What is it with people when it comes to new technologies? They get all silly-like as if society’s rules and laws don’t apply anymore?
We weren’t around back in the early days of the telephone, but we think it might have gone something like this:
It’s 1925. Bob is mad at Joe because Joe said something bad about him. Back in those days, they took slander pretty seriously, so Bob takes Joe to court to get his good name back.
Remember, it’s 1925, so there are a couple of generations that have grown up with the telephone, but to one degree or another, all the older folks are really just learning how to cope with the new contraption.
Bob and Joe are young enough that they’ve been experimenting with the phone and use it often to call their few friends lucky to have a phone. “Operator, give me Murray Hill 5-9975.”
Bob tells his complaint to the judge. “Joe said I was a…” he looks down at his notes, “he said I was a ‘low-down, good-for-nothing Casanova’. He’s besmirched my good name, and I’m not going to stand for it.”
“This is a serious charge, Joe. What do you have to say for yourself?” asks the judge.
Joe coughs nervously before responding: “It was like this. I called Suzy on the telephone that Saturday afternoon, and Bob was over at her house with a bunch of his cronies. Bob knows that Suzy’s my girl, so he had no business being there. I was mad and I told Suzy as much.”
Bob jumps and yells, “We heard him, judge. He said it in front of a bunch of my friends!”
Joe says, “Like I said, I was on the phone talking to my girl, and maybe I did get a little loud. The next thing I know, Bob is hollering that I’m slandering him around town.”
The judge interrupts Joe, “now, wait a minute! You’re saying that you were on the telephone when this happened?” Joe nods. The judge frowns at both of them and continues, “this is entirely new territory for this court. If this had happened on the street or in a public place and you, Joe, said that unforgivable thing about Bob, then it would have been clear – you would have been guilty of slander. It would be my duty to fine you and require you to publicly apologize to Bob.
“As it is, this happened on the phone. There’s no precedent for this, and this court is helpless as to how to rule on this. I’m going to adjourn to my decision for two weeks, at which time, I’ll have a ruling. Good day, gentlemen. I advise you to steer clear of one another.”
For the next two weeks, all the talk by the politicians and pundits and reporters about the great need for new laws for the new technology.
One side declared that the telephone changed everything: it was obvious that new slander laws were required to handle the new technology. It was proposed that all telephone conversations would have to be monitored. No one was safe unless an official was sitting at one end of every telephone call. Some observant reporters commented that the switchboard operators often did just that, so the best solution would to hire more switchboard operators.
The other side was just as adamant: slander laws existed, so why not apply those when someone claimed to be verbally attacked and wronged? After all, there wasn’t one special set of laws for slander in a public place and another for slander in a home, so why was it necessary to create a new set for the telephone? Wherever it happened, slander was slander.
Two weeks later, as Joe and Bob stood in attention in front of the judge’s bench, he pronounced, “Joe, you’ve said some bad things about Bob, and that isn’t right. However, as much as I would like to rule in Bob’s favor, the fact that this happened on the telephone is too much for this court. As a society, we can only hope that the legislators will create new laws dealing with the telephone.
Has social media really changed ‘everything’?
We read another article about companies and schools invading employee/student social media accounts: No protection yet for social media, email passwords in Maine.
We’ll address a couple of the points brought up in the article. (Here’s another of our articles on this sort of password voyeurism.)
While business leaders (read corporations, not small and medium businesses) make the claim – unsubstantiated, in our opinion – that restricting businesses from demanding employee passwords to social media sites and private email accounts ‘could limit screening of job applicants, investigation of harassment disputes, or protection of proprietary information,’ it is actually a very dangerous double-edged sword.
As attorney Bradley Shear perceptively notes,
“With more access comes more responsibility. If employers want access to everything that their employees are doing online, they’re going to get sued.”
So, you’d think that password protection laws would be something that corporations would want, but the desire for controlling everything has clouded their judgment (much like the lust for the ring!).
Why is it hard for people to see that it is just as inappropriate for an employer to sit in on your Sunday night family dinners, as it is for him to demand your password for anything? The fact that you are interacting on the Internet doesn’t actually change anything about acting responsibly. In this way, if you do something that is detrimental to the company on Facebook, then the same consequences should apply as if you had besmirched the name of the company ‘off line’.
What about schools?
We’ll start by saying that we are not excusing bullying or any sort of misconduct; it follows that we also do not believe that ‘anything goes’ between children. We simply do not think that an invasion of privacy on this level will stop bullying.
In effect, what school administrators are saying is that by having supposedly unlimited access to the online lives of their students (we KNOW what you did last night), the administrators will be able to stop bullying and other bad things from happening in schools.
While they would not wish to admit it, administrators are proclaiming their faith in precrime.
It’s misguided – not to mention impossible. Are we the only ones who can foresee that this will drive kids to have multiple Facebook accounts?
From the article:
Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, told the lawmakers that there have been instances in which school administrators have requested students’ passwords during investigations of bullying or harassment. [our emphasis]
So it’s not all about bullying? Ms Brown does not tell us what prompted the other instances in which they have demanded and presumably received intimate access to students’ online accounts. Maybe Billy didn’t ‘forget’ to return that library book and bragged about it on his Facebook page. We can’t even begin to imagine the juicy details.
“We try to get parental consent,” [Ms Brown] said, “but sometimes parents have information that they know will be harmful to their kids’ reputation.” [our emphasis]
We’re dumbfounded by this statement. Since when is simply being a student sufficient reason to remove legal protections for an individual? By the way, parents ALWAYS have information that would be embarrassing to their children. Ms Brown’s parents surely had information that would embarrass her.
Oamshri Amarasingham of the ACLU of Maine makes an excellent point:
“From our perspective, communications on the Internet are equivalent of talking on the telephone,” she said. “Schools can’t wiretap a student’s telephone if they hear that there’s bullying.” [our emphasis]
Ms Amarasingham argued that ‘schools would lose only the blanket authority to demand students’ passwords. She noted a provision in the bill to allow schools to access social media accounts in case of specific incidents of misconduct or bullying, after contacting parents.’
Sounds reasonable – have probable cause, will investigate!
For now, the legislature of Maine has decreed that corporations and schools in the state should not be limited by legal niceties such as probably cause or the individual rights of employees and students.