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A Tech-Econ Mashup with a Libertarian Flavor

Teens Sue School for Punishing Them over Lewd Photos

Two teenage girls, along with the ACLU, have filed a lawsuit against their school district after the school punished them for publishing racy photos on their myspace pages. Let’s get ready to rage.

The background: a group of girlfriends had a sleepover earlier this summer that involved phallic lollipops and a digital camera. “Suggestive” photos of two of the girls eating the candy found their way to myspace (surprise), though the girls set their privacy controls so that only “friends” could see them.  A few months later, some jackass kid (probably an ex-boyfriend or a vindictive drama queen) printed the pictures out and brought them to school, where they were shown to school officials. School officials then suspended the girls from their fall semester extracurricular activities, made them apologize to an all-male coaches’ panel, and made them seek counseling.

There’s so much wrong with this situation that I don’t even know where to begin. First, you’ve got school administrators disciplining kids for activities that didn’t take place on school grounds, during the school year, and had nothing to do with school, period. When kids bring phallic-shaped candy to school, confiscate it. When they violate dress code, send them home. When they misbehave, discipline them. But when they exercise their free speech rights as private citizens (and at fifteen, who among us wasn’t experimenting with the power of sex appeal?), the school has no business acting as a censor.

Second, it seems to me like the wrong people were punished. What about the kid(s) who printed the pictures out and brought them to school? Aren’t they the real evildoers here? They took what was intended to be private knowledge and publicized it. While that may not be illegal, there’s definitely a lesson here that these creeps aren’t learning. You don’t tell other people’s secrets, and you never spread unflattering or character-destroying photographs of anybody around school or the web. Those are two things that civilized, decent people just don’t do. Isn’t that a more important life lesson for becoming a decent person than the glib message “don’t take pictures of yourself licking a dick-shaped lollipop?”

Third, the punishment here does not even come close to fitting the “crime.” 1) The crime here is young ladies acting lewdly. Not minors engaging in sex acts. Not peddling child pornography. They were acting un-ladylike. If school admins looked around their lunchroom any day of the week, they’d see the same thing happening among giggling groups of girlfriends. It’s called “adolescence,” and while teens might be annoying to everyone else, they’re not doing anything out of the ordinary (I recall an old video of a friend of mine performing two seconds of over-exaggerated fake fellatio on a banana back in the 8th grade – good thing myspace wasn’t around then). 2) The punishment resulted in the situation going from merely embarrassing to downright humiliating. Someone tell me WHY these girls had to seek counseling. Even more important, tell me WHY they had to issue apologies to an all-male panel of coaches. Shaming someone over his or her sexual expression is a sure-fire way to really screw with their head and unleash their insecurities; the effect is worse if done publicly. Why on earth is the school getting away with publicly shaming two teens?

Fourth, the sanctimony displayed on the part of the school’s administrators is out-fucking-rageous. High school teachers: as much as you’d like to think otherwise, you are not charged with the sacred task of instilling a moral compass into other people’s children. You are civil servants – basically government employees. Your job is to educate, supervise, and when necessary protect these teens from external danger or from other students. Your job does not include the right to impose disciplinary sanctions on the basis of your subjective ideas about drugs, sex, rock and roll, politics, etc. That’s a job for parents. If anybody had any responsibility whatsoever, it would have been for a concerned teacher to quietly notify the girls’ parents of the photos, and let them deal with it. Instead, they made the whole incident into a much bigger deal than it needed to be.

The girls in question here have every right to be upset. School officials overreacted and overstepped their bounds. At the same time, these girls learned an unfortunate but important lesson about posting unsavory photos on the web. As I’ve said before, kids are stupid, and when you post pictures of yourself acting uncharacteristically lewd on the ‘net, you’d better be ready to be judged. But being teased by peers is punishment enough; being shamed and humiliated by school authorities is totally uncalled for.

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Filed under: Internet, Off-Topic, , , ,

Facebook Allows Developers to Access User’s “Streams”

Facebook announced today their new “Open Stream API,” which will allow 3rd-party developers access to users’ “data streams” (i.e. status updates, posted links, pics, wall posts, and anything else that could show up on a user’s Wall). Privacy advocates, take heart:

Users will maintain control of their data privacy, [platform designer Dave] Morin noted, and applications will be able to access streams only with individual users’ permission — largely the way Facebook’s current on-site application system works. The data harvested by new applications will be subject to the same privacy strictures as any other data on Facebook: Even if it’s on other websites, it will still be visible only by your friends, not the public at large.

Facebook is taking a step closer to what I suggested right here last week, in opening up and allowing other networks and developers to more easily interface with users’ profiles and data (I love when I’m on the right track without even realizing it). Facebook is on track to becoming a ubiquitous technology – imagine if ten years from now, people refer to all online social networking activity as “facebooking” (similar to how performing an online search is commonly called “googling,” something Google has been fighting for some time).

Now, if only Zuckerberg & Co. would end this senseless “Twitterization” of facebook’s appearance, there’d be no stopping them.

