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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.

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

Update: Protecting “The Children”

PolicyBeta summarizes the final report from Internet Safety Technical Task Force:

I fear that our society is about to make a similar mistake with social networks. If we impose laws that inhibit minors from using social networks, we will drive them away from the current leading social networks (which are very concerned about child safety) to overseas websites (which have far less concern about the safety of our kids). If there is one takeaway that policymakers should get from the Task Force report, it is that public policy in this area should be made based on real data about real risk, not media hype, and on a concrete understanding of the technological, privacy, free speech, and other implications of any proposed policy (or technology) solution.

Amen. The whole thing is worth a read, for you techies out there.

Sounds almost like wishful thinking, doesn’t it? The problem with politics is that reason and economic analysis usually take a back seat to compromise (geez, I’m channelling Ayn Rand now). I will be very, very surprised if the internet escapes regulation under the Obama administration (or any administration). Maybe I’m overly pessimistic, but I just don’t trust that the leading voices (and shapers of public opinion) among politicians and regulators are much more knowledgable about modern technology than my own computer-illiterate Dad. John McCain’s ignorance of and apathy towards technology, had he miraculously won the election, might have made the internet safety hot-button more of a political non-issue, as it should be.

Filed under: Internet, Politics, , , ,

Protecting “The Children” ain’t easy.

Technology alone can’t protect “The Children” from online threats. So says a report released yesterday by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. Some highlights:

  • Most minors who are exposed to pr0n have actively sought it out. Also, much “problematic” content is actually created by or shared among youths themselves (who else would have popularized “2 Girls 1 Cup?” Your mother?)
  • Social networking sites are “used primarily to reinforce preexisting social relations.” Writing “WHORE!” on a myspace page is similar to how you used to make obscene phone calls to your archnemesis. (You remember, the girl with perfect hair, great clothes, who eats whatever she wants and stays skinny, who stole your boyfriend in 8th grade, and who beat you out for the lead in “Alice in Wonderland.” Whore.)
  • Minors are not equally at risk. A child’s psychology and family dynamic is a much better indicator of their likelihood to chat with 40-year-old creepers than the type of chat protocol they use.

This is undoubtedly disappointing news to those who put their faith in technological safety-measures, such as robust and impossible-to-bypass age -verification systems or filtering software. Conversely, this is great news for the web companies who’ve been shouldering much of the blame for all of the internet’s evils.

It’s also good news to the reasonable among us who think that parents are responsible for, you know, being parents. The fact that children who are already at-risk are more likely than their peers to be exposed to threats on the internet is a pretty good indication that this is a problem that should be tackled by parents, not regulators.

Further reading: Ars Technica says the biggest online threat to kids is… other kids. /feigned shock.

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

No thanks, Mr. Martin, I’ll stick with Charter.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin recently scrapped his plan to create an national wi-fi broadband service, one that would have (supposedly) filtered out every piece of pr0n and smut a hormonal 13-year-old would want to get his hairy palms on.

Need I go into all the reasons why a heavily-filtered public internet service would be a terrible, terrible idea? Well, for starters, there’s the first amendment issues surrounding the censorship of public spectrum. Also, don’t overlook the fact that the government sucks at providing most of the services it provides (been to the post office lately?). Then there’s the privacy issues surrounding government regulation and administration of an electronic communication medium. Not to mention the fact that the market has already indicated that there’s no need for the government to spend tax dollars to provide this “public good.” And to be practical, even the “smartest” net filtering programs are dumb as rocks when it comes to natural language processing and typically end up blocking web pages about, for example, breast cancer prevention.

Ryan (yes, the Ryan Radia for all you fans) at TLF has a great post on this story.

Filed under: Information Tech, Internet, Politics, , , , , , , ,

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, , , , , ,

Update on DHS Laptop Search Policy

Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) released a press release today outlining new legislation to rein in the DHS and its invasive border search procedures:

“The chief responsibility of the United States Government is to protect its citizens, and while doing so it is critical that we do not overshadow the obligation to protect the privacy and rights of Americans. This legislation will provide clear and commonsense legal avenues for the Department of Homeland Security to pursue those who commit crime and wish to do our country harm without infringing on the rights of American citizens. Importantly, it will provide travelers a level of privacy for their computers, digital cameras, cellular telephones and other electronic devices consistent with the Constitution and our nation’s values of liberty,” said [co-sponsor Rep. Adam] Smith [D-WA].

The Travelers Privacy Protection Act requires Department of Homeland Security agents to have reasonable suspicion of illegal activity before searching the contents of laptops or other electronic devices carried by U.S. citizens or lawful residents, and it prohibits profiling travelers based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. The bill also specifies that after 24 hours, a search becomes a seizure, which requires probable cause and a warrant or court order. Information acquired during an electronic border search is protected through strict limitations on disclosure, with narrow exceptions for sharing information about possible criminal violations or foreign intelligence information. Finally, the bill contains provisions ensuring that DHS provides information on its border search policies and practices to Congress and the public.

Surprisingly lucid, no? While I don’t particularly like Feingold’s previous disregard for the constitution (the pro-campaign finance reform speech I made in 11th grade notwithstanding… ), the Travelers Privacy Protection Act is a big step in the right direction towards protecting Americans’ privacy.

Still… 24 hours is long enough for the DHS to steal my copyrighted music and movie files. Would being stopped, searched, and seized at the US/Mexican border fall under “fair use,” I wonder? 😉

H/T: Slashdot

Filed under: Computers and Software, Politics, , , ,

DHS Can Steal Your Data Without Suspicion

A Washington Post article today details the Dept. of Homeland Security’s border search policies, which include the authority to take any traveler’s (US citizens included) laptop computer for any length of time, without any suspicion of wrongdoing. Furthermore:

…officials may share copies of the laptop’s contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, according to the policies, dated July 16 and issued by two DHS agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

This incredibly intrusive and privacy-decimating rule applies to any device capable of storing digital documentation (ipods, flash drives, cell phones, etc), as well as any paper documents in the traveler’s possession.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff asserted in last month’s USA Today that, although only a small percentage of travelers’ computers are actually searched, this rule was necessary because “the most dangerous contraband is often contained in laptop computers or other electronic devices, not on paper,” namely, jihadist materials and child pornography. Maybe Mr. Chertoff should schedule a meeting with Sen. Ted “series-of-tubes” Stevens, if he wants to learn a thing or two about how electronic documents are usually distributed. /sarcasm.

I wonder if the feds have the legal authority to copy and share copyrighted mp3s and movies?

via Slashdot

Filed under: Computers and Software, , , , ,

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