they have, explain their reluctance about identifying Mark, and then trust that the lab director will do the right thing.

The second alternative is best. Doing nothing (looking the other way) does no good and lets the problem persist. Confronting Mark seems to be a version of "taking the law into your own hands." The outcome is unclear, and this option leaves the lab director out of the picture. Telling the director what they know acknowledges the director's authority and responsibility and gives the director the opportunity to do the right thing. The lab director has the responsibility (and hopefully some training and experience) to investigate the problem and deal with Mark.

Author: Deborah G. Johnson, Georgia Institute of Technology.

This case may lead to several areas of discussion, for example, the use of computers in the work place, the implications of strict computer use policies, or even co-worker interactions. The case identifies some of the common conflicts that can arise in the workplace with regard to the use of computers.

At first glance, it may be tempting to lead the review in a direction that aims to define pornography; it is the writer's hope that the case will instead lead to a discussion of how computer use in the workplace can affect the work environment. It is hoped that the discussion will focus on how the questionable use of computers in the workplace affects co-workers and the institution's image. The case should also lead to consideration of how policies governing the use of computers can affect workers and how these policies would be implemented and enforced.

In this case study, three people have been immediately affected by the situation. Frank and Jessica have been placed in an awkward position, while Mark has been pinned as a suspect, which could affect his interoffice/lab relationships and lead to questions about his professionalism. Jessica and Frank may or may not be opposed to pornography, just as they may or may not be opposed to Mark looking at airfare quotes, religious sites or neo-Nazi sites. This point relates to the first question: Would it have mattered if other potentially controversial material had been viewed? Suppose Mark had been using his lunch hour or a Saturday evening to get some air fare quotes for a trip to Aruba. Would that have been an abuse of office/lab equipment? The problem is that we don't always agree on the boundaries of what is permissible to view at work. While it is difficult to agree on appropriate computer use in the workplace, it is important to have guidelines. The use of computers has a broad impact because it is possible for cyber-fingerprints to be traced, which could affect an institution as a whole.

In analyzing this case, it is important to identify the individuals and institutions immediately affected by this situation (Jessica, Frank and Mark) as well as those who may be affected later (other co-workers, the head of the lab, the dean of the college, the university's image). Next, one should consider what course of action would be best. In devising a course of action, it is imperative to identify who will be affected by the course of action and what long- and short-term effects will result.

A comprehensive review should address the pros and cons of several courses of action. For example, it may be best for Jessica and Frank to approach Mark about his actions. In doing so, they will limit the exposure of this incident, and they may avoid further tarnishing Mark's reputation. Additionally, Jessica and Frank will reduce the probability that they will be required to testify publicly about their discovery. Unfortunately, this approach may not resolve the situation, and it may adversely affect the dynamics of the lab's social environment. Mark may feel he has been wrongfully accused, or he may feel awkward around his colleagues after such a confrontation.

An alternative approach is for Jessica and Frank to discuss the situation with their lab head. In this case, they may request anonymity, which may be comforting with respect to the social dynamics of the lab. A downside is that the lab head may view Jessica and Frank as being poor at problem solving and incapable of handling social issues. Another possibility is that the lab head may not believe the students or may trivialize the matter; these outcomes are possible if the suspect carries a higher rank in the lab than the whistle blower.

As one can see, many avenues of action are available, with different effects to consider. This case may lead to discussions about the ethical use of computers in the workplace and the dynamics of colleague interactions.