In related news, MySpace has hired Owen Van Natta, a former facebook executive, as its new CEO (does this mean Tom is no longer my friend?). My $0.02: cleaning up the MySpace cesspool and turning it back into a company that anybody will take seriously is one of the most difficult jobs a web entrepreneur could have.

Filed under: Information Tech, Internet, Tech Biz, , ,

Internet, Teens, and Cyber-bullying

At the risk of losing several coolness points, I’m writing in response to yesterday’s episode of Dr. Phil. The topic was cyber-bullying among teenagers, with the take-home message being that the internet has significantly changed the nature in which kids handle their disputes with each other. Videos of schoolyard fights can be found on youtube. Rumors that were once written only on bathroom stalls are broadcast across Myspace for anyone to read. And of course, we’ve all seen the poor Star Wars Kid, whose public embarrassment and ridicule led his family to file a lawsuit against his peers. Without a doubt, the internet has transported an unfortunate, occasionally tragic, yet very common part of adolescence into a public arena where insults are traded anonymously and can have potentially serious results.

I’m usually skeptical of appeals made using anecdotal evidence, but I think the examples in this case illustrate the dangers and distress kids are causing each other and themselves through the internet. One young woman on the show found her Myspace page had been hacked into by a former friend, who had changed the profile to portray the girl as a “woman of low moral character” (my words). To add insult to injury, said “friend” posted the girls private cell phone number, publicized the page, and reset the login info, leaving the girl unable to repair the damage. She reported having to change phone numbers after receiving a slew of sexually offensive phone calls from strangers. Another young man on the show had recently found a fraudulent website depicting him (using his real name and his photos) as a drug user, attempted rapist, and general lowlife. The page had been around for months before he was even aware of it, and his concern now is that the phony information will keep him out of college, should any university admissions boards ever stumble upon it.

Internet harassment was very recently publicized last year with the Megan Meier suicide. Parent and teachers’ groups are demanding laws on the books that protect “the children” and empower law enforcement officials to apprehend and punish internet harassers. Opponents blame the parents, saying it is their responsibility to undertake the (admittedly impossible) task of supervising their teenagers 24-7. And free-marketers/free-netters correctly warn that laws that police internet behavior will put us on the slippery-slope towards content regulation and free-speech violations.

So, how to balance the safety of “the children” with the freedom and anonymity of the internet? First, I think it’s important we admit something that we tend to overlook: parental controls don’t work very well for teenagers. The average parent lacks both the time and the technical know-how necessary to supervise their children’s online behavior. And a tech-savvy teen can circumvent internet-nanny software in no time. It seems that parents’ only recourse at this point is to spring for a WoW subscription, in hopes that the addictive gameplay of MMORPGs will distract their children from the rest of the internet’s offerings.

It’s also important to remember that, as a group, teenagers are probably the dumbest population segment in America. Yes, I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but it’s pretty close to the truth. Teens’ preferences are 99% based on popularity, rather than actual usefulness, form, functionality, quality, etc. This means that crappy, terrible, garbage-ridden internet applications like Myspace, once they have a critical number of other teen users, will beat out superior apps like Facebook (which has much better privacy controls, user interfaces, and design) for the coveted “teen demographic.” Moreover, teens have virtually no understanding of the concept of “three-to-five years from now” (five years ago I wholly expected to be a rock star by now), and their decisions, not to mention their emo-heavy videoblogs, often reflect this.

Having said that, online harassment carries huge costs: public humiliation and emotional distress are the most obvious, but the above examples illustrate the serious safety threats and long-run negative effects of cyber-bullying. No adolescent should have to deal with these consequences. Yes, ideally parents should be responsible for teaching their kids about internet safety and monitoring their online activity, but the reality is that most parents aren’t reasonably capable of effectively doing so.  However, constitutional rights to free speech and the mostly-unregulated nature of the internet must be protected, too. Those parties emphatically calling for legislative action clearly don’t understand or realize 1) the unintended consequences of internet regulation, and 2) the importance of constitutional protections for free speech. Are we, then, at an impasse?

How about a market solution? I can think of a few:
1. A website that allows parents to register their children and create official profiles that the parents and kids can modify. Users would be charged a small fee for the service, and access to the site would be granted to college recruiters, youth-oriented service programs, and the like.

2. Internet erasers. Actually, I believe these already exist to some extent. These firms would essentially operate like credit counselors/information sharks, googling the client’s name, contacting any websites hosting harmful information about the client, and negotiating the pages’ deletion.

3. AOL re-brands itself as family-friendly, all-ages internet. Its mostly-ISP business model could be refashioned back into the “walled garden” service that only provides certain kinds of content: webmail, educational sites, sports and finance, news, etc. (perhaps this time they should leave out chatrooms, which seem to attract pedophiles like bureaucrats to power). Sure, it’s not “real” internet, and content could be heavily monopolized by AOL and its affiliates, but I think parents would pay a pretty good price for a high level of safety. If not AOL, maybe Disney? It might fare better than Disney cellular service did.

Does anybody have any other solutions? Comments are open.

Filed under: Internet, , , , , ,

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